Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Worldwide Anglican church facing split

By Ruth Gledhill, The London Times

The Archbishop of Canterbury has outlined proposals that are expected to lead to the exclusion of The Episcopal Church of the United States from the Anglican Church as a consequence of consecrating a gay bishop.

The US branch of Anglicanism faces losing its status of full membership of the Anglican Church in the wake of its consecration of the openly gay Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, an act which has propelled the worldwide church to the brink of schism.

The final straw came when The Episcopal Church failed to "repent" of its action at its General Convention in Columbus, Ohio earlier this month, and failed to vote through a moratorium on any more gay consecrations.

Dr Williams is proposing a two-track Anglican Communion, with orthodox churches being accorded full, "constituent" membership and the rebel, pro-gay liberals being consigned to "associate" membership.

All provinces will be offered the chance to sign up to a "covenant" which will set out the traditional, biblical standards on which all full members of the Anglican church can agree.

But it is highly unlikely that churches such as The Episcopal Church in the US, the Anglican churches in Canada and New Zealand and even the Scottish Episcopal Church would be able to commit themselves fully to such a document.

These churches and any others that refused to sign up could opt to cut ties to Canterbury altogether, or could choose to remain in associate status.

In a letter to the 37 other Primates of the provinces of the Anglican Communion, Dr Rowan Williams says that such churches would be comparable to the Methodist Church in Britain.

Ironically, in 2003 the Methodist Church signed a covenant with the Church of England at a service at Westminster Central Hall witnessed by the Queen, Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

The fudged schism outlined in Dr Williams’ letter opens the door to the possibility of Methodists moving slowly towards full unity with the Anglicans, while Episcopalians fall by the wayside. Once Methodists start ordaining bishops and Anglicans in England start ordaining women bishops, there will be nothing to stop the two declaring full unity, unless the Methodists also start consecrating gay bishops.

The proposals will be discussed soon at the next meeting of the standing committee of the 38 Primates, and then at the Primates’ meeting in February. They will come to the table of the worldwide church, along with the wording of the proposed covenant, at the Lambeth Conference in 2008.

It is then that The Episcopal Church and others will face the choice of signing up to biblical orthodoxy, or walking away from the Anglican Communion table to the hinterland of "associate" status.

But as Anglicans find more common ground with Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists and others, the next Archbishop of Canterbury could well decide to resolve the problem of who to invite to the 2018 Lambeth Conference by simply inviting the leaders of all churches in the Protestant world who recognised each other’s sacraments. Or he (or she) might decide it is not worth the fuss, and cancel the 2018 Lambeth Conference altogether.

Weblogs in Britain and America carried strong reactions to the letter, which is certain to be seen in future as a defining document in Anglican church history.

The Rev Mark Harris, an episcopal priest of the Delaware diocese and a deputy to General Convention, quoted the US Declaration of Independence and said: "General Convention 2006 will go down in history, among other reasons, for the clarity with which the Church of England has attempted to exercise direct and indirect ecclesiastical colonial control."

He continued: "Unless these advisors are willing to take seriously the contextual situation, namely that the Episcopal Church is not an appendage of some ecclesial equivalent of the British Commonwealth, but rather a free and independent people willing and desirous of companions in faith, the road ahead will be bumpy indeed."

Conservative evangelicals have however welcomed the proposals. Canon Chris Sugden, Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream, said: "The Archbishop’s letter rightly recognises the priority of scripture and that the church must respond on the basis of the Bible and historic teaching rather than cultural or rights based views.

"In asking for local churches to ‘opt-in’ to the Anglican Communion and by recognising that division exists not only between provinces of the Communion but also in each locality, he is providing a basis which an orthodox Anglican presence in the United States could be maintained. The oppression of minorities by majorities, or vice versa, clearly, and rightly, has no place in the Archbishop's vision for the future of the Communion."

Liberals in the UK warned against creating a two-tier church. The Rev Richard Jenkins, director of Affirming Catholicism, said: "As a Belfast-born Christian I have to say that partition doesn’t work. We are all diminished by division and need each other’s insights to flourish.

"If a formal covenant is intended to help us to live in solidarity with each other then it must function in a dynamic way, not simply acting as a brake on every development. This will be a difficult task but one which we will apply ourselves to."

Affirming Catholicism is the organisation Dr Williams helped to set up with the celibate gay Jeffrey John, who became Dean of St Albans after Dr Williams blocked his elevation as Bishop of Reading.

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