Geoffrey Kirk reflects on the events at Dar es Salaam and finds little to make him optimistic for the future
‘For nearly two centuries,’ a wit once remarked, ‘Westminster politicians have been talking about a solution to the Irish problem. What none of them would ever admit was the nature of the problem. The problem is that there is no solution.’
Much the same is true about the Anglican Communion. No one, it seems, has the courage to admit what must be obvious to all: that the problem with world-wide Anglicanism is not with the conduct of individual provinces but with the polity of the whole. Like the Home Office in the parlance of Dr John Reid, it is ‘not fit for purpose’.
Not only does the doctrine of Provincial Autonomy make divergence in ethos and doctrine virtually inevitable, but the resulting weakness of common structures (the so-called Instruments of Unity) makes disciplining errant provinces severely difficult. And when that province is TEC, the predominant source of funding for the Communion’s central secretariat, it is impossible.
Whether or not the Secretary General saw the irony of ending the recent meeting of Primates in Frank Weston’s cathedral in Zanzibar, readers of New Directions will probably take the point: the doctrinal disintegration of Anglicanism is no adventitious phenomenon. It has been unfolding for the best part of a century. The Communique of the meeting in Dar es Salaam, for all its vaunted ‘unanimity’ cannot hope to turn the tide of history.
What the Communique has done, couched as it is in the language of the revisionists themselves, is merely to draw another line in the sand. The Primates have requested, through the presiding bishop, that the House of Bishops of TEC make an unequivocal common covenant that they will not authorize any rite of blessing for same-sex unions in their dioceses or through General Convention, and confirm that a candidate for episcopal orders living in a same-sex union shall not receive the necessary consent, unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the communion.
The deadline for the answer is 30 September 2007. ‘If the reassurances requested of the House of Bishops cannot in good conscience be given, the relationship between The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion as a whole remains damaged at best, and this has consequences for the full participation of the Church in the life of the Communion.’
No one could reasonably suppose that such undertakings will be given, or that the failure to give them will result in any specific action by any of the ‘Instruments of Unity’. But that is hardly the point. The heart of the statement is not in the requests, but in the terms in which they are made: unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the communion. With that proviso the game is up for the traditionalists.
For the grounds upon which traditionalists oppose gay bishops and same-sex unions is not that they go against previous Anglican practice, but that they contravene the plain teaching of Scripture, which applies in all times and cultures, and which neither individual provinces nor the Communion as a whole is competent to change.
By signing the Communique traditionalist bishops have conceded the very point they were striving to uphold. Having initially refused to sit at the same table as Katherine Schori, and shunned her at the Lord’s Table, they have signed a document which endorses her position and effectively outlaws their own – and elected her to their Standing Committee! To this observer it looks uncommonly like suicide.
But lest you think this judgement harsh, consider the implications of the Communique for the future of Anglican moral theology.
Until now it has been assumed that penitence involves not only contrition but amendment of life. Not so with The Episcopal Church and the Zanzibar Communique. There a half-hearted expression of blanket regret (how many times has your confessor told you to be explicit?) and a future possible undertaking not to do the same again (why the reluctance to renounce wrong-doing in the first place?) is taken as enough. No mention, you will notice, of Gene Robinson.
We must sadly conclude that in Zanzibar the traditionalist primates were skilfully out-manoeuvred. They conceded the very principles for which they stand; and did so in exchange for assurances which they will probably not get, and which, should they be forthcoming, will be half-hearted and of little effect. All this came about not because those primates are weak or foolish, but because the Communion itself, of which they are an intrinsic part, is structured on principles of democracy and mutual accountability.
It was clear from its ringing endorsement of the politicking which resulted in the ordination of women in some provinces, that the ‘Windsor process’ cannot, by its very nature, comprehend an appeal to the unchanging word of God as witnessed by Catholic tradition. The words of Pope John Paul II: ‘declaramus Ecclesiam facultatem nullatenus habere ordinationem sacerdotalem mulieribus conferendi’ [we declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women] have no resonance whatever in the official structures of the Anglican Communion, which can only proceed by accommodation and consensus. And Katherine Jefferts Schori, now a member of the Primates’ Standing Committee, is the very incarnation of those procedures.