Schism or metaporphosis?

So, the Primates have met at Lambeth. Apparently the Days Hotel in Lambeth did some brisk business offering hospitality to all the most reverend gentlemen who had gathered to address what the media described as a crisis facing the Anglican Communion.

With a majority of the primates taking an orthodox rather than a liberal line, there could have been a fairly blunt ultimatum to New Hampshire and New Westminster. It could have gone along the lines of ‘Whatever you are advocating simply does not square with the Christian faith as it has been understood for two thousand years. Therefore change your mind and remain in communion, or persist in this novelty and plough your own furrow – but outside the Anglican Communion.’

The liberals might have rallied round Frank Griswold and argued that all they were advocating was a recognition of what is currently going on. Why is it acceptable for homosexual clergy to serve the church provided they hide their sexuality, but unacceptable if they are honest about it?

However, the Anglican Church does not have a magisterium. It does have provincial autonomy, so anything the Primates say has no more than moral authority.

To be or not to be

The issue is less clear cut than it at first appears. For those on the orthodox side, who would argue that Gene Robinson should not be consecrated, there is the question of their attitude to other supposedly gay clergy and bishops. Should they be asked to resign? If so, should they do so because of their orientation, their past lifestyle, their present lifestyle or what they teach?

For those on the liberal side, who would argue that Gene Robinson should be consecrated, there is the question of what are the determining factors in his selection. Should the democratic process in the Diocese of New Hampshire be the overriding factor? Do Mr Robinson’s qualities render his orientation, lifestyle and teaching of lesser importance?

The Primates, of course, in their deliberations will have weighed theological arguments as well as pragmatic ones. They will have argued over whether the Christian faith needs to be re-synthesized in each generation, or merely re-presented. They will have become acutely aware of how vulnerable the unity of the Anglican Communion has become over this issue.

Views from the pews

They are unlikely to have been unduly influenced in their decisions by the results of opinion polls, but The Sunday Telegraph reported the results of one in the run-up to the Primates’ meeting. In a poll of ‘churchgoers’ it was found that 52% thought that active homosexuals should be allowed to become vicars. 69% thought that non-practising homosexuals would be acceptable and 70% said they would continue to attend church if they discovered that their vicar was an active homosexual.

I suppose you can make what you like of statistics, and you can argue about the sample until the cows come home. However, it is hard to escape the conclusion that if roughly half the people in the pew think that active homosexuals should not be allowed to become vicars and roughly a third would not continue to attend church if they discovered their vicar was an active homosexual, then we have a very serious situation brewing. Few churches would remain viable if they lost a third of their congregation – and a quarter of those who remained were disaffected.

Facing the facts

After two days of discussions the Primates issued their statement. It was a carefully crafted document which was clearly trying to keep as many doors open as possible, but two thirds of the way through there was the ominous reality. ‘In most of our provinces the election of Canon Gene Robinson would not have been possible since his chosen lifestyle would give rise to a canonical impediment to his consecration as a bishop. If his consecration proceeds, we recognize that we have reached a crucial and critical point in the life of the Anglican Communion and we have had to conclude that the future of the Communion itself will be put in jeopardy. In this case, the ministry of this one bishop will not be recognized by most of the Anglican world, and many provinces are likely to consider themselves to be out of communion with the Episcopal Church (USA).’

The Diocese of New Hampshire responded defiantly saying that the consecration would go ahead on 2nd November. Canon Robinson agreed with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s assessment that this will provoke a crisis in the Anglican Church. ‘OK, so it’ll be a moment of crisis’, he said, before expressing the hope that the row would quickly die down.

What price unity?

So will Gene Robinson follow Canon Jeffrey John’s example and stand down? If he does, there may be a breathing space giving the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission time to report.

If he does not, then the only question is where the fault lines will occur. Initially, a majority of Anglican provinces are likely to break communion with ECUSA, but then there may be a further distancing between provinces which break communion with ECUSA and those who don’t. To complicate matters, few provinces will be unanimous in their stand. In Canterbury and York for instance, there are likely to be voices raised both for and against ECUSA.

It is a truism that splits open up far more readily than they heal and it would be regrettable if the democratic rights of the electors of the Diocese of New Hampshire were to be prized above the unity of our Communion. How many provinces or dioceses might side with New Hampshire against the rest of Anglicanism is presently a matter for conjecture. However, by the time you read this edition of New Directions we will know whether Gene Robinson’s consecration has taken place. It will also be becoming clear just where the lines of division are being drawn.

Whether a metamorphosis of the Anglican Communion would advance or retard the cause of the Gospel, who can tell? What is certain is that our ecumenical credibility would suffer a serious blow. On the other hand schism is not a twenty first century invention. Many Christians in the past have got things wrong and the Church is always in need of reform as any biblical scholar will tell you. It may be that we have reached the absolute limits of Anglican comprehensiveness and unless we are to stand for anything and everything a line in the sand simply has to be drawn. Pray earnestly for those on whose shoulders such a heavy responsibility falls.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.