Geoffrey Kirk tries to summarize events in North America

Now let me see if I have got this straight.

By a large majority (and despite a virtually incomprehensible speech from Rowan Williams to the contrary) the Lambeth Conference of 1998 resolved – amongst other things related to the Church’s teaching on human sexuality – that ‘This Conference … in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage.’

The resolution went on ‘This Conference cannot advise the legitimizing or blessing of same-sex unions, nor the ordination of those involved in same gender unions.’

This clear statement of what the Church has always taught was treated by some (hysterically by Richard Holloway) as an attack on gays. Various bodies, including many American bishops, felt obliged to pledge further dialogue with homosexual groups and individuals, as though that were no part of the monitoring of the situation also recommended by the Conference.

But this, as it turned out, was mere window dressing. Talk was not what they were after.

Preparations were immediately set in train in the Episcopal Church of the United States and in the Anglican Church of Canada to do just the opposite of what the Lambeth Fathers had recommended. Rites were confected, unofficially used or adopted in a number of American dioceses, and most famously in the Diocese of New Westminster in Canada. Bishop Chane of Washington DC ‘blessed’ the ‘union’ of a priest of his diocese with a partner with whom he had been living for the past ten years.

The rites used in New Westminster and Washington are freely available on the internet. None of these rites was officially sanctioned by the Province in question.

Meanwhile, Bishop Terence Buckle of the Yukon (with the support and encouragement of other Canadian bishops and Primates from other parts of the Communion) offered episcopal oversight to those parishes in the Diocese of New Westminster which held themselves to be alienated from their bishop as a result of the unilateral action of the diocese.

Archbishop Crawley (Metropolitan of the Province of British Columbia) promptly announced that he was initiating canonical proceedings against Bishop Buckle.

‘Bishop Buckle is acting unlawfully’, Archbishop Crawley stated in a message to the members of the Anglican Church of Canada. ‘Disciplinary proceedings against Bishop Buckle as provided in the canons have begun and will take their proper course … Bishop Ingham has formally inhibited him functioning in the Diocese of New Westminster, I … have required Bishop Buckle to respect that inhibition and to refrain from interfering with the life of the diocese of New Westminster…’

Lay people from the parishes to which Bishop Buckle had offered pastoral care and oversight (the kind of oversight, be it remembered, in other circumstances, encouraged by the first Eames Commission) understandably asked why the Archbishop was so certain that Bishop Buckle had committed an ecclesiastical offence, and that Bishop Ingham (who had acted without sanction of the General Synod) had not done nothing of the kind.

Said Peter Turner, a lay member of the vestry of St Simon’s Church, Vancouver : ‘When a bishop offers pastoral care, this is not something which should be disciplined; it should be lauded. We hold that Bishop Ingham and now Archbishop Crawley are acting illegally. A year ago we presented a legal brief to Bishop Ingham claiming that blessing same-sex unions went beyond what a bishop and a diocese could lawfully do.’

That legal brief, it seems, has disappeared into the ether.

Meanwhile, back in the USA, the agenda was being advanced in a different but complementary way. A priest [Canon Gene Robinson], engaged in precisely the sort of relationship which the Lambeth Conference had found itself unable to ‘advise’ (and Bishop Ingham had been busy ‘blessing’), was elected to a diocesan bishopric, and gained the necessary consents for ordination.

Tensions across the Communion were now high. An emergency meeting of the Primates was convened at Lambeth. They issued a statement.

‘If his [Gene Robinson’s] 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). This will tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level, and may lead to further division on this and further issues as provinces have to decide in consequence whether they can remain in communion with provinces that choose not to break communion with the Episcopal Church (USA). Similar considerations apply to the situation pertaining in the Diocese of New Westminster.’

The Primates were clearly at the end of their tether and unable to know what to do next. So they adopted the hackneyed ploy of an ‘Archbishop‘s Commission’. They entrusted it (as tradition apparently requires) to Archbishop Robin Eames of Armagh, a plausible cove and a ‘safe pair of hands’, who whose principal qualification in these matters is that he failed to implement in his own Province the recommendations of his own last commission.

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (Frank Griswold) appeared shiftily on a platform at the press conference which launched the Primates’ Statement, and then rushed back to the United States to do the deed which it had roundly castigated. With the words of the Lambeth Conference Resolution of 1998 (‘This Conference cannot advise the ordination of those involved in same gender unions’) and the decision of the extraordinary Primates Meeting of 2004 (‘This will tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level…’) no doubt ringing in his cloth ears, he laid his hands on Gene Robinson.

This defiant action had a not entirely expected result in Canada. By a not very comfortable majority (and after a solemn warning about the implications of a Canadian decision in favour of same-sex unions for the credibility of the Eames [‘Lambeth’] Commission) the General Synod failed to give National Church approval to rites for same sex unions. They deferred the matter until their next meeting in 2007.

The Archbishop of Canterbury (fresh from a battering on home territory about the choice of his friend Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading, John’s subsequent pressured withdrawal, and his eventual selection as Dean of St Alban’s – an entertaining and illuminating side-show) now expressed his gratitude to the Anglican Church of Canada for degree of restraint which, in his view, rendered the work of the Lambeth Commission more credible.

Said Rowan Williams: ‘The decision to defer the question of the right of dioceses over same-sex blessings offers hope for the continuing collegiality of the Anglican Communion. It is important that the Canadian church has held back from a structural shift that would have run counter to the pleas and wishes of the Primates’ meeting last Autumn and of so many around the Communion. In doing so, it has avoided complicating still further the work of the Lambeth Commission.’

His statement, it now appears, was made before Lambeth Palace had notice of a further decision of the Canadian General Synod to declare same sex relationships ‘holy’: ‘…we affirm the integrity and sanctity of committed adult same-sex relationships.’

Two conclusions may be drawn from such a statement. The first is that, if same-sex relationships of a ‘committed’ nature are indeed already ‘holy’, they have no need of further ‘blessing’. (On that understanding Bishop Ingham’s and Bishops Chane’s activities would be laudable but quite superfluous.) The second is that, by refusing to bless such ‘holy’ relationships, churches or individuals are simply demonstrating their own deficiencies in blessedness and sanctity.

But what is ‘holy’ is holy. What emphatically cannot be concluded from the decision of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, is that a church (or diocese within it) ought to enter upon an ‘open period of reception’ during which it might consider whether such relationships are to be ‘blessed’ or not.

That, of course, is precisely what the Anglican Church of Canada has agreed to do.

There is, we are now told, to be a period of further ‘dialogue’ (until the General Synod of 2007), during which the Canadian Church will maturely assess these issues. There is (you guessed it!) to be a Commission examining the matter. At the end of this process of discernment, the Canadian Church will be able to reach an informed and measured decision.

Believe that if you will.

But note this. No-one who has ever acted in advance of such a decision has ever been either censured or punished (like Terry Buckle). Ask Peter Carnley. New Westminster is Philadelphia 1972 and Perth 1991 all over again. The evidence points to one conclusion. Those who favour the liberal agenda (and I use that term considerately, advisedly and unrepentantly) are always eager to continue ‘conversations’. Naturally enough: while we talk trustingly, they act irrevocably.

Rowan is not stupid (as everyone agrees). So he knows that.

Well, well, well…

Geoffrey Kirk is beginning to think that he has been around too long and seen too much.