A closer look at Anglican debate on gay issues
Top Anglicans at a crucial meeting in Tanzania this week sternly rebuked their communion’s American branch on issues involving sexuality and biblical interpretation. The decisions now facing the U.S. Episcopal Church and the global Anglican Communion may push them further down the road toward schism.
Who attended the Dar es Salaam gathering, and what happened?
About three dozen of the worldwide Anglican Communion’s top bishops, or primates, participated in the Feb. 15-19 meeting, including the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman to lead the American church.
The primates discussed poverty, economic justice and the environment, among other subjects, but focused mainly on the Episcopal Church and the growing gap between it and the wider communion on issues mainly related to the church’s views on homosexuality, including the ordination of gay bishops and blessings for same-sex unions.
Anglican church teaching, reiterated frequently since the last once-a-decade gathering of the communion’s bishops in 1998, is that sex is for married heterosexual couples. That teaching also states that gay people are children of God and members of the church, but that homosexual behavior is “incompatible with Scripture.”
The Episcopal Church directly challenged those views in 2003 when it consecrated the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, a gay man living with his partner, as bishop of New Hampshire. Last year, it deepened the tensions with conservatives by electing Jefferts Schori, a progressive who has supported Robinson’s consecration and the blessing of gay couples.
In Tanzania, seven conservative primates refused to take Communion with Jefferts Schori to protest her views and those of the U.S. church. More than a dozen primates also declined to celebrate the Eucharist with Jefferts Schori’s predecessor at a 2005 meeting.
In more significant action, however, the Anglican leaders in Tanzania issued a final communique calling on the Episcopal Church to state explicitly that it would bar official blessings for same-sex unions and stop consecrating gay bishops. The primates gave the U.S. church a Sept. 30 deadline to clarify its positions.
What happens if the Episcopal Church does not meet the demands?
The primates warned that if the U.S. church does not or cannot give the reassurances they seek, it risks having to play a reduced role in the Anglican Communion, the world’s third-largest Christian denomination with 77 million members. The relationship between the Episcopal Church and the wider communion would be “damaged at best,” the communique said.
Who will decide how the Episcopalians will respond?
Significant decisions in the U.S. church, unlike those by Anglicans elsewhere, are generally made at conventions that include all its orders of ministry -- bishops, clergy and laity. Church officials say it is not clear that the bishops, who are scheduled to meet for a retreat in March, have the authority to answer the primates’ demands on their own.
The Episcopal Church’s next General Convention, which would include lay and clergy delegates, is not scheduled until 2009.
What other action did the primates take regarding the American church?
They recommended that the Episcopal Church create positions of authority, a “pastoral council” and a special vicar, who will, at least temporarily, oversee dissenting conservatives within the U.S. branch so that they no longer seek to place their parishes and dioceses under the auspices of primates from Africa, Asia and Latin America.
In recent years, about 45 dissident parishes and at least one diocese, based in Fresno, have sought to align themselves with more conservative bishops overseas, especially with the powerful Archbishop of Nigeria, the Most Rev. Peter J. Akinola.
The council will have five members: a chairman appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, two appointed by Jefferts Schori and two by the other primates. The council will oversee the Episcopal Church’s response to the primates’ demands and set up a system of “pastoral care” for conservatives who refuse Jefferts Schori’s leadership.
What has the presiding bishop said so far?
Shortly after she returned to New York from Tanzania on Tuesday, Jefferts Schori released a statement asking Episcopalians for patience as the church -- and the denomination -- tries to forge a compromise.
Reflecting on the meeting, she noted that Lent was about to begin and said that both sides in the dispute were being asked to undergo a period of “fasting,” pointing out that the primates had made requests not just of liberals, but of conservatives as well. Liberals were asked to stop blessing same-sex couples and consecrating gay bishops; conservative primates were asked to refrain from “transgressing diocesan boundaries” during the next seven months.
Jefferts Schori also expressed respect for the views of each side.
“While those who seek full inclusion for gay and lesbian Christians, and the equal valuing of their gifts for ministry, do so out of an undeniable passion for justice, others seek a fidelity to the tradition that cannot understand or countenance the violation of what that tradition says about sexual ethics,” she wrote. “Each is being asked to forbear for a season.”
Is there a loophole in the communique regarding same-sex blessings, as some liberals say?
It’s not clear, but the question is being debated on a variety of liberal and conservative Episcopal blogs and elsewhere in church circles.
Some liberals say that because the primates’ communique calls for the Episcopal Church to make it clear that its bishops will “not authorize any Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions,” that does not mean that the primates were actually requiring a ban on the blessings, just that bishops would not formally authorize them. The Episcopal Church has never officially authorized such rites or liturgies for gay or lesbian unions, but many bishops allow their priests to perform them.
If the primates are simply asking that a formal authorization not occur, many liberals say, the U.S. church can meet the demand without much difficulty.
But conservatives say they believe the communique means that bishops are being asked to require that priests stop performing the blessings.
Where are the largest Anglican churches located?
The Anglican Communion’s largest provinces, or national and regional churches, are England, with 26 million members; Nigeria, with 17.5 million; and Uganda, with 8 million. The U.S. branch has 2.3 million members.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, currently the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, is the spiritual head of the denomination, but its 38 churches are autonomous. As a result, Williams does not have the authority to force a solution in the crisis.