Strife Inside the Anglican Church

On matters of faith, is compromise possible?

New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson with parishioners.

New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson with parishioners.

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Like the Church of England from which it descends, the 77 million-member Anglican Communion has long been known for containing diverse and seemingly incompatible views on faith and practice. If sometimes mocked as mushy or spineless, that broad tolerance has allowed Catholic and Protestant tendencies to coexist for centuries. But can the Anglican middle way still work for a global federation of 44 national and regional churches—including the Episcopal Church in the United States—now being pulled apart, collectively and individually, by bitter debates over homosexuality, church authority, and the interpretation of Scripture?

That was the question that shadowed the recently concluded Lambeth Conference, the once-a-decade gathering of Anglican bishops in Canterbury, England. And none had given the question more thought than the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the current archbishop of Canterbury and head of the communion. For Williams, appointed by the British government in 2002, a further question was whether this year's meeting could begin to put together what the last Lambeth Conference had begun to pull apart.

That openly rancorous gathering, Lambeth '98, passed resolutions that denounced the practice of homosexuality, frowned on the blessing of same-sex unions, and discouraged the ordination of any openly gay or lesbian clergy. Seen as a triumph of the more conservative voices of the communion, many hailing from African provinces that now boast the world's largest Anglican followings, the resolutions were directly challenged when Gene Robinson, an openly gay clergyman, was elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003. Yet if the numerically small but wealthy U.S. Episcopal church (membership: 2.2 million) had clearly ignored the communion's resolutions, it was not at all clear what kind of action, if any, could be taken to bring it into line.

Conservative protest. Williams, though a liberal himself, joined other primates in appealing to U.S. bishops to reconsider their actions. But when the U.S. bishops issued only vague assurances about refraining from further provocations—assurances that many say will eventually be forgotten—conservatives stepped up their protests. Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria and other leaders from provinces in the "global South" declared that they could no longer remain in fellowship with parts of the communion that ignored "orthodox" teaching and Scripture. And many conservatives in the U.S. and other "global North" churches led their congregations out of their local dioceses and reorganized them under foreign jurisdictions. Today, there are 500 to 600 North American congregations in the Common Cause Partnership, a loose affiliation of nine smaller Anglican breakaway groups.

Prompting talk of schism, conservatives held their own conference in Jerusalem only a couple of weeks before Lambeth opened. Attended by over 1,100 clergy and laypeople (including some 300 bishops and archbishops), the Global Anglican Future Conference resolved that its members would remain within the communion but continue to oppose the spread of what they called the "false" Gospel. Outlining 14 tenets of orthodoxy, the Jerusalem statement also proposed a new structure—a Primates' Council consisting, presumably, of leaders of the more conservative provinces—with the authority to create alternative provinces in places where existing jurisdictions failed to follow the "true" Gospel. Rather than a schism, GAFCON looked to some like the blueprint for an internal coup. "The Anglican Communion has from its beginning experienced groups who decided they can no longer be part of it," says the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori. "What is challenging at the moment is that some groups have decided they can depart and yet retain the benefits of being part of the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church of Canada, and to us that is a non sequitur."

Yet it was against the direct challenge of GAFCON that Lambeth organizers saw their best-laid plans put to the test. Replacing large meetings and potentially divisive resolutions with small-group meetings and tentative reflection papers, Williams and his conference design team hoped to foster stronger relationships among the gathered bishops. Many critics called it an attempt to avoid controversy, a charge that one design team member, the Rev. Ian Douglas, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., quickly dismissed. "The hot-button issues are being addressed," Douglas said. "Anyone would be hard pressed to say we are not engaging, in face-to-face encounters instead of head-to-head debates." And Jefferts Schori hailed the format for helping the assembled bishops to recover "a deeper sense of respect" for the variety of ways in which Anglicans have traditionally read Scripture.