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.
But with close to one fourth of the bishops boycotting the meeting, including every bishop from Uganda and many others who had attended GAFCON, give-and-take with the most determined conservatives was limited. And even before Lambeth commenced, a number of conservative Anglicans said they saw little point in attending a meeting that was designed to avoid decisions. Most scathing of all, perhaps, were the words of the archbishop of Uganda, the Most. Rev. Henry Luke Orombi, appearing in the Times of London as Lambeth entered its last days. In addition to repeating the charges of betrayal by the Episcopal Church, he faulted the "instruments" of the communion (namely, Lambeth, the Anglican Consultative Council, the primates' meetings, and the archbishop of Canterbury) for failing to address the crisis. His harshest words were reserved for the archbishop, selected not by his peers but by a secular British government exercising what Orombi called "a remnant of British colonialism."
That charge brought home the fact of a theological divide reinforced by a demographic transformation that has made sub-Saharan Africa the home of more than 55 percent of the Anglican population. Conservatives say that the plight of African Anglicans, many of whom live in direct competition with conservative Muslims, is ignored by a communion leadership that is still dominated by prelates from the global North. Liberals, citing figures like South Africa's Desmond Tutu, counter that African Anglicans are more theologically diverse than most of their own top leadership—and that more African bishops would have attended Lambeth had they not feared reprisals from primates like Akinola. Whatever the case, the charges of neocolonial arrogance clearly haunted the Lambeth gathering.
New covenant. But the ultimate value of Lambeth—and indeed the continued unity of the communion—may depend on new instruments that Williams alluded to in his formal speeches to the bishops. One is a proposed Pastoral Forum, which would enforce a moratorium not only on all actions relating to the hot-button sexual issues but also on the creation of new jurisdictions within the territories of already existing ones. The other is a long-standing proposal for a new "Covenant for the Communion," an explicit statement of beliefs that all practicing Anglicans would presumably have to sign on to.
But conservative Anglicans say they see nothing new in these proposals and furthermore doubt that they would be enforced any more vigorously than the existing instruments are. "I would say what Lambeth is doing is far too little and far too late," says Martyn Minns, missionary bishop of the breakaway Convocation of Anglicans in North America. Liberals have their own reservations. Robinson, a conspicuous presence on the fringes of the conference, to which he was not invited, says that the loose Anglican confederation with its tradition of tolerating divergent views is in no need of fixing "with either a covenant or a Pastoral Forum or anything of the sort." And calling the various proposals a "series of big 'ifs,' " Jefferts Schori says that the Episcopal Church "will continue to define itself through its legislative processes."
Even church-watchers who were impressed by what they heard about the collegial quality of the Lambeth Conference fear that it only papered over the differences. "I was encouraged by the personal relationships formed by the bishops," says the Rev. Frank Kirkpatrick, author of The Episcopal Church in Crisis and a professor of religion at Trinity College in Connecticut. "But I'm not sure Lambeth resolved anything."