A Conference of Anglican Leaders Confronts Deeply Divisive Issues

Actions by the U.S. Episcopal Church test the durability of the Anglican Communion.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, parades with other Bishops, as they make their way to Canterbury Cathedral for the Sunday service for the Lambeth Conference members. The 650 bishops and their spouses attended the service in Canterbury Cathedral before the once-a-decade conference began its deliberations.

650 bishops attended a service in Canterbury Cathedral before the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference began.

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It was not the most joyous of starts for the Lambeth Conference, the once-every-10-year gathering of the bishops of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion in Canterbury, England. Speaking last Sunday at the formal opening ceremony in the city's storied cathedral, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, observed that the global association of Anglican churches, including the Episcopal Church of the United States, faced the most serious challenge of its history.

The absence of roughly one fourth of the Communion's 880 invited bishops underscores his words. It reflects the growing schism between conservative and liberal factions with strongly differing views on tradition, doctrine, and Scripture, particularly as they touch on the hot-button issues of homosexuality and women in the clergy.

The scholarly archbishop had sought to design a conference that would be as healing as the last one proved divisive. Under the aegis of Williams's predecessor, the Most Rev. George Carey, the 1998 conference passed resolutions denouncing the practice of homosexuality and advising against the blessing of same-sex unions or the ordination of any member of a same-sex union. Seen as a triumph of the more conservative voices of the Communion, many hailing from African provinces that now boast the largest Anglican followings in the world, the resolutions were put to a test when Gene Robinson, an openly gay clergyman, was consecrated as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003.

In response, Anglican primates at various gatherings called on the U.S. bishops to reconsider their actions, even threatening the expulsion of the American church from the Communion. But when the U.S. church issued only vague assurances that it would not do the same again—assurances that some say will not be upheld—conservative Anglican leaders stepped up their protests. Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria and other leaders of "Southern Cone" Anglican provinces asserted that they could no longer remain in fellowship with those parts of the Communion that ignored "orthodox" teaching, whether on homosexuality or the qualifications for priesthood or the accepted truths of Scripture.

And many conservative Episcopalians, outraged by the direction of their church, led congregations out of American dioceses, reorganizing them either as independent churches or as part of foreign Anglican jurisdictions. Established in 2005, for instance, the Convocation of Anglicans in North America consists of some 60 congregations that became a missionary extension of the Church of Nigeria. The Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns, a former rector of Truro Church in Fairfax, Va., a breakaway congregation, was consecrated as CANA's missionary bishop in 2006.

But growing resistance to the hierarchy of the Anglican Communion took most forceful expression in the Global Anglican Future Conference, held in Jerusalem only weeks before the opening of Lambeth. While its organizers insisted that theirs was not a counter-Lambeth, the meeting of 1,148 lay and clergy participants (including some 300 bishops and archbishops) produced a final statement that proclaimed a "fellowship of confessing Anglicans" opposed to the promotion of a "different" or "false" Gospel.

Since the main promoters of that false Gospel were the American and Canadian churches, the statement declared, and since the Communion's top hierarchy chose to ignore the objections of the majority of the Communion, particularly those coming from the "Southern Cone," the framers of the statement claimed that the only possible conclusion was that "we are a global Communion with a colonial structure."

The authors went on to declare that a torn Communion could not easily be mended. But they also said that confessing Anglicans would remain within the Communion, though no longer acknowledging the power of the Archbishop of Canterbury to determine Anglican identity. That identity, they said, was to be demonstrated through adherence to 14 tenets of orthodoxy, including "the unchangeable standard of Christian marriage between one man and one woman as the proper place for sexual intimacy and the basis of the family."