From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Anglican Primates struggle for unity
18 Apr 2000 15:40:09
Anglican Primates struggle for unity in the face of sharp
differences on sexuality
by James Solheim
(ENS) The top leaders of the worldwide Anglican
Communion gathered under storm clouds for a crucial
five-day meeting at a Roman Catholic retreat center in
Portugal and emerged with a determination to work for
unity, despite continuing differences on sexuality issues.
In a communiqué endorsed unanimously issued at the
end of their March 23-28 meeting in Oporto, the primates--
leaders of the 38 provinces of the communion--addressed
some explosive disagreements that many think threaten the
unity of the Communion, including "the deep problems arising
from conflicting teaching and practice in relation to sexual
ethics in different Provinces of the Communion."
While the meeting began with some expressions of what
Archbishop Robin Eames of Ireland called "dignified anger"
but also "dignified listening" on the ordination of non-celibate
homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions in the
Episcopal Church in the USA, observers said that the meeting
moved on to "points of particular convergence."
The primates underscored the importance of "holistic
evangelism," for example, that would seek to transform the
whole person. And there was "an equally unanimous witness to
the unique role of Holy Scripture in realizing such a
transformation, and a shared acknowledgement of the Scripture's
decisive authority in the life of our Communion," the communiqué said.
Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold said in an interview that
the meeting was "one of healing, following the brokenness
and pain of the 1998 Lambeth Conference" and its hard-
line stance on sexuality. He said that there was "great
respectfulness and recognition that we all bear each other's
burdens and need mutual support." Despite the early tensions,
he said that by the end of the meeting the primates had
developed "a deep sense of bondedness" and a
determination to work towards more
understanding and cooperation.
In a letter to the primates, Griswold said that he
reported to the House of Bishops meeting in California
immediately after the Portugal meeting how important it is
to be "deeply aware that whatever happens in one province
is felt elsewhere and that we must be mindful that any
actions we take formally and officially as a church have
serious consequences throughout the Communion."
In sketching the differences, the communiqué said that some
regard homosexuality as "part of the brokenness of human life
which needs to be healed by the power of the Gospel. So, the
differing views expressed or implied in the practice of other
Provinces are experienced as actively hurtful and undermining
On the other hand, some believe that the integrity of the
church does not rise or fall on sexuality issues and they should
not impede the church's mission. In dialogue "challenge and
disagreement are not only made possible but can be life-giving
because of our commitment to one another in the family of the
Communion. As in any family, the assurance of love allows
boldness of speech."
In that spirit, the communiqué expressed deep concern with
dioceses that repudiate the 1998 Lambeth Conference that
declared homosexual activity was "contrary to Scripture" and
advised against blessing same-sex relationships or ordination of
non-celibate gays and lesbians. Such responses "have come to
threaten the unity of the communion in a profound way. We
strongly urge such dioceses to weigh the effects of their actions,
and to listen to the expressions of pain, anger and perplexity from
other parts of the Communion." And the primates urged
bishops to see that their actions "strain the reality of mutual
accountability in a global Communion where what may seem
obvious and appropriate in one context may be harmful and
nacceptable in another."
The primates also reminded the church that the Lambeth
Conference resolution "calls on us all to listen to the experience
of homosexuals in the church." In seeking a "careful, patient and
pastoral process" in dealing with the issue, it is important to avoid
"demonising of opponents" by "overheated, politicised and polarised
While the actions of a province "may result in severely impaired
communion with some other provinces or dioceses," the primates
stressed that "the unity of the Communion as a whole still rests on the
Lambeth Quadrilateral" and its emphasis on Scripture, the historic
creeds of the church, the two sacraments ordained by Christ and the
historic episcopate. "Only a formal and public repudiation of this would
place a diocese or a province outside the Anglican Communion," the
The recent consecration in Singapore of two American priests as
"missionary bishops" to alienated Episcopalians in the U.S. "poses serious
questions," the communiqué said. It endorsed Archbishop of Canterbury
George Carey's "clear and decisive" response in not recognizing the
consecrations and urging the bishops of the three provinces
involved (the USA, Rwanda and South East Asia) to resolve
the issue. "It is our firm hope that in future no steps, damaging to
our mutual trust, will be taken," the primates warned.
Reaction to the communiqué was prompt and covered the
Australian bishops, led by Archbishop Harry Goodhew of Sydney,
quickly issued a statement saying they were "greatly disappointed"
with the meeting. "While there is a welcome emphasis on the authority
of the Scriptures in the life of our Communion, there is a
regrettable ambiguity when it comes to the application of Scripture
to the challenging issue of sexual relations between members
of the same sex."
On the other hand, some thought the communiqué went too
far. Integrity, a ministry with gay and lesbian Episcopalians,
issued a statement contending that, as the church struggles with
a whole range of difficult and controversial issues, "Lesbian and
gay persons are becoming scapegoats for this broad range of
division. This state of affairs is simply sinful," the organization
said in a statement in response to the communiqué.
While supporting dialogue, Integrity said that it might
be difficult since it is obvious that the primates are not ready
to concede that "a positive, affirming stance towards
homosexual persons and their loving relationships is also
one of the responses made to the Gospel by faithful people."
Some argued that the communiqué was "a polite way
of saying to ECUSA that we are not happy about what you
are doing," said the Rev. Sam Edwards, director of Forward
in Faith, a conservative organization that is seeking alternative
oversight for traditionalists in the church. He is convinced that
the statement makes a direct connection between what is
happening in the Episcopal Church and the resistance
movement among conservatives. "This time they put the blame
right where it belongs," he said.
Others said that the primates gave an implied ultimatum to
the American dioceses that dismiss the Lambeth resolution on
sexuality. Diane Knippers, an Episcopalian who is president of
the Institute on Religion and Democracy, said that the primates
have "given the American church one more chance to address its
unfaithfulness to Scripture and its divisions."
She sees in the decision for yearly meetings of primates
"the potential of stronger disciplinary action should the Episcopal
Church refuse to heed these warnings." The American Anglican
Council (AAC) saw the communiqué as a "stern rebuke" to
dioceses in the American church whose actions threaten the unity
of the church.
Roaring defeat for conservatives?
Conservatives also expressed frustration that the primates
did not take concrete action to provide alternate oversight or
to regularize the bishops consecrated in Singapore.
"The conservatives didn't get what they wanted," said the
Rev. Patrick Mauney, director of the Episcopal Church's Office
of Anglican and Global Affairs, who attended the meeting as a
member of the presiding bishop's staff. "In fact it ended up being
a roaring defeat for them," he added, pointing out that the
communiqué did not chastise the Episcopal Church, or the
dioceses that are defying the Lambeth resolution, nor did it open
the possibility for alternative oversight or a parallel province
in the U.S.
"There was a lot of plain talking, on all sides," Mauney
observed, "but I didn't detect any anger, maybe some frustration
and misunderstanding." He pointed out that 19 of the 38 primates
were attending their first full meeting and he thinks that is a major
factor in the decision to meet every year.
"Despite the tension there was a clear move towards a more
The demeanor of Griswold, even during some difficult
discussions, was "very positive and open," Mauney said. "He
was not defensive but very open--and he listened carefully.
But he also spoke frankly about himself and about our church,
describing its dynamics and how the dioceses relate to each
other. He was a target at the beginning but he made a lot of
Mauney also praised the role of Archbishop of Canterbury
George Carey, especially his successful attempts to shape
a more moderate communiqué, avoiding both direct
condemnation of the Episcopal Church and the Singapore
Archbishop Khotso Makhulu of Central Africa said after the
meeting, "There has been a nudge forward from the mood at
Lambeth to where we are now on the question of sexuality. It is my
hope that we have halted or slowed down conservative
ascendancy." Yet others argued that bishops from the developing
world, where churches are experiencing tremendous growth, found
their voice at Lambeth and would be even more assertive in the
future on the issues that concern them.
In an interview with David Harris of the Anglican Journal,
Archbishop Maurice Sinclair, an outspoken conservative who
is primate of the church of the Southern Cone of South
America, questioned whether dioceses are competent to make
some decisions. While he eschews a "kind of curia" like the
Roman Catholic Church, he still clings to the hope that the
primates would be able "to exercise an enhanced responsibility
in offering guidance on doctrinal, moral and pastoral matters."
In an article in the Tablet, a Roman Catholic magazine in
Britain, Archbishop Rowan Williams, the new primate of Wales,
wrote that those who were expecting something dramatic at the
meeting were disappointed with what some "will undoubtedly
see as a typical bit of Anglican evasiveness. The truth is that many
primates, especially the Africans, while they are uncompromisingly
traditional about sexual ethics, can see the risks of the Communion
either becoming completely mired in this question for years or
breaking up over it. It was very clear that they wanted neither."
Williams concluded that the meeting "showed no signs of
wanting to become a ruling synod." Yet it is increasingly clear,
he argued that "the next few years will undoubtedly be increasingly
painful and difficult for many Anglicans" but that the Anglican way
"is not dead yet."
In the meantime, Williams said that many of the primates will
continue to express frustration over the attention to sexuality issues,
declaring much of the discussion a waste of time when many of
them are facing civil wars, the drastic effects of AIDS, and a debt crisis.
---James Solheim is director of the Office of News and Information
for the Episcopal Church.
For more information contact:
Episcopal News Service
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