When the U.S. Episcopal Church (ECUSA) decided in November to consecrate an openly gay man as bishop of New Hampshire, it was a given that splits in the worldwide Anglican Communion would follow, and that they would go deep. Indeed the Ugandan Church has already declared itself out of communion with ECUSA and in communion with dissident Episcopalians who have formed a new network of parishes and dioceses. Most Anglican churches are waiting on the results of the new commission convened by Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, before deciding on their action. The commission, chaired by Ireland’s primate, Robin Eames, begins meeting this month to examine how the Anglican Communion can bridge the chasms that have opened up between and within its member churches over homosexuality. The solution lies either in developing new boundaries of doctrine and discipline-a new venture for the Communion-or in further loosening the bonds among churches. Whatever the commission members decide, their report in September is certain to point to a new shape for the Anglican Church.

Until now the Anglican Communion-a fairly recent historical entity-has had virtually no juridical expression, and certainly no international body of doctrine or common law comparable to those of the Catholic Church. The archbishop of Canterbury is the spiritual leader of the Communion, but nothing more; the Primates’ Meeting (which occurs at least once a year) and the Lambeth Conference (which convenes about every ten years) produce “agreed positions” which have no legal effect unless individual churches enact them; the Anglican Consultative Council, which oversees the Communion between Primates’ Meetings, is merely advisory. What was historically seen as the strength of Anglicanism-and the legal purpose, if not exactly the reason, of Henry VIII’s break with Rome-has recently been exposed as its weakness.

This weakness was dramatically underscored by ECUSA primate Frank Griswold’s decision to proceed with the consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, only a month after a unanimous declaration by the Anglican primates urging him not to. The primates had agreed that both Scripture and tradition were against the consecration, and that to proceed would “tear the fabric of our communion at its deepest level.” But Bishop Griswold went ahead even after he had signed the primates’ statement, a reversal described by Archbishop Bernard Malango, the Ugandan primate of Central Africa, as a “dishonest, false, and great betrayal.” Not everyone agreed with that assessment: there were the usual appeals to conscience, prophecy, and autonomy. Still, ECUSA’s decision dramatically raised the question of what was actually meant by the term Anglican Communion, if one province could simply ignore all the others on a question of faith and morals.

Rowan Williams is a liberal Anglo-Catholic who cares deeply about the ecclesiological value of communion. He has made no secret of his view that the church’s agreed position on homosexuality will change, just as it did over slavery or usury; but for the sake of unity he has upheld the position agreed on at Lambeth in 1991 and reinforced by the primates in 1998. He was even willing last year to sacrifice the future of his friend Jeffrey John, a celibate gay man nominated to the See of Reading, who stepped aside after protests from evangelicals and traditionalists. Williams knew that John was not in violation of the church’s position that homosexual “genital acts” are not permissible for clergy. Yet he felt that the nomination was hasty, and would split the church down the middle. His strategy has been clear: although he could do nothing about ECUSA, he could ensure that the Church of England settle the question of homosexuality before appointing gay men as bishops.

As titular head of the Anglican Communion, Williams has only moral authority. Meanwhile, ECUSA seemed sure its own position was right. When he was in Rome in October, Williams was warned by the pope, as well as by Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, that the consecration of Robinson would have consequences for Anglican-Catholic dialogue. Williams knew this, but was powerless to prevent the consecration. In Rome, he told me that he wanted to see the Anglican Communion acquire a “shared sense of boundaries.” The question, he added, was whether such boundaries could be imposed without centralizing authority.

That challenge-how to put the union into communion without creating an Anglican pope-is the one that Williams’s Eames Commission must now confront. Plans for the commission were originally drawn up by George Carey, Williams’s predecessor, and the 1998 Lambeth Conference. The conference wanted the commission to look at the question of how and when the archbishop of Canterbury could intervene in the affairs of provinces other than his own-not over questions of sexuality, but in order to better protect the church in Rwanda in the wake of genocide, and in Sudan where Christians have been under intense pressure from Muslims. Another case in point is Zimbabwe, where a number of Anglican bishops have been embarrassingly pro-Mugabe, eulogizing the dictator in sermons in return for farms and fast cars. Canterbury is helpless, in these cases, to do more than wag a finger.

Those challenges have since been eclipsed by the deep disagreements over homosexuality. The Eames Commission hopes to establish a ius commune, an Anglican common law, as the basis for a stronger communion in time to prevent the Communion’s disintegration. It is likely to draw on the thinking of one of the commission’s members, Norman Doe of Cardiff Law School in Wales, a canon lawyer who has long argued in favor of such a move. Doe has offered the sobering thought that laws governing Anglican ecumenical relations with other churches are more fully developed than those dealing with inter-Anglican relations.

Doe describes how, because of the lack of a common Anglican law, the legislation enacted by each church becomes a source of further division, setting in stone the differences between the churches. The longer it continues without a “centripetal dynamic,” Doe suggests, the Anglican Communion will be condemned to a “centrifugal disintegration.” To counteract this, the church needs to tease out the principles of Anglican common law which exist implicitly. Such a “concerted translation of the moral order of global communion into the juridical order of local communion in each church,” Doe argues, “would make the moral order binding and perhaps reduce the possibility of conflict.” A common canon law would become, he says, “a centripetal force pulling that church toward Canterbury and toward other Anglican Churches.”

If they agree with Doe-and more and more of them are said to be persuaded by his arguments-the primates could acknowledge the reality of the ius commune as early as next year. A declaration of Anglican common law and polity could then be issued by the primates at their meeting in 2008, in the form of a concordat. At that point, ECUSA could choose to accept the fact that being part of a worldwide Communion means accepting restrictions. Or they could choose to take their own road. Either way, it would clean up the current unsustainable mess.

The Catholic Church has decided to give its dialogue partner some breathing space while the Communion works out its identity. The Vatican announced in December that it was suspending one of its channels of dialogue-the Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission-while stressing that the main platform for dialogue, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), continues as before. (Or not quite as before: Bishop Griswold has stepped down as ARCIC co-chair.) Williams has made clear he wants the Eames Commission to draw upon the advice of his Catholic partners; a newly formed subcommission made up of Catholics and Anglicans has been established to do just this. The advice should be useful; the question of authority and jurisdiction has been crucial to Catholic-Anglican dialogue. The Catholic Church can help the Anglican Communion set firmer boundaries of doctrine and discipline, just as Anglicans have helped Catholics find their own, true shape in the collegial vision of Vatican II.

For now, the relationship depends on whether the Anglican Communion decides to be coherent enough to justify continued dialogue with the Catholic Church. If it does-and if the cardinals at the next conclave make the governance of the Catholic Church according to the collegial principles of Vatican II a priority-the dialogue could yet prove rich in possibilities. As Williams said following the Jeffrey John affair, Paul sought church unity not because he wished to deny conflict, but because “the conflicts and failures of the churches are the opportunity for wresting a gift out of what seems a curse.” This year will determine if that opportunity has been grasped. 

Austen Ivereigh is a British biographer of Pope Francis, and a Fellow in contemporary Church history at Campion Hall, Oxford.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2004-02-13 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.