Following a Sunday forum presentation, two angry parishioners informed me they were leaving the Episcopal Church: one because of the election of an openly homosexual man as a bishop, the other because the local bishop had not supported such elections. The two were longstanding members of the same congregation who were now on opposing sides of a growing controversy, and they no longer felt comfortable worshiping with each other.
Every week, many of us affirm our creedal faith in a church that is both “one” and “holy.” But throughout the history of the church, Christians have often refused to sacrifice their understanding of holiness for the sake of maintaining unity. How important is it-how possible is it-to remain in communion with those who insist on different understandings and practices of Christian faith?
The diversity of approaches and beliefs within the American Episcopal Church has always been both its blessing and its curse. Diversity had a special significance, and a special difficulty, for a broad-based church that maintained both an internal unity and an external connection with other Anglican communities throughout the world. But in the past two years, the Episcopal Church, with its 2.5 million members, has suffered a developing schism—one with both internal and external dimensions.
In the past decade, many conservative American parishes have formed alliances with conservative dioceses in Africa and elsewhere. The disagreements within the Episcopal Church that gave rise to these alliances became particularly acute after the 2003 consecration of V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson is an active homosexual who lives with his partner. Many conservatives were also upset that some Episcopal churches were blessing same-sex unions. Approximately two hundred (out of seven thousand) Episcopal parishes and at least five American dioceses have attempted to place themselves under the authority of archbishops from other Anglican provinces. Martyn Minns, formerly rector of one of the largest churches in Virginia, was installed in May 2007 as a Nigerian bishop by Archbishop Peter Akinola. It has been estimated that the Episcopal Church has lost over a hundred thousand members in the past three years, owing in part to the ordination of Bishop Robinson.
Externally, the growing schism involves the connection between the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion, with its thirty-seven provinces and more than 70 million members. A series of increasingly confrontational documents and declarations is leading to the effective excommunication of the American church. In 2006, the Nigerian church was reported to have referred to the American Episcopal Church as “a cancerous lump” that needed to be excised. Although the American church constitutes less than 5 percent of all Anglicans, it has enormous symbolic significance, and it finances more than a third of the worldwide communion’s operations.
In 2004 the Windsor Report, issued by the Lambeth Commission on Communion, called on the American church to back down from its decision to ordain Robinson, and from its firm refusal to prohibit the blessing of same-sex unions. These decisions by the American church were a departure from the positions taken in 1998 by the worldwide Anglican Communion at its Lambeth Conference. Since the release of the Windsor Report, the American church has faced more and more pressure to change its ways. In February 2005, the Anglican Primates called for the American church to express regret, and to issue a moratorium on public blessings of homosexual unions and on the consecration of active homosexuals as bishops. In June 2006, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church agreed to “exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion.” Still, many conservatives criticized the weakness of this language and the church’s failure to curb the blessing of same-sex unions. At the same General Convention, the American church expressed “regret for straining the bonds of affection,” offered apologies to those it had offended, and asked for their forgiveness. In response, a group of primates noted that the Windsor Report had called for an expression of regret for the action itself, not only for the hurt and offense the action caused.
The 2006 General Convention elected Katharine Jefferts Schori, a supporter of the controversial 2003 decisions, as the Episcopal Church’s new presiding bishop. Several U.S. dioceses that do not ordain women refused to recognize her, and she further provoked the suspicion of many conservatives when it was reported that she had referred to Jesus as “our mother” and questioned some traditional understandings of salvation. At a meeting of Anglican Primates in Tanzania in February 2007, a communiqué recommended new processes to provide pastoral support for disaffected Americans. It also recommended an Anglican “Covenant” to place Provinces merely “in association” with the Communion if they could not accept traditional teachings. The primates requested that the American church confirm by September 2007 that it would no longer authorize blessings of same-sex unions or the selection of actively gay men and women as bishops, but the group also criticized the African archbishops who had offered oversight for portions of the American church. The growing rift within the Anglican Communion was clear to everyone at the meeting in Tanzania: several primates even refused to take communion with the new American presiding bishop.
In March 2007, the Episcopal House of Bishops responded to the Tanzanian communiqué by reaffirming its desire to remain within the Anglican Communion and to search for ways to address the pastoral concerns of conservative Episcopalian churches in the United States. At the same time, the House of Bishops rejected the communiqué’s recommendations for new pastoral processes and refused its request for an immediate clarification on the blessing of same-sex unions and the selection of gay bishops. The American bishops warned that if the Episcopal Church’s commitment to “diversity of thought” and free and open theological debate “means that others reject us and communion with us, as some have already done, we must with great regret and sorrow accept their decision.” In the past year, the American church has refrained from electing an openly gay bishop, but the defections continue, and several Anglican provinces have already disassociated themselves from the Episcopal Church, while others have said their relationship with the U.S. church is now “impaired.” As this issue went to press, the bishops of the Episcopal Church were discussing their response to the communiqué’s demands at a meeting in New Orleans.
Any compromise will have to involve the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who is attending the meeting in New Orleans. The former bishop of Wales, Williams was a leading Anglican theologian before his enthronement as archbishop of Canterbury in 2003, and he was widely believed to hold liberal positions on many questions of culture and scriptural interpretation. In his current role, however, Williams has adopted a moderate position. He recently signaled his displeasure with both sides of the dispute through one of the few formal powers he possesses-namely, the right to issue invitations for next year’s Lambeth Conference. It has been reported that Williams has not invited either Bishop Robinson or Bishop Minns.
In a press conference at the end of the February meeting in Tanzania, Williams declared that “the teaching of the Anglican Church remains that homosexual activity is not compatible with Scripture,” and that the ban on the blessing of same-sex unions and the selection of actively gay bishops “remains the standard of teaching on matters of sexual morality for the Communion.” In an April interview with a British reporter, Williams insisted that he is trying to find a solution that can be accepted rather than merely enforced. When the reporter asked him to respond to critics who say he isn’t providing firm answers to the disputed questions, he replied, “I think they’re wrong. I think to look at the church for quick answers rather than clear and solidly founded answers is a mistake; you’re expecting the church to give you answers which come out of a slot machine. I think you’re going to be disappointed.”
The disagreement is not only between liberals and conservatives; it is also between those who insist on the full and immediate adoption of their position and those who are willing to wait and allow a slow process to unfold. In reflecting on the Anglican Communion in June 2006, Williams reminded his church that “institutionally speaking, the Communion is an association of local churches, not a single organization with a controlling bureaucracy and a universal system of law. So everything depends on what have generally been unspoken conventions of mutual respect.” He warned the American church that “no member church can make significant decisions unilaterally and still expect this to make no difference to how it is regarded in the fellowship.”
The disagreement is also between those who see questions about same-sex unions and actively gay bishops as matters of fundamental Christian polity and morality, and those who believe these questions are not fundamental-that different parts of the same church can answer them differently. At the moment, those liberals and conservatives who think these questions are nonnegotiable appear to be in control of the discussion. Since neither side seems willing to back down, this year is likely to bring the exclusion of the American church from full membership in the Anglican Communion. We are also likely to see more U.S. parishes remove themselves from the Episcopal Church.
I support the blessing of same-sex unions and the selection of gay bishops, but I also believe the American church should acknowledge more openly that it has stepped outside the boundaries established by the 1998 Lambeth Conference. I believe it should offer to withdraw from full membership in the Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church has to acknowledge that its actions, though heartfelt and perhaps prophetic, represent a refusal to accommodate other perspectives in the Anglican Communion, and it needs to pay the price for this willingly. Such an acknowledgment would be consistent with the way others have taken principled stands that violate established law or custom. Civil-rights leaders were willing to be jailed and punished for violating existing law. They hoped their witness would affirm respect for their opponents and lead to broader social change. Similarly, many of us who refused to serve in the war in Vietnam were willing to perform alternative service-or go to jail or leave the country. We recognized that our refusal carried a cost.
The voluntary acceptance of associate membership in the Communion may lead through later processes to an eventual reconciliation. Meanwhile, such a step would not imply that the Episcopal Church’s 2003 actions were wrong; it would instead represent a sober recognition that a bond has been broken. It is unfortunate that so many in the Anglican Communion believe these issues are essential to Christian identity and church integrity. But given this belief, and the unwillingness of people on either side to compromise, the American church, as a sign of respect and humility, should acknowledge that it no longer remains in full communion with those churches that disagree with its positions on homosexuality.
About the Author
Barry Jay Seltser is a writer and researcher living in Boston.