THE ARCHBISHOP of Canterbury is in New Orleans for the second day of a crucial meeting with the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church in the United States.
Dr Williams is there at the Bishops’ invitation, to hear their response to the demands made of them by the Primates in Dar es Salaam in February. They were asked to give by 30 September an unequivocal assurance that they will not consecrate any more gay bishops or bless same-sex couples, and that they will put in place some kind of provision for pastoral oversight of those who dissent from decisions made at the General Convention.
The House of Bishops is unlikely to change its stance. It has never wavered from its insistence that the issue of Bishop Gene Robinson’s consecration is a matter of Episcopal Church polity, and that attempts to centralise authority within the Communion pose an inherent danger to the nature and character of Anglicanism. The basis of what they are asking Dr Williams to hear is set out plainly in the study guide Communion Matters, which has gone to all Episcopalian dioceses for discussion and response.
Episcopalians, they argue, have long-prized the “via media”, the middle way between polarities, as a faithful theological method, a distinction often misidentified as an expedient compromise. “For Anglicans, the via media is an approach that acknowledges paradox and believes even apparent opposites may be reconciled or transcended. Moreover, many within our Church believe this is a good thing and a major charism,” they say.
They point out that the Windsor Commission’s mandate was not to resolve issues of human sexuality, but to focus on what communion really means for Anglicans. The document charts their response to what has been asked of them since the consecration: an expression of regret for its impact; a Covenant Statement agreeing further restraints; a plan for delegated episcopal pastoral oversight; voluntary withdrawal from the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in 2006; a theological explanation, To Set Our Hope on Christ; and resolutions at the 2006 General Convention affirming the Episcopal Church’s commitment to the Anglican Covenant process.
The Bishops resent the tone of the Primates’ communiqué, its ultimatum, and its request for the House rather than the General Convention to respond; and also the continued incursions into their jurisdiction by foreign Primates. They affirm their “passionate desire to remain in full constituent membership” of both the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church, and believe that what the Primates have asked of them raises “significant issues about the role of the Primates in the Anglican Communion”.
They ask how the Communion can appropriately consult on important matters without “a centralisation of authority that is unknown to Anglicans”. A very detailed document from six bishops who are both theologians and lawyers — and who as individuals hold different views on the consecration of Bishop Robinson — develops this argument much more roundly, and will also be used at the meeting.
Their premise is that the classical forms and principles of Anglicanism developed over its history effectively make up a Constitution, and that the “novel idea of a Covenant” is out of order unless that were properly amended or replaced. They describe the idea of a Covenant, in effect a code of practice, as “dangerous in the extreme”, and warn: “If the Anglican Communion reduces its comprehensiveness to a conforming set of confessional doctrines, and discounts the uniting force of worship, it will be a different Church.”
The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, will be at the meeting, as a member of the Joint Standing Committee.
Dr Morgan, who warned this week that the Covenant in its proposed form could lead to the cutting off of those who did not conform, described the meeting as “an opportunity for us to meet the US bishops, listen to them, observe and help formulate advice to give to the Primates. We want to find a way around differences of opinion within the Church over homosexuality to keep the Communion together.”
Dr Williams will leave on Friday evening to start a visit to Armenia, Syria, and Lebanon. Dr Morgan will stay on to attend a Joint Standing Committee meeting on Monday, and to join the House of Bishops in weekend projects helping the clear-up operation after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, in which the diocese of Louisiana continues to play its part through its Office of Disaster Response.
“There is still a huge need for practical help and emotional support in the city, and I’m sure there will be plenty we can do over the weekend and wherever there is a lull in proceedings in the meetings,” Archbishop Morgan said.
The Bishop of Louisiana, the Rt Revd Charles Jenkins, says that the impact the six-day gathering will have on the ravaged city will be a huge boost to the economy. Eighty per cent of New Orleans was flooded when the levees broke after the hurricane. The convention business, which was a large part of the city’s economy, is reported to be 70 per cent of pre-Katrina business. “Layers of our society were peeled back to reveal the effects of generations of poverty, neglect, and injustice,” said the Bishop.
At his invitation, Dr Williams was due to preach last night to an ecumenical gathering of 4300 in the Ernest Morial Convention Centre.