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Williams wants to see main antagonists face to face

19 December 2007

by Pat Ashworth

Stern: Archbishop Rowan Williams at a press conference in New Orleans, in September PA

Stern: Archbishop Rowan Williams at a press conference in New Orleans, in September PA

THE Archbishop of Canterbury does not accept that the division in the Anglican Communion is unavoidable. Refusal of bishops to meet at Lambeth 2008 can be "a refusal of the cross - and so of the resurrection", he writes in an Advent letter that "articulates the mind of the Communion", has stern words for both sides in the dispute, and suggests new ways forward.

Dr Williams sees no consensus among the Primates about the adequacy of the New Orleans statement from the US House of Bishops. While the Communion will be "seriously wounded and diminished" if it fractures any further, he warns that Anglicanism has its boundaries.

On the place of scripture, he writes: "We recognise one another in one fellowship when we see one another 'standing under' the word of Scripture. Because of this recognition, we are able to consult and reflect together on the interpretation of Scripture and to learn in that process.

"Understanding the Bible is not a private process or something to be undertaken in isolation by one part of the family. Radical change in the way we read cannot be determined by one group or tradition alone. . .

"The debates about sexuality, significant as they may be, are symptoms of our confusion about . . . basic principles of recognition. It is too easy to make the debate a standoff between those who are 'for' and those who are 'against' the welcoming of homosexual people in the Church."

An unequivocal reminder of the duty to condemn homophobic prejudice and violence is followed by the "deeper question" about faithfulness to scripture, moral tradition, and lifestyles. "Insofar as there is currently any consensus in the Communion about this, it is not in favour of change in our discipline or our interpretation of the Bible."

Dr Williams condemns "the adoption of parishes in distant provinces or the ordination of ministers for distant provinces": successive Lambeth Conferences and Primates' Meetings have cautioned very strongly against this.

"The view that has been expressed by all the Instruments of Communion in recent years is that interventions are not to be sanctioned. . . The Gospels and the epistles of Paul alike warn us against a hasty final judgement on the spiritual state of our neighbours."

Dr Williams affirms the 1998 Lambeth resolution 1.10 on sexuality to be the only point of reference clearly agreed by an overwhelming majority in the Communion. Turning to the consecration of Gene Robinson and the "implicit sanction" given to same-sex blessings, he finds it unsurprising that some have questioned whether the Episcopal Church belongs to the same family.

Acknowledging the politics of the situation to be "diverse and complicated", he judges that dioceses and bishops at odds with the Episcopal Church's prevailing view "cannot be regarded as deficient in recognisable faithfulness to the common deposit and the common language and practice of the Communion.

"If their faith and practice are recognised by other Churches in the Communion as representing the common mind of the Anglican Church, they are clearly in fellowship with the Communion."

But "ad hoc arrangements with individual provinces" and "uncontrolled interventions" are not advancing "local solutions that will have some theological and canonical solidity".

He suggests that the exact interpretation of the New Orleans statement is "disputable", identifies "a serious gap between what the Episcopal Church understands and what others assume as to what constitutes a liturgical provision in the name of the Church at large", and has concerns about the proposed pastoral scheme and the "spiralling disputes before the secular courts". He questions why the US Bishops should apparently bind themselves to future direction from the General Convention.

Acceptance of an invitation to the Lambeth Conference "must be taken as implying willingness to work with" the Windsor process and development of a Covenant.

An invitation is not a "certificate of orthodoxy", but "a challenge to pray seriously together and to seek a resolution that will be as widely owned as may be. And this is also why I have said that the refusal to meet can be a refusal of the cross - and so of the resurrection."

Two decisive actions emerge: in an attempt to "ease tensions and clarify options", Dr Williams wants to pursue professionally facilitated conversations between the US Episcopal Church's leadership and those with whom it is most in dispute. He has identified resources and people.

He also intends to convene a small group of Primates and others, who, in close collaboration with the Primates, the Joint Standing Committee, the Covenant Design Group, and the Lambeth Conference Design Group, will "work on the unanswered questions arising from the inconclusive evaluation of the Primates to New Orleans and to take certain issues forward to Lambeth".

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