When the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates and of the Anglican Consultative Council accompanied the Archbishop of Canterbury to confer with the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church in the US in New Orleans last week, at its invitation, none of its members thought the conversations would be easy (News, 28 September).
However gracious the welcome — and it was extremely gracious — the aim was to discuss the responses that had already been made by General Convention in 2006 to the requests of the Windsor report, and the new request of the Primates at Dar es Salaam (News, 23 February).
These were that:
1. The House of Bishops should agree with absolute clarity not to consecrate to the episcopate any candidate living in a same-sex union.
2. The Bishops would agree not to authorise public rites of blessing for same-sex unions in their dioceses.
3. The Bishops would develop a pastoral scheme for those dissenting from recent theological developments, in a way that would offer sufficient security as to enable interventions by other Primates and bishops to cease.
In the communiqué from Dar es Salaam, the Primates had made detailed proposals concerning the possible shape of such a scheme. In June, however, the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church had concluded that the scheme as proposed could not be countenanced, since it was against the canons and constitution of the Episcopal Church. What steps did the American Bishops now propose to take?
Many of the Bishops felt the tension of wanting to minister to homosexual people in as full a way as possible, while at the same time wanting to accommodate the requests of the Communion, since they greatly valued its existence and had no desire to be separated from it.
They spoke of their dismay at interventions in their province through the consecration of bishops by other Primates in the Communion. Some of them had also hoped that it would be possible within the Anglican Communion to hold different views on sexuality, as it had been on other issues. As one of them put it: “Anglicanism is comprehensive not for the sake of being broad, but for the sake of the truth, since not one of us possesses that.”
On the other side, it was put to them that in the Communion there needed to be a process of common discernment, taking into account the effect the action of one province might have on others, and on ecumenical relationships.
The discussions were honest and painful. I doubt whether any House of Bishops has been so directly challenged before, and some were offended and hurt.
In the end, the Presiding Bishop was able to tell the Joint Standing Committee that it had agreed that: first, it would not consent to consecrate any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life “presents a challenge to the wider Church”. It included non-celibate gay and lesbian persons in this. Second, the Bishops pledged not to authorise for use in their dioceses any public rites of blessing for same-sex unions.
The Joint Standing Committee agreed that the Episcopal Church had given the necessary assurances on these two issues. They saw that the Bishops had shifted ground considerably in passing these resolutions. The Committee consists of people of different views from provinces across the Communion: for it to come to this view speaks volumes of the real shift it believed the Bishops had made.
AS FOR THE pastoral care for dissenting minorities, the Presiding Bishop announced at the start of our meeting that she had appointed several bishops to minister to dioceses who found her ministry unacceptable (episcopal visitors). She felt that the theological stance of such bishops should be able to command the respect of the dissenting congregations. This was endorsed by the House of Bishops.
The Bishops also agreed that they would welcome discussion with the Instruments of Communion about these pastoral arrangements. Again, therefore, there was a general feeling in the Joint Standing Committee that the spirit of the resolutions about a pastoral council and primatial vicar had been met, while it understood why these precise suggestions made by the Primates could not be implemented.
The Committee felt strongly that, just as Windsor had had trenchant things to say to the Episcopal Church, it had also had equally trenchant things to say about interventions by other jurisdictions, and that these should now come to an end.
It was felt that if certain Primates called on the Episcopal Church to meet the recommendations of the Windsor report, they themselves could not be exempt from paying attention to some of its other recommendations, especially since interventions in other provinces had been condemned by successive Lambeth Conferences.
The House of Bishops rightly reminded us of the second part of Lambeth 1.10, reiterated by the Windsor report, about “the need to take seriously our ministry to gay and lesbian people inside the Church and the ending of persecution, discrimination and violence against them”. Selective adherence to only some parts of Lambeth Resolutions, while totally ignoring others, is not acceptable if the Communion as a whole is to retain its credibility.
During our time at New Orleans, some of us joined the Bishops in helping to rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the richest nation on earth, there are still hundreds of houses in a state of dereliction. It was also a timely reminder to all of us that there are other issues of vital importance about which we ought to be concerned.
The Most Revd Dr Barry Morgan is Archbishop of Wales. A member of the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates and of the ACC, he attended the US Bishops’ meeting.