Official support for US Bishops, while others doubt

04 October 2007

by Pat Ashworth

Same hymn-sheet? Members of the Joint Standing Committee at a eucharist with the US House of Bishops in New Orleans ELO/Matthew Davies

Same hymn-sheet? Members of the Joint Standing Committee at a eucharist with the US House of Bishops in New Orleans ELO/Matthew Davies

The Joint Standing Committee of the Primates and of the Anglican Consultative Council (JSC) has signalled its approval of the statement released by the US House of Bishops last week (News, 28 September).

In a 19-page assessment, published on Wednesday, the committee concludes that the Bishops “have met the requirements of the Windsor report . . . and the request of the Primates at Dar es Salaam” for a moratorium on public rites for the blessing of same-sex unions; and has “given the necessary assurances” on the subject of consecrating gay bishops.

On the third request by the Primates — to set up an external system of oversight for disaffected parishes and dioceses — the JSC acknowledges that the proposal infringed the polity of the Episcopal Church in the United States. Nevertheless, the Bishops had begun “initiatives [which] offer a viable basis on which to proceed”.

In addition, the committee expressed dismay at the continuing use of the law courts. It also castigated Primates who had encroached on US territory: “We do not see how certain Primates can in good conscience call upon the Episcopal Church to meet the recommendations of the Windsor report while they find reasons to exempt themselves from paying regard to them.”

Other responses to the House of Bishops’ statement came in thick and fast this week.

The Primate of Australia, Dr Phillip Aspinall, said that his initial reaction was that the Bishops had “responded positively to the substance of all the requests made by the Primates”.

The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, reported a growing consensus among the JSC members that the Bishops had made a real shift: they had given the necessary assurance on gay bishops, and the proposals for episcopal visitors had met the spirit of what they had been asked to do.

Dr Morgan said during the meeting: “I don’t think any province of the Communion has been pounded quite so much by the Primates as the Episcopal Church has, and they have responded graciously.”

The Primate of All Ireland, the Most Revd Alan Harper, said that the statement was “helpful and deserving of a generous response”. He hoped that the Churches of the Anglican Communion would now “calmly and fairly reflect upon the [statement], and conclude that the Episcopal Church Bishops have gone a considerable way towards meeting the reasonable demands of their critics”.

The Bishop of Dallas, the Rt Revd James Stanton, was one of eight bishops who accepted the invitation of the Presiding Bishop, Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, to serve as episcopal visitors to dioceses that could not accept her ministry. His response credited the Bishops with an “openness and frankness” that he wished had characterised earlier meetings.

He did not believe, however, that the House had moved its position. Bishops had argued ambiguity to be the most honest statement of “where we are”, he said. “That is the effectual outcome of this meeting. But ‘where we are’ is walking apart. True, but so terribly sad.”

The Bishop of Texas, the Rt Revd Don Wimberley, one of the Windsor bishops, said: “We are going to remain in the Episcopal Church, and we are going to remain in the Anglican Communion as a diocese. . . I refuse to see things in a manner that is either/or. I believe our strength and our unity are in our acceptance of a life lived with the both/and.”

San Joaquin is one of the dioceses seeking pastoral oversight. For the Bishop of San Joaquin, the Rt Revd John David Schofield, the clear message was that the Bishops were determined to follow the “exact same course that they had been following all along. In reality, it is a ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.”

The Bishop of North Carolina, the Rt Revd Michael Curry, believed it to be “a significant accomplishment, a positive step, and a hopeful sign. . . Bishops holding different perspectives on the issues before us were able to find common ground,” he said.

The Primate of All Nigeria, the Most Revd Peter Akinola, responded that “our pleas have once again been ignored. . . The unequivocal assurances that we sought have not been given; what we have is a carefully calculated attempt to win support to ensure attendance at the Lambeth Conference, and continued involvement in the life of the Communion.

“Instead of the change of heart — repentance — that we sought, what we have been offered is merely a temporary adjustment in an unrelenting determination to ‘bring the Communion along’.” Clerics across the Episcopal Church had continued with same-sex blessings “with the full knowledge and support of the diocesan bishops, even if not technically authorised”.

The Archbishop of Kenya, the Most Revd Benjamin Nzimbi, said that the word “halt” with regard to the consecration of gay bishops was not enough. “What we expected from them is to repent that this is a sin in the eyes of the Lord.”

In the UK, the conservative Evangelical group Reform called for “discipline to be applied to the Episcopal Church”: “Any bishops involved in the consecration of Gene Robinson, or who teach that such consecrations are acceptable, should be disinvited from the Lambeth Conference.”

A statement described the Bishops’ response as “no more than cynical window-dressing. In an attempt to keep their place at the Anglican table, the Episcopal Church Bishops have acquiesced only in the most formal way to the requests made by Anglican Primates at Dar es Salaam last February, while at the same time making it quite clear that they intend to pursue their liberalising agenda.”

The conservative group Anglican Mainstream acknowledged that the Bishops’ assurances on gay bishops and same-sex blessings suggested that they had agreed “not to walk further away from the rest of the Anglican Communion for the moment”. However, it also described the proposals for episcopal visitors as inadequate; and pointed to a lack of response to the Primates’ request to suspend all property litigation.

The open Evangelical forum Fulcrum believed that the Bishops had satisfied the Primates on only one of the three questions asked of them: the withholding of consent to gay bishops, but they had said no to the cessation of the “practice of some bishops covertly allowing the blessing of same-sex unions”.

The Bishops had also said no to the proposed pastoral scheme and pastoral council. Fulcrum urged that bishops who were not willing to work with the Windsor process should be “disinvited” to Lambeth.

Affirming Catholicism welcomed the response for seeking to maintain unity, but voiced its concern that lesbian and gay people would continue to suffer the burden of preserving that unity. Canon Nerissa Jones said: “We recognise the great lengths to which the American bishops have gone to keep walking with those provinces of the Anglican Communion which take a conservative line on the issue of homosexuality. I hope that the leaders of these provinces will now cease to agitate against the American Church, and accept their good faith.”

The pro-gay campaigning group Changing Attitude found in the response “good news, as well as some disappointment, for LGBT Anglicans . . .”

Inclusive Church acknowledged “the frustration which has led the Bishops of the Episcopal Church to reject the requests of the Dar es Salaam communiqué for the creation of a parallel church structure”.

Integrity USA said that it was “gratified that the final response from the House of Bishops declined to succumb to the pressure to go backwards, but rather took some significant steps forward”. It was encouraged by “the strong language against incursions”.

Three American conservative groups — the American Anglican Council, the Anglican Communion Network, and Forward in Faith North America — issued a statement charging the US Bishops with having failed the Communion. “Their continued ambiguity, questioning of basic Christian beliefs, and rejection of obvious scriptural teaching has widened the gap between them and biblical Christianity.”


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