Leader: Schism must not be allowed to happen

15 July 2009

THE SCHISM in the Anglican Communion has been spoken of as an established fact for many years. As a consequence, events such as this week’s vote in the US General Convention effectively to end the moratorium on gay bishops make little different to perceptions of how the Communion now operates. In one sense, the Episcopal Church had little to lose. The moratorium of three years ago was accepted as a painful means to help keep the Church together. But a swath of US conservatives has since left to form the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), thus undermining the moratorium’s purpose. Dr Williams appeared in Anaheim to remind the Convention, by his presence if not so much by his words, that a global relationship still existed; but that relationship, at least from the Episcopal Church’s perspect­ive, has of late involved too many warnings and threats. If they were to be hanged anyway, why not for a sheep as for a lamb?

However people view the outcome — and many will welcome the unambiguous acceptance of gay and lesbian people — Tuesday was not the US House of Bishops’ finest hour. Presented with a straightforward motion from the House of Deputies, the Bishops favoured amending it to something more ambiguous. In the event, they simply tacked a phrase about “mystery” to the main motion. Neither was there much theological depth to the debate. Speakers dwelt instead on what might be acceptable to their dioceses, their consciences, or the Communion as a whole.

The answer to the last question cannot yet be known, not least because, on the issue of sexuality, the Communion no longer thinks, nor now acts, as a whole. The Windsor process is not completed: it did not restrain the Americans; neither can it be invoked to censure them. Besides, those provinces that object to gay bishops have been out of communion with the US Episcopal Church since the consecration of Gene Robinson in 2003. The Episcopal Church has not really broken the Communion any more than it was already.

The decision exposes the flaw at the heart of attempts to order the Communion on the basis of single issues. There is no less reason to join together at the eucharist, share theological ideas, engage in jointly funded enterprises, and so on, this week than last. A few Episcopalians have said more clearly what they have believed for some time; many still disagree with them. Nothing much has changed. “Impaired communion” is a useful phrase, but it hides a tangle of relationships that range from complete agreement to utter incomprehension. The point about Anglicanism is that, up to this point, all have existed within the same body, united by an Anglican mix of reticence and charity.

Of course, the accommodations this has required (not the same as compromises) have been too much for some. But unless the Communion can embrace ACNA, whose views are no different from many African provinces, and the US Episcopal Church and its web of global sympathisers, it is not trying hard enough. The great challenge of the 21st century is how people of different faiths can live together. If Christians cannot find the love that transcends differences within their own Church, how can they speak about unity to others in parts of the world where it is a matter of life and death?

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