Church Schism Feared Despite Deal on Gays
Williams warns of ‘huge failure if we cannot live
February 26, 2005
By Stephen Bates, religious affairs correspondent
The worldwide Anglican communion was hoping against hope
last night that its latest solution to the world church’s gay crisis,
announced following a meeting of presiding archbishops and bishops, would
provide a temporary respite. Even as he formally announced the plan, however,
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the communion,
admitted that it might not work.
The plan calls for the liberal American and Canadian
churches to voluntarily absent themselves from meetings for three years, to
give the world church space to reassess its future.
The archbishop said: “Giving ourselves room to speak
clearly to each other has got to be a positive development.
“It might end up in further divisions. We hope not. We
will try to avoid it.
“Any lasting solution, I think, will require people to
say somewhere along the line, yes they were wrong.
“We are trying to behave as Christians. It would be a
huge failure if we came to the conclusion that we cannot live together.”
The decision to disinvite the Americans and Canadians is
a significant sundering and may amount to a schism, since they are already out
of communion with many churches in the developing world because of their
stance on homosexuality.
If in three years the rest of the world communion still
cannot accept what they have done, and they themselves have not retreated,
then the division is likely to be permanent.
Thirty-five of the 38 primates of the 78 million strong
Anglican communion have been in seclusion all week at a Catholic retreat
centre in Northern Ireland to try to find a way through the crisis which has
rocked the church since the US Episcopal church elected an openly gay bishop
18 months ago and a Canadian diocese authorised same-sex blessing services.
Last night it was clear that deep and probably
irreconcilable divisions remain between the North American and some other
western church leaders, and conservative primates, mainly from the developing
The latter continue to regard homosexuality as a huge
defining sin, condemned in the Bible. Some insisted last night that they
continued to regard themselves as out of communion with the US and Canadian
It was clear, too, that Frank Griswold, the liberal
presiding bishop of the US church, was not about to take up Dr Williams’
suggestion and declare his church had been wrong.
He told the Guardian: “I can’t imagine a conversation
saying we got it wrong. I can see a conversation saying we should have been
more aware of the effect that the decisions we took would have in other
He added: “It does not mean that our point of view has
fundamentally changed. We have met this week at the level of the heart. There
is an integrity we share across the communion, though in quite different
Last night he said that he could not guarantee that his
church would honour a moratorium—“how ultimately these questions will be
answered remains with the community itself”—and he made clear that gay
blessings might quietly continue too.
He said: “There is a distinction between public rites
of blessing and private pastoral care.”
Bishop Griswold detected a shift in emphasis among the
African bishops, saying: “I was struck by the fact that in previous meetings
primates have often said that homosexuality was a purely western phenomenon,
whereas this time primates from the developing world have said that it is a
reality in their own context too.
“Maybe we are beginning to have broader conversations;
and that is an important piece of truth being expressed.”
Publicly, the primates insisted they had no desire for
their communion to fall apart. Archbishop Peter Carnley of Australia told a
press conference: “A loose federation is of no interest for the primates ...
we want to pursue a common mission in the world.”
Archbishop Drexel Gomez, primate of the West Indies,
added: “We have a deep affection for the Anglican communion. We want it to
thrive and do well.”
Nevertheless, some primates refused to participate in
communion services with colleagues this week, and even boycotted a service led
by the Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday.
That the meeting decided to give one last chance to
reconciliation may have something to do with the financial power of the
American church: it provides up to 40% of the worldwide Anglican budget. Some
African archbishops have started refusing American money to aid their churches
and congregations, however.
For their part, the American hierarchy believes that the
outcome was the best that could have been achieved.
They have been invited to withdraw their representatives
from meetings of the Anglican Consultative Council, a body of Episcopal, lay
and cler ical representatives from all across the communion.
But that meets only every three years—and the Americans
and Canadians have already been invited to attend the next gathering, in
Nottingham this summer, to give their reasons for the stance they have taken
There is no sign of a fundamental change of heart or any
intention to retreat from the attitude that the Episcopal church’s liberal
leadership has taken towards gays.
The communique which the primates developed calls, for
the first time, on the communion to engage in serious dialogue with gay and
lesbian people, and to listen to their experiences—a process it has called
for before, but never properly implemented.
Asked how he would listen to gay people, Archbishop Henry
Orombi, primate of Uganda, where homosexuality remains a savagely punished
criminal offence, said: “It is my duty to present the Gospel. I don’t want
to think I am going to be judgmental.
“The ‘Good News’ itself has the power to effect
Archbishop Williams said that the primates’ will to
address the issue was extremely strong: “It is a small miracle that we have
produced a unanimous statement.
“Where there is a will, there is a way.”