Last edited: February 28, 2005

Church Schism Feared Despite Deal on Gays

Williams warns of ‘huge failure if we cannot live together’

Guardian, 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 world.

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 churches.

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 places.”

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 forms.”

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 on homosexuality.

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 change.”

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.”

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