By Jim Naughton
In February, the Primates of the Anglican Communion released a set of “recommendations” to the Episcopal Church; warned that if the Church did not comply there would be “consequences for the full participation of the Church in the life of the Communion,” and set September 30 as the deadline for the Church’s response.
On Thursday, just 10 days before the deadline, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and members of the Joint Standing Committee of the Primates’ Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council, begin two days of meetings in New Orleans with the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops to determine what sort of response is forthcoming. But much of the drama that one will no doubt find the press drumming up this week has already been drained from the situation.
In inviting the bishops of the Episcopal Church (with the significant exception of Gene Robinson of New Hampshire) to the Lambeth Conference next summer, the Archbishop has already signaled that he is not eager to exclude the Episcopal Church from “full participation” in the various quasi-governmental bodies that help hold the Communion together. And in jumping the deadline and ordaining bishops to work in the United States, primates such as Peter Akinola of Nigeria, Henry Orombi of Uganda and Benjamin Nzimbi of Kenya have already played their most potent card to much fanfare, but uncertain—and quite possibly minimal—effect.
But if September 30 deadline has lost much of its dramatic luster, the meeting in New Orleans may nonetheless yield significant results.
One indication of what might transpire is given by the composition of the archbishop’s delegation. In March, the House of Bishops requested a meeting with the archbishop and the Primates’ Standing Committee. But the Archbishop will be accompanied not only the Primates Standing Committee, but the Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council. Throughout the current crisis, the issue of which of the Anglican Communion’s four “instruments of unity” would make the final decisions on the issues of sexuality and membership has been hotly contested. The Primates, almost, by default, have taken the lead because they meet more often than the Anglican Consultative Council (every three years) or the Lambeth Conference (every ten). But a significant tide of resistance against primatial dominance has been building simultaneously.
In bringing the Joint Standing Committee, Archbishop Williams is opening up the process, although who will make the final decision (if a final decision indeed gets made) remains an open question. He is also enfranchising the one Communion-wide body not composed entirely of bishops.
Perhaps more important to the issue at hand, the Joint Standing Committee is also the body which commissioned the sub-group, led by Williams himself, to evaluate the Episcopal Church’s response to the Windsor Report. That report, forgotten after the Primates released their “recommendations” and set their deadline, gave the Episcopal Church relatively high marks. The meeting presents an opportunity for the Joint Standing Committee to make certain that Resolution B033 does indeed indicate that “the majority of bishops with jurisdiction… will refuse consent in future to the consecration of a bishop whose manner of life challenges the wider church and leads to further strains on Communion,“ as the sub-group concluded, and to seek greater clarify on the Church’s stance regarding the blessing of same-sex unions.
On both of these issues it seems at least possible that even many of the more liberal members of the House will be able to say the sort of things the committee wants to hear. A minority in the House doesn’t like the fact that a candidate in a same-sex relationship would not currently receive a majority of consents from diocesan bishops, and hence could not take office. But they acknowledge it as a political reality, and probably wouldn’t mind saying so.
The committee is especially interested in understanding the state of play in Episcopal diocese on same-sex blessings. Can the bishops say that neither the Church nor any diocese will authorize a “public Rite of Blessing” (per The Windsor Report and the sub-group report) or a Rite to Blessing (per the Primates’ Communiqué from Dar es Salaam)? The meaning of the phrase (public) Rite of Blessing has been debated intensely. And as neither the Archbishop nor the Joint Standing Committee has attempted to settle the issue, it is possible that this ambiguity is intentional. If the question is whether Episcopal diocesan bishops are willing to postpone the development of an authorized text to be used in blessing same-sex relationships, then the answer, in all likelihood is yes. If the question is whether every diocesan bishop is willing to enforce a ban on the blessing of same-sex relationships, the answer is almost certainly no.
The first interpretation seems to be the one shared by the authors of The Windsor Report and the sub-group report (although, again, this has been hotly debated). Both documents attempt (with uneven results) to capture the current state of play regarding the blessings of same-sex unions in Episcopal dioceses, and each raises warning in instances when dioceses where steps toward the developments of authorized text or standards were under development. In addition, the Archbishop is no doubt aware that unions are blessed in a number of Anglican provinces, including his own, and an evenhanded Communion-wide ban would be both unpopular and impossible to enforce.
The other difficult issue concerns the pastoral oversight of theologically conservative parishes that are out of sympathy with their bishop, and theologically conservative diocese’s out of sympathy with the Presiding Bishop and the General Convention. On this front it seems unlikely the bishops can do much better than the Episcopal Church has already done—unless Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori comes to the meeting with another oversight proposal.
A little history is helpful here. In March 2004, the House of Bishops passed a delegated episcopal pastoral oversight proposal which went as far as the House felt it could in guaranteeing sympathetic oversight to any parish that requested it. (The House does not have the authority to force a diocesan bishop to offer alternative oversight.) The plan was commended in The Windsor Report, which said it provided, “a very significant degree of security” to parishes that felt alienated from their diocesan bishop. The Primates, however, felt the need to establish a panel of reference at their meeting at Dromantine in February 2005, “to supervise the adequacy” of these alternative oversight arrangements.
(The remainder of that paragraph reads: “Equally, during this period we commit ourselves neither to encourage nor to initiate cross-boundary interventions. That is a matter for another time.” But do notice that various primates have released themselves unilaterally from the commitments they have made in these documents while continuing to call the Episcopal Church to account.)
The same primates who insisted on the creation of the panel became disillusioned with it, hence the proposal they embraced at Dar es Salaam in February, under which a Pastoral Council consisting of “up to five members: two nominated by the Primates, two by the Presiding Bishop, and a Primate of a Province of the Anglican Communion nominated by the Archbishop of Canterbury to chair the Council” would be given broad powers not only to extend pastoral care of certain parishes and dioceses, but to participate in the adjudication of disputes within the life of the Episcopal Church. (In so doing they ignored a generous offer of alternative primatial oversight from Bishop Jefferts Schori that quite likely would have resulted in the same primatial vicar being named, and some of the same bishops, including Williams, being involved in his or her supervision, but would have vested final authority in Bishop Jefferts Schori.)
The Primates’ proposal was roundly rejected in late March by the House of Bishops in a vote that brought liberals and moderate conservatives such as Dorsey Henderson of Upper South Carolina and John Howard of Florida together to rebuff the Primates attempt to exercise an authority that no agreement, written or unwritten, confers upon them. The proposal was also rejected, in June, by the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church.
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s decision to accept the bishops invitation to their meeting came just three weeks after it was offered, and was the first indication that he did not necessarily view the Episcopal Church’s rejection of the Council scheme as grounds for exclusion from the councils of the Communion. The invitations to Lambeth were another sign that whatever the Episcopal Church’s perceived transgressions, he still considered himself in Communion with its bishops. He underlined this message by snubbing those bishops who had been ordained by African provinces to work in the United States. (At that time this included bishops of the Rwandan-backed Anglican Mission in America and the Nigerian-backed Convocation of Anglicans in America. The Churches of Kenya and Uganda have since ordained bishops as well.)
To clarify matters further, one of Williams' advisors last week told the Living Church that:
it was a serious misreading of the primates’ communiqué to say that an ultimatum had been given to the House of Bishops to take certain actions by Sept. 30 or face expulsion from the Anglican Communion. The communiqué had asked for certain clarifications from the House of Bishops, he said, but did not envision a breaching of The Episcopal Church’s constitution.
It may be that Williams had determined that he has given the radical conservative faction led by Akinola (and stag managed by his American allies) as much ground as he can. It may be that he considers its jurisdictional innovations more threatening to the future of the Communion than the two North American churches innovations on issues of human sexuality. It may also be that other leaders in the Communion, including some in Africa, have informed him of their concerns that Akinola’s faction may be willing to use other pretexts to plant its flag in other provinces when the moment suits them.
Whatever the case, House of Bishops has an opportunity to improve and solidify the Church’s standing within the Communion by offering the Archbishop and the Joint Standing Committee much of the reassurance that they seek. These reassurances will be all the more meaningful if the resolutions that embody them can be crafted in a way that appeals to theologically conservative bishops still committed to the Church.
It is not within the power of the House of Bishops, the Joint Standing Committee or Archbishop Williams to stop Archbishop Akinola and his allies from breaking from the Anglican Communion. But it is within their power to appeal to the substantial minorities in the Church and the Communion who are uneasy about the course the Episcopal Church has charted, but appalled by the rhetoric and tactics of Akinola and his virulent friends. And there has been no better moment to do so.
Jim Naughton is the editor of the Episcopal Café .