Anglican Conservatives Step Back From Split Threat

When nearly 300 bishops from Africa, South America and breakaway churches in the U.S. gathered in Jerusalem last week, the big question was: Will they declare schism from the more liberal churches in the West?

The answer turned out to be easy.

"We all sat around the table, and pretty well with one voice, we said, we are not leaving the Anglican Communion," Archbishop Greg Venables, who oversees several countries in South America, said from Jerusalem. "We are not going to break away and form another church."

There had been talk preceding the meeting of a theological divorce. The group did not split because, Venables says, "we are the true Anglicans."

"We don't accept that we can hand over the franchise of Anglicanism to people who suddenly, without consulting anyone, decided to create a new version of Anglicanism," he says.

Shots Across The Bow

That new version that liberal Anglicans embrace, of course, is a modern interpretation of Scripture that allows for gay clergy and same-sex blessings.

With the two sides unwilling to compromise, the conservative leaders aimed two shots across the bow. First, they declared that they no longer see the archbishop of Canterbury as the one who decides who is Anglican or not. Second, they said they intend to form an alternative church or province in North America — one that would compete with the Episcopal Church for members, money and church property.

"Things don't become so because they say they're so," says Jim Naughton, the canon for communications at the Diocese of Washington, D.C. "They can decide that they are naming their collection of churches a province, but that doesn't mean the rest of the world will regard them that way. All these folks have managed to do is put a bow on the status quo, and call it a present."

Naughton says neither the archbishop of Canterbury nor the rest of the worldwide communion would allow foreign bishops to carve out a new church in the U.S. without permission from the Episcopal Church.

Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, warned conservatives that they were treading on thin ice: "Any claim to be free to operate across provincial boundaries is fraught with difficulty," he said in a statement. He urged them to "think very carefully."

'Who's Going To Stop Us?'

Martyn Minns, who moved his Virginia parish from the Episcopal Church to the more conservative church of Nigeria, asks: "Who's going to stop us? We don't have ecclesiastical jails these days; there's freedom of religion, there's freedom to associate and freedom of religious expression."

And, Minns says, freedom to let people choose which form of Anglicanism they like. Which brings us to an important undercurrent of this debate.

"Let's not be too naive about this all being theological and biblical argument," says Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire whose election sparked the current crisis. "This is also about money and property."

Dozens of parishes have left the Episcopal Church and moved under the authority of foreign bishops, and some have tried to keep their property and buildings, worth millions of dollars. Some have lost, but others have won.

On Friday, for example, a Virginia judge ruled that 11 breakaway churches have a constitutional right to keep their properties. If conservative churches can create an alternative province in the U.S., Robinson says, that would strengthen their arguments in the courts.

But Robinson and others are taking a historical view. He says time and again — in debates over things like the prayer book or women's ordination — conservatives have said the end is near.

"There have been lines drawn in the sand before, or a donnybrook predicted, and then it doesn't happen," Robinson says.

Still, the conservatives claim close to two-thirds of practicing Anglicans, and their numbers are growing. Eventually, they say, their views will prevail.

Angst Bubbles in the Anglican Communion

Last month, St. Bartholomew the Great — the London church immortalized in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral — hosted what looked like an elegant wedding. Guests wore "smart clothes," and the couple exchanged vows that came almost word for word from the wedding service in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, according to Giles Fraser, an Anglican vicar who was not there but knows the details.

"In a sense, it was an incredibly traditional service," Fraser says. "Except for one thing: There were two men who were being joined, as it were."

Two Anglican priests, to be precise. Of course, there are a good number of gay British clergy who have celebrated their unions — always quietly, because the Church of England discourages same-sex blessings. But this extravagant celebration in one of London's oldest churches — well, it was too much. The press went wild.

The blessing was performed by the Rev. Martin Dudley. In a BBC interview, Dudley described how the ceremony came to be: It all started with a visit from Peter Cowell, his friend and fellow vicar. Cowell asked if Dudley would be prepared to bless him and his partner, David Lord.

"Now what do you say to a friend in a situation like that?" Dudley asks.

The BBC host responded: "Well, presumably what you say as a minister of the Church of England where the House of Bishops' instruction in front of you is, 'I wish to help you in every way possible, but I cannot bless your partnership.' "

It was not just the event that made the story so delicious. Dudley is himself no stranger to scandal: He was nicknamed "Dud the Stud" for sending romantic text messages to a female parishioner a few years ago.

And then there's the timing. The blessing took place weeks before Anglican bishops from around the world are scheduled to arrive in England in July for its Lambeth Conference, a once-every-10-year meeting at which the bishops chart policy on issues like gay clergy.

Wedding Season or Protest?

Fraser believes the timing really was a coincidence.

"It just happens to be wedding season," he says with a laugh. "It wasn't timed to be provocative. I think these two guys had more things to worry about than politics in the Anglican Communion."

Others don't see it that way.

"It is a bit ironic," says Henry Orombi, the Anglican archbishop of Uganda, which claims 9.2 million Anglicans.

Most African, Asian and Latin American leaders were outraged when Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, was consecrated to be bishop of New Hampshire five years ago. The American church's decision split the worldwide communion — creating acrimony between the liberal churches in the U.S. and Europe, and the conservative churches in the Global South, in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The archbishop of Canterbury — the symbolic head of the Anglican Communion — tried to make peace by asking the Western countries to put an end to same-sex weddings.

Orombi wonders how the archbishop can rein in the other churches when things like this happen under his own nose.

"I think the truth has come out," he says. "The mother church has been — is already in the same problem. Now, which way is the communion going? We are asking ourselves that, and saying, that [same-sex ceremony] is a reflection of how far from biblical teaching and understanding even the Church of England is going."

Role of the Bible

Orombi says it's just one more reason he is boycotting the Lambeth Conference. And it's not just he and his bishops who are doing so; bishops of Nigeria, Kenya and Rwanda are also staying away. Together they represent some two-thirds of the practicing Anglicans in the world.

Leaders from this group of the Anglican Communion see meeting with their Western colleagues as a waste of time.

"We've talked and talked and talked over the past decade," says Archbishop Greg Venables, who oversees most of South America. "We've made it clear what the majority of Anglicans believe and how they feel about this, and nothing has happened."

Venables, who will be attending the conference, says this debate is not over homosexuality per se, but the role of the Bible. Conservatives say Scripture is unchanging and above culture. Liberals say the Bible should be read with culture — and the growing number of gay Anglicans — in mind.

"You've got original Christianity as it's been believed over the past 2,000 years, and this new postmodern version that's grown up in the West," Venables says. "So in terms of what we believe, you've already got two — I won't say two churches — but there is definitely a split."

Next week, Venables and nearly 300 other conservative bishops will gather in Jerusalem to chart their own orthodox future, in what is perhaps the first concrete sign of schism.

'A Death Rattle'

John Chane, the liberal bishop of Washington, D.C., is not worried about the Jerusalem meeting.

"I don't think it's a rival conference to Lambeth or a rival movement to challenge the Anglican Communion," he says. "To me, it's almost as if it was a death rattle. I think the Anglican Communion, even with the disagreements it has right now, really wants to move on, not to ignore the differences," he says, but to move forward with the question: "what does it mean to be a missional church in the 21st century?"

Chane says the African boycotters represent only a fraction of African leaders. He says the African bishops he knows may not agree with the West's stand, but they care much more about, for example, working with the West to fight poverty and war. And they don't want to kick apart the communion.

Venables claims he wants to avoid that as well, which is why he and a few other conservatives will travel to London next month.

"Among the group of us orthodox who are going to Lambeth, there is a sense that this is one last attempt," he says, "although we're not holding our breath."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.