Episcopal theologian Paul Zahl, dean of the 3,000-member Cathedral of the Advent in Birmingham, Ala., arrived late for an inter-Anglican commission meeting on doctrinal issues in Alexandria, Va., in early September.
Better late than never? Not for some Anglican establishment liberals, who would have preferred "never."
Rev. Zahl was the only American participant in the talks. They dealt in part with the controversy over actions by the Episcopal Church (ECUSA), one of 38 "provinces" in the 75-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion. Weeks earlier, ECUSA's general convention had sparked an international uproar by approving priest Gene Robinson, a homosexual living openly with a male partner, as bishop of New Hampshire; his consecration was set for Nov. 2. The majority of ECUSA's bishops, clergy, and lay delegates also had recognized same-sex unions as within the bounds of church belief.
An outcry that threatened to tear the communion apart prompted Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to call an emergency "crisis meeting" of the communion's 38 primates, or church heads, for Oct. 15-16 at Lambeth Palace in London.
A secretary handed Rev. Zahl a sheaf of papers, and he settled in for the morning presentation. Thumbing through them, he noticed two unusual documents. The first contained what he called a "carefully scripted" agenda for the upcoming primates' meeting. It was designed to allow for much discussion but no action.
The second document was an unsigned strategy memo to Archbishop Williams. It posed as one of the possible "outcomes" of the primates' meeting "some kind of parallel jurisdiction" in North America, a disciplinary action that must be blocked "at all costs." It exhorted the archbishop not to be "swayed by the American traditionalists [who] love to 'make a fuss.'" Taken together, Rev. Zahl concluded, the papers amounted to a plan to manipulate the primates and prevent any action from being taken.
Ten minutes later, the secretary came to him again. She said there had been a mistake and he shouldn't have received some of the documents. She swiftly swapped the stack of papers with another, minus the two sensitive documents.
Rev. Zahl told friends what he had seen, and reporters soon were calling him. As word spread last month, conservative leaders in ECUSA expressed dismay and denounced any attempts to manipulate the primates' meeting.
After all, thousands of biblically orthodox ECUSA members were counting on the primates to reprimand 2.3-million-member ECUSA. Feeling betrayed and abandoned by ECUSA leadership, some 2,700 conservative clergy and lay leaders, including about 20 ECUSA bishops, had gathered in Dallas on Oct. 7-9 to explore their options. Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, leader of the evangelical-oriented American Anglican Council, summed up the situation:
"The Episcopal Church in the United States is in a deplorable state theologically; we cannot reform ourselves; and we need intervention from the wider Anglican Communion."
At the end, most participants signed a statement titled "A Place to Stand, A Call to Action." It reaffirmed Scripture's standards for sexuality and called on the denomination to "repent and to reverse [its] unbiblical actions." It called for redirection of giving away from ECUSA national headquarters and dioceses that supported the controversial actions.
It also called on the primates to intervene and create "a new alignment for Anglicanism in North America," to encourage biblically faithful bishops to cross diocesan boundaries and extend pastoral care to like-minded parishes, and to "support isolated and beleaguered parishes and individuals in their life and witness as faithful Anglicans."
"Free at last, free at last!" some priests shouted in joyful anticipation.
ECUSA Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, the primate of the American church who had voted to approve the ECUSA actions, issued a statement lamenting what he called the "inflammatory rhetoric" and "ultimatums" coming from Dallas.
The Zahl disclosures, a corridor conversation topic at the Dallas meeting, embarrassed officials at the liberal-led Anglican Communion Office in London. The office serves as headquarters for the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), the formal advisory body to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Its leaders have been accused of manipulating past meetings of primates.
The officials on Oct. 7 confirmed that Rev. Zahl had mistakenly been handed "early draft versions" of proposals for the primates' agenda. But Rev. Zahl's comments were "misleading" and quotations in some reports were "incorrect," a spokesman said. The spokesman declined to elaborate on how Rev. Zahl's comments were misleading or comment on whether the London meeting was still scripted.
The primates met privately as scheduled at Lambeth on Oct. 16-17 but without the usual commanding presence of ACC general secretary John Peterson. Only one primate was unable to attend, a conservative bishop from the Philippines.
As it turned out, talk was all they did-sometimes in heated exchanges. Many of the global South primates had come prepared to expel ECUSA from the Anglican Communion if it didn't reverse its actions. Over the preceding year, some had traveled to North America and allied themselves with ECUSA's conservatives and with dissenting Anglican Church of Canada parishes in the Vancouver-area New Westminster diocese. These 11 Canadian churches are opposed to Bishop Michael Ingham's approval of blessings for same-sex unions. They, too, were looking to the primates for relief from crackdowns by their ham-fisted bishop.
At least half of the primates came to the meeting having declared themselves in impaired communion with the dioceses of New Hampshire and New Westminster.
But the primates couldn't do much beyond talk and issue a statement they all signed (see sidebar). Church expert Peter Toon says his fellow conservatives expected too much. He points out that the primates' meetings are not like an ecclesiastical court or synodical business session. They are what amounts to a fellowship meeting of senior bishops from 38 autonomous church provinces. They have moral authority as a group, and all Anglicans should take seriously the things they agree upon, but they have no enforcement power or the right to kick any member church out of the Communion-as liberal primates were quick to point out. The Archbishop of Canterbury himself is a relatively powerless "first among equals," but he does have the right, in consultation with the Archbishop of York, to determine with whom he is in communion.
Several American conservative leaders expressed disappointment with the diplomatically worded statement. But upon reflection, most said they were pleased it went as far as it did, despite a few touches by liberals. (For example, liberal primates succeeded in making "interpretation," rather than "authority," of Scripture the core of the dispute over sexuality.)
The primates ...
reaffirmed the 1998 Lambeth position in which an overwhelming number of the world's bishops said homosexual practice is incompatible with Scripture;
expressed in strong words heard around the world that the sexual innovations of the American and Canadian churches were morally and biblically wrong;
admonished dioceses and provinces against unilaterally changing Lambeth positions or traditional Anglican teachings;
called for alternative spiritual oversight for biblically faithful parishes in liberal dioceses by like-minded bishops;
appointed a panel to work with the Archbishop of Canterbury on legal issues of entanglement and disengagement, with a deadline of one year;
warned if the consecration of Rev. Robinson takes place on Nov. 2, as scheduled, it will have immediate and long-term consequences that will tear apart the Communion.
At a church service Oct. 12, Rev. Robinson said he was determined to go through with his consecration, but he left open the possibility that a phone call from the Archbishop of Canterbury could possibly change his mind-if it also was accompanied by a similar "call from God." As for what the Bible says about homosexuality, "you can't elevate a piece of historical Scripture to give it a modern significance it does not have," he said. "The Bible is the story written by us about our love affair with God."
Although he signed the statement, Bishop Griswold distanced himself from parts of it at a press conference following the primates' meeting. Asked whether he would still participate in Rev. Robinson's consecration as scheduled, or try to persuade him to withdraw, he replied flippantly: "I might do anything."
In a BBC interview the next day, Archbishop Williams said, "Undoubtedly there is a huge crisis looming," but the primates hadn't jumped into quick solutions. "There are constitutional, legal questions for all the churches," he said, and the new commission needs some time to do its work. He was not optimistic.
Meanwhile, fires continued to burn in North America, where U.S. conservatives are engaged in a new round of where-do-we-go-from-here discussions around the country as they try to keep their distressed church members from walking.
One of the fiercest fires is burning in Canada. Bishop Michael Ingham of the New Westminster diocese in Vancouver has initiated proceedings against conservative bishop Terry Buckle of Yukon. Bishop Buckle earlier this year began providing "alternative" spiritual oversight to a group of churches. These parishes, now numbering 11, had rejected Bishop Ingham's leadership for his role in approving blessings for same-sex couples in the diocese. Bishop Ingham accused Bishop Buckle of trespassing across diocesan boundaries, contrary to church rules. The area's senior archbishop, David Crawley, has now banned Bishop Buckle from New Westminster and may defrock him.
Bishops from Africa, India, Australia, South America, and the United States have sided with Bishop Buckle and the dissident churches, and condemned Bishop Ingham's actions.
The conflicts in Vancouver and the United States show what may happen throughout the worldwide Anglican Communion as it struggles with the issue of homosexuality and biblical authority.