It was clear from the very outset that something was seriously wrong as 35 primates, or chief bishops, of the worldwide Anglican Communion gathered in Northern Ireland for a crucial five-day meeting last month. In years past, they always received the Eucharist, or communion, together as an expression of unity. This time the majority declined to participate.
The snub was proof that the leaders of nearly half of the global body's 38 provinces, or regions, meant business when they declared they were in "impaired" or "broken" communion with the 2.3-million-member U.S. Episcopal Church (ECUSA) and the much smaller Anglican Church of Canada over homosexuality.
At issue was ECUSA's 2003 consecration of a gay bishop living with his male partner and the decision of the Canadian church's New Westminster diocese to institute rites for "blessing" same-sex unions-despite the Communion's official position that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Scripture." (An increasing number of liberal U.S. dioceses also conduct same-sex blessings, but New Westminster rejected a direct appeal by the primates not to proceed.)
Primates representing the vast majority of the world's 77 million members had pressed the North Americans to repent or face expulsion, which could lead to a breakup of the Communion. However, ECUSA's primate, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, and most of his fellow U.S. bishops refused to acknowledge that what they had done was wrong. Now the day of reckoning had arrived.
The primates carried out their deliberations Feb. 20-26 behind closed doors at a retreat center near Belfast. Given the autonomy of each regional Anglican body, including ECUSA, there wasn't much they could demand or enforce. They had to build their case mainly on attributes of unity and interdependence that had held Anglicans together for hundreds of years. In the end, they crafted a list of recommendations with compromise language.
Polite wording aside, the recommendations did amount to a stern "or-else" rebuke of ECUSA and the Canadian church. The primates:
• Asked the North American provinces to "voluntarily withdraw" from the Anglican Consultative Council until the next meeting of all Anglican bishops in 2008. The ACC is an international panel that advises the archbishop of Canterbury.
• Asked both provinces to send representatives to the next ACC meeting this June to explain the reasoning behind the actions they took on homosexuality.
• Asked for a moratorium on public rites of blessing for same-sex unions and on the consecration of any bishop living in a sexual relationship outside Christian marriage.
• Asked both provinces to decide by 2008 whether they will commit to the interdependent life of the Communion.
• Granted the North Americans enough time for their governing bodies to act on the proposals before taking final action. The next ECUSA general convention is next year.
• Asked Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to appoint "a panel of reference" to supervise "the adequacy of pastoral provisions" and protection for groups in dispute with their diocese or province.
• Committed themselves "during this period . . . neither to encourage nor to initiate cross-boundary interventions." (A number of conservative North American parishes have placed themselves under the spiritual oversight of biblically orthodox Anglican bishops in Africa and elsewhere.)
• Reaffirmed the 1998 Lambeth position on homosexuality in its entirety as "the present position" of the Anglican Communion.
ECUSA Presiding Bishop Griswold and Canada's Archbishop Andrew Hutchison indicated their willingness to take up the issues with their constituencies. But some liberals back home remained defiant. Combative New Westminster Bishop Michael Ingham, who pushed for same-sex blessings, condemned the proposals as out of order with Anglican practice. He exhorted leaders of the Canadian and American churches to ignore requests to withdraw from the ACC, and show up as scheduled.
In that event, Anglican leaders would have to decide what to do about party crashers.