Features

Showdown in Africa

Religion | A midnight session narrowly averts a divide between The Episcopal Church and worldwide Anglicans

Issue: "'Infidel'," March 3, 2007

A new round of turmoil is sweeping through the leadership ranks of The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the aftermath of the meeting of the world's top Anglican leaders (primates) last month in Tanzania in East Africa.

If the primates are "asking us to undo what we have already done, that is a step many of the [U.S.] bishops would be unwilling to take," Connecticut liberal bishop Andrew Smith told a reporter.

Smith was referring to the official response TEC made last June to the Anglican Communion's request in the 2004 Windsor Report.

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In that report, the primates had asked TEC to place a moratorium on any further consecrations of noncelibate gay bishops and on rites blessing same-sex couples-both in violation of Anglican teaching-or forfeit its standing in the communion.

TEC's vague and incomplete response in June was unacceptable, the primates said in Tanzania. They asked TEC's House of Bishops to affirm that the vaguely worded measure applies specifically to rejecting a candidate for a bishop living in a same-sex relationship. They also asked the bishops to "make an unequivocal common covenant" that they will not authorize same-gender blessings within their dioceses. They thus gave TEC a second chance, with a deadline of Sept. 30 to comply or face "consequences" affecting its "full participation" in the communion.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said the consequences could include not inviting TEC bishops to next year's decennial Lambeth Conference in England, a sign of expulsion. If TEC is kicked out, there would be other, severe consequences for Canterbury and the Anglican Communion: They rely on TEC's money to underwrite much of their budget.

The primates' requests and proposals went beyond same-sex issues. They suggested complex procedures for creating what amounts to a parallel church jurisdiction in TEC as relief for disaffected and repressed conservative dioceses, parishes, and clergy. It would be overseen by a committee of primates, with a conservative "primatial vicar" providing spiritual oversight, but still be under TEC's umbrella. Several conservative TEC bishops see "too many problems with that approach."

The primates also demanded an end to lawsuits against parishes that have left TEC for oversight by Anglican bishops in Africa and South America. Lawsuits over property are underway in California, Virginia, and several other states. A spokesman for the Diocese of Virginia, which recently sued 11 Virginia parishes now aligned with the [Anglican] Church of Nigeria, said there are no plans to withdraw the suits.

Many theological liberals and conservatives alike agree that TEC is facing the most serious crisis in its history. But for the moment, it's mostly liberals who are arguing with each other in the 2.2-million-member denomination, whose shrinking size belies its important influence and prestige in U.S. history. Should TEC bow to the primates' demands, or walk? Should a new, emergency meeting of TEC's general convention be called, or can the House of Bishops and TEC's 40-member Executive Council handle the matters without running afoul of church rules, and will it change anything? Is exclusion of gays from "full participation" in the church worth remaining in the communion?

Some have accused Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of betrayal or cowardice. At issue: her signing of the unanimous "communiqué" the 35 primates issued in Tanzania. About 85 percent of the 11-page, 5,400-word document dealt critically with TEC on a number of issues and made demands and proposals that admittedly many in TEC would find hard to accommodate.

In her initial response to TEC's leaders, Jefferts Schori appealed for patience and forbearance. She implied that given time, the rest of the communion will move toward greater diversity and tolerance. She said TEC's bishops will meet March 16-21 to start sorting out how to respond to the communiqué.

Williams warned it would be "difficult" for the primates to accept a response from TEC's bishops that was not in "the language of the communiqué."

Williams came to Tanzania committed to holding the communion together, though he confessed publicly to fears of a split. Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, who also heads up the alliance of all Anglican provinces across Africa, was threatening to stay away from Lambeth next year and lead African Anglicans in a separate conference if TEC went undisciplined in Tanzania. That raised the specter of schism.

Akinola arrived a few days early with several advisors to plan strategy. They included Martyn Minns, the Virginia priest he appointed as bishop of Nigeria's mission in America. Minns, who helped lead more than a dozen Virginia churches out of TEC last year, advised Akinola throughout the meeting from a nearby hotel room.

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