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Cross purposes

Religion | Anglican Communion rebukes TEC over its resolutions on homosexuality

Issue: "New faces of New Orleans," Aug. 15, 2009

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, titular head of the 80-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion, hurried from London to the triennial convention of the Episcopal Church (TEC) in Anaheim, Calif., in July and issued an urgent plea.

He urged delegates not to make decisions that "could push us further apart." He specifically urged defeat of proposals to sanction blessings of same-sex unions.

The Communion, whose member bodies trace their common roots to the Church of England, already was on the verge of splitting over earlier actions by TEC. The church had defied Anglican teaching that homosexual practice is sinful and in 2003 consecrated Gene Robinson, a gay man living with his male partner, as bishop of New Hampshire. Meanwhile, a number of U.S. clergy were blessing same-sex unions with the tacit approval of their bishops.

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In protest, many of the largest and fastest-growing church bodies in the Communion, mainly in Africa, broke ties with TEC and pressed for its ouster from the Communion. In 2006, under intense pressure, TEC agreed to "exercise restraint" in consecrating any bishop whose lifestyle was a problem for churches abroad.

Gay activists in TEC and their allies were furious. They organized and controlled the action at Anaheim. Gone (into breakaway groups) were many of the conservative TEC voices of the past. Two major resolutions on sexuality were approved overwhelmingly by the clergy and laity in the House of Deputies and by the House of Bishops.

The first made it clear that ordination to any ministry is open to church members living in same-sex relationships. The second instructed the church's commission on liturgy to "collect and develop theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same-gender relationships" for consideration in 2012. In the meantime, it invited bishops in states where same-sex marriages or civil unions or domestic partnerships are legal to "provide generous pastoral response" to church members.

The second resolution did not explicitly "authorize" same-sex nuptial blessings yet, but everyone in the convention center knew that they were included in the meaning of "generous pastoral response." Many bishops have been approving such ceremonies for years. And although the first resolution's wording skirted saying so exactly, it effectively rescinded the restraint moratorium of 2006. However, the convention's two presiding officers-Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and House of Deputies president Bonnie Anderson-fired off letters to Archbishop Williams attempting to persuade him that the resolutions did not really say what everybody was saying they said.

As the convention closed, 35 bishops signed an "Anaheim Statement" reaffirming their loyalty to the Anglican Communion and to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the church. They pledged to abide by moratoria Communion leaders had proposed (including no same-sex blessings and no non-celibate gay bishops). They also reaffirmed their commitment to the Anglican Communion Covenant, a work still in progress aimed at clarifying what Anglicans believe and providing greater accountability among member churches. Curiously, nine of these bishops also voted yes on one or both the resolutions.

It took 10 days for Archbishop Williams to respond. It wasn't what TEC's leaders wanted to hear. He said TEC's actions on sexuality were at odds with the way the Church has read the Bible for the last 2,000 years. A person living in a same-sex union, he said, "is in the same case as a heterosexual person living in a sexual relationship outside the marriage bond." Their "chosen lifestyle is not one that the Church's teaching sanctions," and therefore clergy, including bishops, cannot bless what they are doing. "If society changes its attitudes, that change does not of itself count as a reason for the Church to change its discipline."

He expressed hope TEC will subscribe to the Covenant when it is completed. Adherence would oblige TEC to seek global consensus within the Communion before pursuing innovations. For those who opt out of the consensus, he suggested they could be consigned to a second tier of membership within the Communion, with fewer rights and privileges.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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