An international Anglican study group that could spell out limits to the quarrels that have beset the 70-million-member worldwide communion is to start work this year.

The issues of homosexuality and women priests and bishops have proved particularly divisive for the communion of 38 provinces, whose leader is the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey. Other major issues for the commission include the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury himself.

Last month Carey announced the creation of the 21-member Inter Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission to look at what membership of a fellowship of churches entails. The commission's role was confirmed at a meeting for the heads of the world's Anglican provinces which concluded at the Kanuga Conference Center, near Hendersonville, North Carolina, on March 9.

Theologians from four continents are members of the commission, which is chaired by Professor Stephen Sykes, a former Bishop of Ely, in England. It will build on the work of the Virginia Report, which was produced for the 1998 Lambeth Conference, held in Canterbury and attended by Anglican bishops from around the world.

In an interview with ENI, the commission's secretary, Canon David Hamid, acknowledged that there were "strains on relationships" within the Anglican Communion. A key issue for the commission would be "how much diversity is tolerable?" he said.

Asked about church policy on homosexual relationships, Hamid said the commission could explore and clarify the theological issues, but he did not see its job as enunciating doctrine. "The Anglican Communion represents a sacramental bond between churches, not a legislative framework," he added.

The present Anglican stance on homosexuality has "coherence," he says, and difficulties have to do with "practical applications." (The 1998 Lambeth Conference held that physical homosexual relationships were unbiblical. The ruling has been ignored in some provinces, particularly the United States. A few months after the Lambeth Conference, many of the bishops who had supported the ruling appeared to change tack by signing an "expression of sympathy and concern," which was then circulated by Christian homosexual organizations.)

Hamid said that another key agenda item for the commission would be to "put some rational structures" around the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury. (The See of Canterbury is one of the four Anglican "instruments of unity," and its role has grown piecemeal over time. The other instruments of unity are the London-based Anglican Consultative Council, the Lambeth Conference of Bishops held every 10 years and regular primates' meetings—gatherings of the heads of provinces.)

The different demands of the post of Archbishop of Canterbury have put much pressure on Carey—he is leader of the Anglican Communion, spiritual head of the Church of England and diocesan bishop for Canterbury. This has led to suggestions—acknowledged by the Church of England's Hurd Commission—that the See of Canterbury might give up its English and local responsibilities, and that future archbishops might be from anywhere in the world.

Hamid also said the Inter Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission would take an ecumenical approach: "We are conscious that we [Anglicans] are not the whole church. The seeking of unity is one of the issues."

The commission's first meeting will take place in September at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria.

Hamid expects that, after the inaugural gathering, a plenary meeting will be held every year with the aim of producing a preliminary report by 2006 and a final report for the next Lambeth Conference, in 2008.

Hamid's role as secretary and member of the commission will mean much extra work beyond his job as director of ecumenical affairs at the Anglican Communion office in London. He hopes to get by "with an excellent support staff and lots of vitamins—it's a full plate."

Related Elsewhere

Previous Christianity Today articles about the homosexuality debate among Anglicans include:
Priests Continue to Challenge U.S. Episcopal Authority | Conservative Anglicans gather to demonstrate their solidarity in a confirmation service. (Dec. 14, 2000)

Conservative Anglicans Defy Episcopal Church | Anglican bishops from abroad launch U.S. ministry for Episcopal reform. (Oct. 5, 2000)

Healing Genocides at Home and Abroad | Commentary from Amsterdam 2000. (Aug. 4, 2000)

No Balm in Denver | Episcopalians defer debate over same-sex blessings for another three years. (July 17, 2000)

Intercontinental Ballistic Bishops? | Maverick conservatives gain a toehold among Episcopalians. (April 25, 2000)

Episcopal Church on Brink of Ecclesiastical Civil War Over Consecrations | (Feb. 2, 2000)

Dwelling in Unity? | Lutherans, Episcopalians aspire to full communion, but differences remain over the role of bishops. (Oct. 4, 1999)

One Church, Two Faiths | Will the Episcopal Church survive the fight over homosexuality? (July 12, 1999)

Will Episcopalians Step into the 'Radical Center'? | Episcopalians hope a liberal new bishop can unite the flagging denomination in spite of divisions over homosexuality and women's ordination. (Sept. 1, 1997)