In 12 days, the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire will install as its bishop Gene Robinson, who is openly engaged in a homosexual relationship. Robinson says his promotion to bishop is "coming from God," and that opposition to it is because it's a "threat to the way things have been done, when white men have pretty much been in charge of everything." Though the Anglican primates (the top leaders of Anglican provinces worldwide) unanimously expressed "deep regret" over the action, the primate of the U.S., Episcopal Church presiding bishop Frank Griswold, said he plans to attend the ceremony.
Once that happens, the primates said, "We recognize that we have reached a crucial and critical point in the life of the Anglican Communion and we have had to conclude that the future of the Communion itself will be put in jeopardy."
But what will really happen? And what did the primates mean in their statement? Were Robinson and Griswold explicitly criticized? Were they disciplined? Did conservative primates from Africa, whom some expected to declare the Episcopal Church USA a non-Anglican body, back down? Was this a win for conservatives, a loss, or a stalemate?
The issues at stake are not just of concern to American Episcopalians and Anglicans overseas. Christians of all stripes are waiting to see how deeply Robinson's consecration will divide Anglicanism, the world's third largest Christian body (with 68 million adherents, after Roman Catholicism's 943 million and the 211 million of combined Eastern Orthodox churches). Primates' actions will have lasting implications for the Christian leadership in the Global South (Africa, Asia, and Latin America), in ecumenical and interfaith efforts, in notions of church discipline, and in other areas.
It is therefore not surprising that the primates' statement is being parsed, analyzed, and spun by religion commentators around the world and around the church. And while both liberal and conservative church leaders are eager to tell their parishioners that their views were affirmed, many in the pews aren't convinced.
Emerging from the primates' meeting, Griswold told reporters, "I stand fully behind the careful process used by the diocese of New Hampshire to discern who it wished to have as its next bishop, and I also fully respect the decision of the General Convention and the House of Bishops." Asked if that meant Robinson's consecration would go through, he joked, "Anything could happen. The Second Coming could occur, which would certainly cancel an ordination."
That Griswold could support both the primates' statement and Robinson's consecration surprised many conservatives, who see the two as mutually exclusive. But other liberals say the document is worded broadly enough to allow such a move.
The statement, for example says, "As a body we deeply regret the actions of the Diocese of New Westminster [which authorized a rite for blessing same-sex unions] and the Episcopal Church." That's as a body of Anglican primates, not each individual primate, Griswold said, noting that he is among "those of us who are not part of that deep regret."
Others are finding similar loopholes.
"I specifically looked for the word rebuke, and I didn't see it in there, I didn't see the word disassociate even," said Michael Hopkins, who heads Integrity, a group promoting gay clergy in the Episcopal Church USA. "They didn't attempt to intervene in the American Church at all."
Robert Duncan, the conservative Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, countered, "The word rebuke is not in the wording, but it is a clear rebuke."
Even if so, it's not a problem, Hopkins toldThe Scotsman. "As a priest who happens to be gay, I can live with this statement because it doesn't require me to do anything different in my parish, exercising my own ministry," he said. "I accept the fact that much of the [Anglican] community doesn't agree with me. That's fine, I can live with that."
Some liberal Episcopalians, in fact, even see the primates' statement as supporting the consecration of Robinson. Bishop of Virginia Peter Lee said the primates merely expressed their concern, said, but promoted "the right of the Episcopal Church to have made that decision. … The Primates recognized that as Episcopalians and as Anglicans we do not believe there is only one way to interpret Scripture."
Bishop Michael Ingham of the Diocese of New Westminster, denied that the primates had criticized him, and claimed victory. "Pressures from certain parts of the Communion to have dioceses such as ours … expelled from the Communion have been firmly rejected by the Primates. … Instead, the Primates have reaffirmed 'the teaching of successive Lambeth Conferences that bishops must respect the autonomy and territorial integrity of dioceses and provinces other than their own.'"
In describing the document, at least one primate denied that they took decisive stances. "We have agreed to disagree, but there are dark days on the horizon," said Michael Peers, the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada who is widely perceived as liberal. "We will now proceed in our own way just as the Church in Nigeria, for example, will proceed in [its] own way."
Such an attitude reflects the "very wishy-washy" nature of the primates' statement, said Brett Lock, spokesman of another homosexual activist group, Outrage. The primates, he said, "have agreed to disagree and given the North American branch of the church a slap on the wrist. [The document] seems just to be saying 'Anything goes if you feel it is OK' … It seems to be saying what could be a sin in Nigeria is not a sin in the U.K. It makes no sense. … Surely the Church needs to take a committed stand."
Many conservatives agree with Lock, including David Phillips, general secretary of the Church Society, which has been the most prominent organization in the U.K. fighting to maintain orthodox teachings on homosexuality and the clergy. "We are profoundly disappointed that the primates as a body have not yet taken decisive action," he toldThe Scotsman. "They have not rebuked false teaching. We had looked for a categorical statement from the primates."
Such a move was impossible, said Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the church and convener of the meeting. "The primates' meeting has no legal jurisdiction," he said. "All that our meeting could do was to state the situation as it is: These are the actions that have been taken, these are the consequences that are likely to follow."
But limited efforts served "merely to state the obvious," mourned the orthodox British organization Forward in Faith. In what is perhaps the bleakest outlook of any Anglican group, it suggested that the primates neglected their duty, and called for conservatives in the Episcopal Church USA to break away from the church: "Forward in Faith U.K. profoundly regrets the corporate failure to address those present dangers at this meeting and has no hope that such a Commission will adequately address them in the future. We note that various bodies in the United States threatened substantive action if no substantial result came from this conference. We await that action with interest."
Such sentiments seem to reflect those of many conservative lay Episcopalians. The message boards on conservative Anglican weblogs such as Christopher Johnson's Midwest Conservative Journal and Kendall Harmon's Titus 1:9 have been full of negative comments since the document's release last Thursday. The document was called "a total sell-out," "weasel words from cowards," and "a complete cave-in."
But if the laity and a few conservative organizations decried the primates' statement as weak, most orthodox Anglican groups in the U.S. are claiming major—if not complete—victory.
"The commitments of the primates at this meeting are Biblical, Christian, and good," said Bill Atwood, president of the Ekklesia Society. "It is not a waffle, sell-out, or liberal victory. … It is sad that some conservatives are so spring loaded to be negative that they cannot see encouragement even in the middle of an historic victory. … It took thirty (plus) years to get into this mess. It will take a while to get out of it, but the way has been established. Our faith has been affirmed. … The liberal agenda has been rejected. The Scriptures are the norm. We have a bright future. Structures are being put in place to protect precious resources."
Conservatives weren't spring loaded to be negative, says one response on Titus 1:9. They were given high expectations for the meeting: "The overwhelming joy and expectancy reported by those attending the meeting [of the American Anglican Council] in Dallas gave some of us the false idea that ECUSA would be expelled by the Primates and 'all would be well and all would be well' immediately."
While many at the Dallas meeting did express hope that the primates would expel the Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion, the body that held that meeting is overjoyed with what happened. "The Statement of the Global Leaders is a clear repudiation of the actions of the General Convention concerning the election of a gay bishop and the authorization to bless same sex unions," says one of several press releases issued by the American Anglican Council. "While it is clear, the statement is couched in the language of diplomacy and Anglican style." Another AAC statement says, "There is discipline … it is moral and structural in tone and serves as a clear warning about the scheduled consecration."
Likewise, in a break from his U.K. counterpart, Forward in Faith North America president David Moyer told his members, "The majority of Primates, who are well aware of and committed to intervening in the American and Canadian situation, are holy men deserving of our trust, confidence, and ongoing support."
Moyer, like leaders of the AAC, Atwood, and many other orthodox Anglicans telling conservatives to take heart in the primates' statement, noted that his views had been informed by private meetings with primates from the Global South. As Harmon put it, "It isn't possible to convey what happened today without being here on the ground." Does this suggest that private assurances have been given? Perhaps none raise the possibility more than the Anglican Mission in America, which urges its followers not to take the statement at face value.
"Scripture reminds us that outward appearances do not always reveal the true heart of things, and that what God is doing—and will do—is not a matter of talk, but of power," Bishop Chuck Murphy wrote. "This is certainly the situation with regard to the Primates' public statement. The language is veiled, nuanced, and very diplomatic, but the heart of the matter, and the resolve of our orthodox leaders from the Global South does not consist of talk, but of power and conviction."
If that power and conviction seem veiled now, Murphy suggests, just wait. "The realignment that we have been predicting and announcing for several years will move forward decisively before the close of this calendar year," he says.
Before the end of this calendar year? The American Anglican Council says, "Realignment can begin right now." Others say it will have to wait until a 12-month commission ordered by the primates' statement reports back to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Others are expecting significant action on November 3, the day after Robinson's consecration ceremony.
But while orthodox Anglicans may disagree on when such realignment may take place, they all look forward to it, and believe that mere statements and debate won't solve the problems in their church.
In the meantime, however, the debate continues.
Ted Olsen is online managing editor of Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today's other recent articles on the Anglican primates' meeting includes:
One-and-One-Half Cheers for the Anglican Primates' Statement | An interview with theologian—and longtime Anglican—J. I. Packer (Oct. 17, 2003)
Dispatch: Conservatives Just Got Clobbered | Last week's American Anglican Council meeting in Texas announced victory prematurely (Oct. 17, 2003)
Weblog: Early Responses to the Anglican Primates' Statement | Both sides seem happy as the Episcopal Church USA promises to go ahead with its gay bishop ordination (Oct. 17, 2003)
Anglican Leaders Criticize Episcopal Church, Canada's New Westminster Diocese on Homosexual Actions | Future of the Anglican unity "in jeopardy," they say, but don't break communion—yet (Oct. 16, 2003)
Anglicanism's Communion of Saints | Under the somber portraits of their predecessors, Anglican archbishops will discuss the fractious issues of the church and homosexuality (Oct. 15, 2003)
Weblog: Where Else to Go for News and Analysis of the Anglican Primates' Meeting | The best (and worst) articles and sites monitoring the breakup of the world's third-largest Christian body (Oct. 15, 2003)
For more on the Anglican crisis, see our Church Life area.