Anglicans have been waiting for the arrival of the Windsor Report like Tolkien fans panted after the movie premiere of The Lord of the Rings. The difference is that the Windsor Report, read instantly by Anglicans worldwide on the internet, has flopped. At least according to conservative Anglicans—and in their profound disappointment, there lies a lesson about weak accountability, a lesson all churches are wise to ponder.
The world's top Anglicans (known as primates) in October 2003 instructed the Lambeth Commission to recommend how the Communion, with 70 million baptized members worldwide, might hold together. The presenting problems? The American church had just elected an active homosexual, Gene Robinson, as bishop, and both American and Canadian dioceses were going ahead with official ceremonies to bless same-sex couples. All this despite the broad Anglican consensus that heterosexual marriage is God's normative design for a lifelong relationship between a man and a woman.
Failure of nerve
How did it come to this point? Let's focus on the American church: The problem began in the 1960s when a bishop of the Episcopal Church (ECUSA), James Pike, began publicly doubting doctrines like the Trinity. His fellow bishops, afraid that church discipline would seem medieval to the rest of America, only mildly rebuked him and dropped the issue.
This failure of nerve gradually opened a hole in the church that truckloads of aberrant clerics have since driven through. They have endorsed everything from premarital sex (during the values clarification sex-education era) to homosexual sex (beginning in the 1970s) to the worship of pagan deities (a service for which was posted briefly on the church's national website in late October)—not to mention the regular and sundry denials of key church doctrines (like the resurrection and the deity of Christ) by such bishops as Jack Spong and Charles Bennison.
It is no wonder that by 2000, ECUSA was regularly ignoring the biblical teachings of the larger Anglican Communion. Last October, Anglican primates asked the American and Canadian churches to cease and desist from moving forward on the homosexual front. The North American leaders didn't blink.
The Windsor Report tried again. Revisionist American and Canadian bishops were "invited to express [their] regret that the proper constraints of the [Anglican] bonds of affection were breached" by their actions. They were asked to immediately cease and desist from further actions. They were also "invited to consider" withdrawing from international Anglican gatherings until they could agree to do the above.
Not surprisingly, these flaccid suggestions were stillborn. Within three days, though a few revisionist bishops had expressed regret, they did so only for the emotional fallout of their actions—not for the acts themselves. Most defiantly supported ECUSA's Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, who said that the church would "continue to exercise its own freedom and judiciousness in how it chooses persons for ordained ministry." Griswold also said he had no intention of absenting himself from international meetings. So much for the experiment in voluntary church discipline.
The Windsor Report tries hard. It begins admirably, with a sound theological section. And it concludes by recommending that Anglicans commit to a "covenant," whereby they can be more accountable to one another. But it has an inadequate mandate at this stage in Anglican history. It all feels too little, too late.
A large part of the problem has been the very terms of debate. The Windsor Report is symptomatic. The report spends many a word lamenting the "hurt and alienation" felt by Anglicans, and little on the profound theological issues that have caused not just bad feelings but an objective crisis. The commission members said they were reluctant to chastise anyone with biblical admonitions because that wasn't in their purview. Whatever the reason, to believe that Episcopal protocol is the key to holding things together in this crisis is as foolish as a builder believing that fixing the plumbing will shore up a sinking foundation. In less tumultuous times, Episcopal plumbing is important, but when the building teeters toward collapse, something else needs attention. The house may be a little stinky for a while, but at least it won't collapse.
Gospel of grace and truth
Hope for the Anglican Communion at this late stage lies in the Global South, especially Africa. Philip Jenkins, author of the contemporary classic The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, has argued, "There can be no doubt that the emerging Christian world will be anchored in the Southern continents." This is certainly true of the Anglican Communion, especially because of the bold, incisive leadership of primates like Nigeria's Peter Akinola.
Regarding the Windsor Report, Akinola recently said, "It fails to confront the reality that a small, economically privileged group of people has sought to subvert the Christian faith and impose their new and false doctrine on the wider community."
Regarding the North American Church, he added, "We have been filled with grief as we have witnessed the decline of the North American Church that was once filled with missionary zeal and yet now seems determined to bury itself in a deadly embrace with the spirit of the age."
Regarding the North's attempts to dissuade Southern bishops from offering care to North American parishes stranded in liberal dioceses, he said, "We will not be intimidated."
The international primates will gather in February to consider the Windsor Report. That will be a splendid opportunity for the Northern primates to acknowledge their failure to deal adequately with the crisis, and let Africans like Akinola remind them what the gospel, full of grace and truth, looks like.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
A collection of all Christianity Today's coverage of the Anglican Communion is available on our website, including:
Advice Rejected | Lambeth Commission report leaves church in disarray. (Nov. 10, 2004)
'African Church Has Come of Age,' Say African Anglican Bishops | It now faces the dual threat of Western heresy and militant Islam. (Oct. 27, 2004)
N.T. Wright: Anglican Report Is 'Fireproofing the House' | Top theologian on Lambeth Commission talks about what happened behind the scenes, whether the report should have been tougher, and why it's critical of some conservative bishops. (Oct. 21, 2004)
Windsor Report Leaves Conservative Episcopalians Hopping Mad | Conservative network leader: "The disease of the U.S. church has found its way into this report." (Oct. 19, 2004)
Stronger Action Needed, Say Global Anglican Leaders | "The primates will add teeth" to Windsor Report, conservatives predict, hope. (Oct. 19, 2004)
Disappointed Anglican Conservatives Mull Options, Threaten Revolt | Americans must belong to Episcopal Church, report says. (Oct. 19, 2004)
Report Rebukes Episcopalians for Disunity but Declines Sanctions | U.S. church in limbo as conservative dissidents mull their options. (Oct. 18, 2004)
Weblog: Anglican Report Treats Conservatives Harsher than Liberals | News, predictions that commission would sanction Episcopal Church were greatly exaggerated. (Oct. 18, 2004)
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