For the first time for a long time I have seen some news offering a ray of hope for the Anglican Communion and the Church of England. According to the Daily Telegraph as reported by Anglican Mainstream,
The Archbishop of Canterbury is preparing to target individual bishops whose pro-gay policies threaten to derail his efforts to avert schism … by withdrawing their invitations to next year’s Lambeth Conference.
It seems to me that this is almost the only path which Archbishop Rowan Williams can take which has any real chance of holding the Anglican Communion together. Postponing the Lambeth Conference would help, but only by postponing the inevitable unless combined with some other strong action. But by excluding from the Conference bishops who deliberately flout the church’s agreed policies on homosexuality, he just may be able to avoid the threatened mass boycott by more conservative bishops, which would imply a schism right through the heart of Anglicanism.
The problem now for Dr Williams is exactly who to take off the Lambeth invitation list. If he had taken this approach a year or so ago, he might have been able to hold the line at not inviting a few well known extremists. But matters have become highly polarised in recent months. Chelmsford Anglican Mainstream reports a suggestion that the list of bishops not invited should include patrons of Changing Attitude including the Bishop of Chelmsford – and that this suggestion came not from conservatives but from Changing Attitude itself. Is that really the Archbishop’s intention? And if it isn’t, why not?
But there is another side to this, as the Daily Telegraph also reports:
Insiders point out, however, that Dr Williams could also target hardliners if he believes they are breaching guidelines against bishops intervening in foreign dioceses, as some Africans have done.
In fact Dr Williams is already not inviting bishops who have been consecrated apparently against those guidelines. So is the intention here to withdraw invitations from the Primates accused of breaching the guidelines, from various provinces in Africa and most recently from the Southern Cone of South America?
On the other side of the fence, the perceived leader of the forces in The Episcopal Church opposing Archbishop Williams is Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori herself. Is Williams prepared to withdraw Jefferts Schori’s invitation? To be consistent, he may have to.
The problem for Williams here is that if he withdraws the invitation to the Primate of any province, certainly if that Primate is backed by most of his or her bishops, that will be seen as excommunication of the whole province from the Anglican Communion. So he will end up facilitating a schism rather than preventing one. This implies he will have to restrict his withdrawal of invitations to ordinary bishops who are not seen as the prime movers. But it would be surprising, given the current polarisation of events, if such a limited change of policy were actually to be effective. The Global South bishops have said that they will not come to Lambeth (well, actually to Canterbury, the conference location; Lambeth is just where the Archbishop of Canterbury lives, just to confuse you all!) if The Episcopal Church comes without changing its policy, and I doubt if they will now accept The Episcopal Church less a few of its bishops if Jefferts Schori is invited.
So, I would conclude, the Archbishop’s ray of hope, although I am sure intended sincerely, is likely to be a fleeting one, like most signs of sunshine in November here in England. In the end there is nothing for it, Dr Williams has to make a choice, and quite soon, between keeping The Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion and keeping the Global South. And this is likely also to mean between keeping the liberals and keeping the evangelicals within the Church of England.
This latest news suggests that he may be wavering in his apparent commitment to keeping The Episcopal Church at all costs. But he is likely to find at this late stage that he can only make sufficient concessions to the conservatives to bring them to Lambeth by alienating the liberals so much that they stay away.
So, I predict that Archbishop Williams will be the last leader of a united Anglican Communion which looks anything like what we are now used to, and very likely also the last leader of a united Church of England.