I don’t think Bishop N.T. Wright’s article in The Times today is in the obituaries section. But it might as well be. This is because in effect he is announcing the death of the Anglican Communion, at least in the form I have known it since I was a child. In those days there was a map of the Communion on our church wall, showing the geographical areas of each of the provinces. Probably the second largest of those areas was the USA, represented by The Episcopal Church (TEC – at least that is its name today).
But the step which TEC has just taken has in effect put itself outside that Communion. At least, that is what one of the most senior bishops in the Church of England (who is also one of the world’s top theologians) is now saying. Of course we have long been hearing this from supporters of GAFCON and the newly formalised (in England) Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. But now it is the loyalist bishops who rejected GAFCON last year who are starting to say that enough is enough. Here is how Bishop Wright starts:
In the slow-moving train crash of international Anglicanism, a decision taken in California has finally brought a large coach off the rails altogether. The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church (TEC) in the United States has voted decisively to allow in principle the appointment, to all orders of ministry, of persons in active same-sex relationships. This marks a clear break with the rest of the Anglican Communion.
Both the bishops and deputies (lay and clergy) of TEC knew exactly what they were doing. They were telling the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other “instruments of communion” that they were ignoring their plea for a moratorium on consecrating practising homosexuals as bishops. They were rejecting the two things the Archbishop of Canterbury has named as the pathway to the future — the Windsor Report (2004) and the proposed Covenant (whose aim is to provide a modus operandi for the Anglican Communion). They were formalising the schism they initiated six years ago when they consecrated as bishop a divorced man in an active same-sex relationship, against the Primates’ unanimous statement that this would “tear the fabric of the Communion at its deepest level”. In Windsor’s language, they have chosen to “walk apart”.
Wright then goes on to write very sensibly about sexual ethics and homosexuality, but that is not my point here.
It is not just the moderate conservative Bishop Wright who is taking this view. As far as I know the Archbishop of Canterbury has not spoken out since TEC’s General Convention decision was finalised. But, as reported by Ruth Gledhill, before the final vote by the House of Bishops of TEC Archbishop Rowan Williams said:
As for General Convention it remains to be seen I think whether the vote of the House of Deputies will be endorsed by the House of Bishops. If the House of Bishops chooses to block then the moratorium remains. I regret the fact that there is not the will to observe the moratorium in such a significant part of the Church in North America but I can’t say more about that as I have no details.
That is, Archbishop Rowan was saying that he regretted the decision by the House of Deputies which was later confirmed by the House of Bishops. From him that is strong language. This is part of Ruth’s commentary:
In fact the vote represents a direct snub to Dr Williams, who in his sermon to the Convention last Thursday urged an opposite course of action. He said, ‘Of course I am coming here with hopes and anxieties – you know that and I shan’t deny it. Along with many in the Communion, I hope and pray that there won’t be decisions in the coming days that will push us further apart.
So, as Wright writes, “Both the bishops and deputies (lay and clergy) of TEC knew exactly what they were doing”, deciding to “tear the fabric of the Communion at its deepest level” and “walk apart”.
In effect, a large part of that world map of the Anglican Communion now has to be recoloured in grey, meaning no Anglican presence there. Or can the gap be filled by the recently formed “Anglican Church in North America”? Wright is unsure:
The question then presses: who, in the US, is now in communion with the great majority of the Anglican world? It would be too hasty to answer, the newly formed “province” of the “Anglican Church in North America”. One can sympathise with some of the motivations of these breakaway Episcopalians. But we should not forget the Episcopalian bishops, who, doggedly loyal to their own Church, and to the expressed mind of the wider Communion, voted against the current resolution. Nor should we forget the many parishes and worshippers who take the same stance. There are many American Episcopalians, inside and outside the present TEC, who are eager to sign the proposed Covenant. That aspiration must be honoured.
Indeed it would be wrong to rush into any decisions. But it seems that in the USA the point has now come where Anglicanism has divided into two separate streams, one liberal and one conservative. The question then is, how much longer can it remain united in the rest of the world, and particularly here in England?