Gay issues make Anglican schism a real threat, says Canterbury

  • April 20, 2007
TORONTO - The Archbishop of Canterbury will meet with the American Episcopalian House of Bishops in September in an effort to prevent a schism between Anglicans in the rich, first world and the Anglican majority in the global south.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, head of the worldwide Anglican Church, speaks at a news conference in Toronto April 16. (Photo by Michael Swan)
In February 38 Anglican primates meeting in Tanzania gave the American branch of Anglicanism, the Episcopal Church of the United States, until Sept. 30 to agree not to ordain as bishops openly gay men and to cease authorizing blessings for same-sex unions. The American bishops are scheduled to meet in September, prior to the deadline, and Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams will meet with the U.S. bishops some time during those meetings.

Williams told reporters at an April 16 press conference in Toronto that schism in the world’s third largest church of 77 million Christians is a very real possibility, but that he didn’t have the power to impose a solution.

“I am not like a prime minister elected with a manifesto to implement, nor am I like a pope who can end the discussion by fiat,” said the archbishop.

The schism could hit Canada even sooner, with Canada’s Anglican bishops scheduled to vote in Winnipeg in June on whether or not to allow dioceses to authorize blessings for same-sex unions. Williams said his advice to Canadian bishops would be to consider “What is for the health of the body of Christ? That is the question.”

While in Canada, Williams was to lead a retreat for Anglican bishops in Niagara Falls, Ont.

As the first among equals when Anglican bishops meet, Williams said his job is to “steer and cluster a church in a process of discernment.”

Including gay and lesbian Christians in the full life of the church is a problem which has caused serious and sincere disagreement among Anglicans, he said.

“It’s not just a question of nice people who want to include gays and lesbians and nasty people who want to keep them out,” said Williams.

Though the disagreement over “What are the forms of behaviour that the church has the freedom to bless?” is a matter of doctrine and how the church reads Scripture, it is also a matter of global politics, said the archbishop.

Anglicans in Africa, where about half of all Anglicans now live, Asia and Latin America feel that the Canadian decision to authorize blessings for same-sex unions in the diocese of New Westminster, B.C., and the American ordination of openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson imposed a change in church doctrine on them. The church in the south is objecting that this has been “associated with a decision made by somebody else,” Williams said.

The fact that the issue which has triggered a strong no from conservative bishops in Africa is homosexuality makes it seem as though the Anglican Church is obsessed with sex, said Williams. He said that is not the case.

On the one hand Williams spoke of his wish to see gays and lesbians “included in the life of the whole church, not just a corner of it.” On the other, he seemed to indicate that tradition is on the side of the conservative majority.

“Is there more than one form of covenantal union which is a sacrament? The church has always said there is only one,” he said.

In a lecture later that same day, Williams distilled the controversy into a question of how the church reads Scripture.

On the one hand, conservatives have tended to reduce the Bible to “an inspired supernatural guide for individual conduct,” while liberals treat it as “a piece of detached historical record.” Both approaches remove the Bible from its proper context in a listening community, he said.

He used St. Paul’s denunciation of homosexuality in the First Letter to the Romans, verse 27, as an example of how the Bible is often read in fragments and out of context.

“Paul is making a primary point not about homosexuality but about the delusions of the supposedly law-abiding,” he said.

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