Archbishops threaten split
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, faced the gravest threat to his authority as leader of the worldwide Anglican communion on Wednesday night, as nearly half the church’s presiding archbishops launched an unprecedented attack on his leadership over the issue of gay clergy.
In terms that call into question the archbishop’s continuing leadership of the 77-million-strong church—the third largest Christian denomination—17 of Anglicanism’s 38 primates issued a highly personal letter questioning his personal ability and demanding that he should take action against “unrepented sexual immorality’’ in the church.
To add insult to injury, the letter was posted gleefully on conservative evangelical websites around the world before the archbishop had a chance to read it, let alone respond. “Wonderful news!” one blogger exclaimed.
Pointing to the archbishop’s personally more tolerant stand towards gay people, the primates claimed: “We wonder whether your personal dissent from this consensus prevents you from taking the necessary steps to confront those churches that have embraced teaching contrary to the overwhelming testimony of the Anglican communion.
“We urge you to rethink your personal view and embrace the church’s consensus. And to act on it as it is on the clear witness of scripture.’‘
The timing was fortuitous but deadly.
The letter was published only hours after Williams had pleaded with members of the Church of England on both sides of the debate to seek reconciliation in prayer.
The archbishop said he wanted liberal members of the church to contact conservatives, some of whom regard gay people as satanic, not only in Britain but across the world, particularly in Africa, where opinion is at its most hardline, and vice versa. Some developing world bishops have made it clear that they see no need to listen to gay people, unless they repent first.
On Wednesday the Archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, announced that he was aligning Nigerians with the breakaway United States Episcopal churches. His church has already severed constitutional ties with the Church of England over the gay issue.
Williams told the synod: “We have to beware of poisoning the wells by doing our business with suspicion and hostility or lack of mutual respect.
“Take personal responsibility for maintaining communion as best you can in forming some new relationships in the Church of England and more widely. Pray with people you might not otherwise pray with. Show that you are ready to learn from each other and from God.’‘
As he spoke to the Church of England general synod in London, the archbishops’ letter was lying unread in his daily correspondence.
The row, which seems to bring schism still closer within the Anglican church—the primates’ letter talked of cutting away dead branches that had failed to bear fruit—arises from fundamental disagreements over actions in the US Episcopal Church in electing the openly gay diocesan bishop, Gene Robinson, in 2003 and a decision by a Canadian diocese the same year to bless same-sex partnerships.
But primates from the developing world were equally incensed by the decision of Church of England bishops earlier this year to allow clergy to register same-sex relationships under the British government’s civil partnerships legislation, which comes into force next month. Such clergy are expected to give assurances to their bishops that their partnerships are chaste, but many concede that is unlikely to happen.
The 17 primates claimed that the law called into question church-state relations in England: “The willingness of the government to override clear Christian teaching in an area of life where the church has a unique role raises a serious question whether the church-state relationship is obsolete and a hindrance to the Gospel.’‘
Not seeking, like the Catholic Church, to gain exemption from the legislation, they said, gave the “appearance of evil’‘.—Â