Anglican divide becomes a
Talk of schism pervades
church's global circle
Blessings of same-sex unions at heart of
When there's a will, there's a way?
The desire of the
international Anglican Church to stay together is strong, but a profound
and bitter division over homosexuality is wrenching the world's oldest
Protestant denomination apart.
The word schism is being
uttered aloud in church circles here and abroad; the prospect of a split
is unofficially, if sorrowingly, being prepared for.
"Our hope is that we don't
have to leave," says Archdeacon Paul Feheley, principal secretary to
Canadian Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, "but we did talk about it
hypothetically before going to the primates' meeting."
Feheley is referring to last
week's highly charged conference of senior church leaders in
Ireland, which hovered on the brink of
expelling the North American churches.
Specifically, the crisis
centred on the blessing of same-sex unions, as has occurred in one
Canadian diocese since 2002, and the ordination of practising gay clergy,
as happened last year in the United States. Both took place
despite the vehement opposition of the wider church.
But the issue of homosexuality
masks other, even deeper divisions among the church's 77 million adherents
and their clergy. Among them:
theological divide between conservatives who believe in a literal
interpretation of scripture and liberals who interpret the Bible in the
context of its time. In this instance, the belief that homosexuality is a
sin against God versus the belief that, in modern times, equal rights are
gaping cultural and political differences between the West, particularly
North America, and the developing world
in church parlance, the Global South. In some countries in Africa, Asia
and Latin America, where 70 per cent of
Anglicans now live, homosexuality is taboo; in a few, it's illegal.
Disagreement over the definition of autonomy, or local
self-government. Unlike Roman Catholicism, the Anglican Church has no
central authority, but rules by consensus of its 38 geographic "provinces"
in what's known as the Anglican Communion. But what happens when consensus
no longer exists?
Last week, Canada and the U.S. were
asked to "voluntarily withdraw" from the Anglican Consultative Council, a
key international liaison group, until the next meeting of the world's
bishops at the 2008 Lambeth Conference.
Both were requested to appear
at a special hearing in June to explain the actions of their churches; in
effect to justify them theologically. They were also asked to halt further
same-sex blessings and gay ordinations.
As one observer bluntly
described it: "The primates have handed the North Americans a
Canada's primate, Archbishop
Hutchison, keenly aware that his own church, let alone the Communion, is
painfully split on the issue, reluctantly acquiesced to the terms. (His
agreement, however, must be approved by the Council of the General Synod
when it meets in May. That's highly likely, if not certain, say analysts.)
Somebody had to give, said
Hutchison, because "we were trying to reconcile irreconcilables." Later,
he would say that "it may simply be delaying what's going to be a negative
outcome in the long term."
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan
Williams, not the head of the church but "first among equals," sounded
equally bleak. He had tried to broker peace all week with conservative
African bishops who felt the North Americans' independent actions had hurt
the Communion as a whole.
"We still face the possibility
of division, of course we do," Williams told the BBC. "Any lasting
solution will require people somewhere along the line to say, `Yes, we
There's the rub.
"I cannot imagine a
conversation saying, `We got it wrong,' " said Rt. Rev. Frank Griswold,
head of the American Episcopal Church.
Griswold outraged many
Anglicans in the U.S.
and worldwide last year when he appointed Gene Robinson, an openly gay
priest living in a same-sex relationship, as bishop of New Hampshire.
Conservative primates were
equally angry that the New
Westminster, B.C., diocese has been performing
same-sex blessings since 2002. They were somewhat mollified when its
General Synod decided last year not to approve them but to study the issue
for another three years.
But that move was immediately
undermined when the synod followed it up with a statement affirming "the
integrity and sanctity of committed adult same-sex relationships."
The word "sanctity" was a
scarlet-red flag, implying divine approval, and the furious reaction of
West Indies Archbishop Drexel Gomez was echoed through the Global South.
"Such language is reserved for
marriage alone," Gomez said. "The attempt to give same-sex relationships
the same theological stature as marriage exacerbates the crisis in the
Communion and will reap devastating consequences."
Chief among them: the
separation of North America from the rest
of the Anglican world.
Feheley says there are several
forms that could take. Canada could remain linked to
the Archbishop of Canterbury, but not the other provinces. It could leave
altogether and then rejoin in, say, 10 years. Or the Communion could
simply become a looser federation, for which there are different models.
Others argue a looser
federation would mean a balkanized church united in name only.
Feheley says the first thing
Hutchison did in Northern Ireland was to explain to the other primates the
environment the Canadian church is living in; that same-sex marriage laws
exist in seven provinces and may soon be legal nationwide, that Canada's
Charter of Rights prohibits sexual discrimination.
That undoubtedly will be
emphasized at the June meeting, and no doubt countered as being
`Toronto is not Tanzania. New Westminster is not Nigeria.
law will be passed, but being gay is still illegal in Central Africa'
Ambidge, Integrity Canada
Still, Feheley remains
optimistic. "The cultural differences are very real, but accommodation has
always been the way of the church."
Indeed, it has survived
rancorous battles in recent decades over the remarriage of divorced
persons and the ordination of women clergy, losing some priests and
parishioners in the frays, but enduring as a whole.
But conservatives say the
same-sex issue and how Canada and the U.S. have
handled it can't be "accommodated." It is different.
"The changes with divorce and
female clergy were done inside the process, not outside," says Lesley
Bentley, an orthodox Anglican in Vancouver,
whose church walked away from its New Westminster diocese over same-sex
Since 2002, eight conservative
parishes have left in protest, several to join the Anglican Communion
Network, a year-old evangelical movement, but three to link up with the
Anglican Church of Rwanda. Its leader has appointed an American bishop to
oversee them. (In the U.S., some churches have
aligned with the Ugandan church.)
A few parishes remain
"orphans," including hers, says Bentley, who is also a spokeswoman for the
conservative organization Anglican Essentials. Her church has had no
bishop and therefore can't hire needed clergy since it stopped recognizing
the authority of New Westminster Bishop Michael Ingham.
The controversial Ingham says
the call to voluntarily withdraw, agreed to by Archbishop Hutchison,
should not be approved by the Canadian synod. Likewise, the request to
justify at a special hearing why "homosexual Christians should receive
He further believes that the
primates "don't have the authority to kick us out."
Bentley vehemently disagrees.
If the Canadian church doesn't "repent" at the June hearing, she says it
won't be invited to the 2008 Lambeth Conference, "and when the Archbishop
of Canterbury stops inviting you, you're no longer Anglican."
Bentley calls the crisis "the
biggest thing that's happened in the history" of the almost 500-year-old
church, but she, too, says it is not only about homosexuality. "The issue
is that there are two different branches of theology and they can't live
under the same umbrella. Unity is a primary thing, but not unity at all
costs. Unity is not God. I want to see the church stand up for God."
No, the issue is power
politics, counters New Westminster Dean Peter Elliott, who has officiated
at six blessings of civilly married gay couples. He is himself in a
committed same-sex partnership. He is also the vice-chair of the Council
of the General Synod, the governing body of the Canadian church.
Elliott says Church at War, a recent book by
British journalist Stephen Bates, reflects his own views.
It claims that conservatives
in the U.S. as well as the Global
South knew they would lose the debate on divorce and women clergy. "So
homosexuality became the battleground over what they see as a hijacking of
the church by liberals," Elliott says.
He shares Bishop Ingham's view
that the Canadian church should not withdraw as requested. Not to defy the
primates, but to stay and "talk across our differences" for as long as it
"We respect that other
provinces' pastoral practices are different," he says, "so let us do what
we see as right for our own church. In my own congregation, I have five to
10 same-sex couples who are active, committed Christians. That is my local
circumstance. But I can still talk with others."
He can try, but it will be
difficult, says David Reed, theology professor at the University of
Toronto and former
member of Archbishop Hutchison's theology commission. The meeting in
Ireland made it clear the church is now
weighted toward the conservative Global South.
"They are closer to historical
Anglicanism than we are," he says. "Before, they were in colonial mode and
things were fine as long as they never spoke up."
Today, there are 18 million
members in Nigeria
alone, more than North America, Australia and New
Zealand combined, he says. The strength
of the Central African and Asian churches is partly fuelled by their
minority status, says Reed. Several exist within Muslim-majority
"In the West, the Anglican
Church is the establishment church and it never wants to be outside the
prevailing culture. They don't have to worry about that, because they're
already outside the culture."
Reed believes the June meeting
will be a watershed. If the Canadian church doesn't pass muster there,
then at the Lambeth Conference in 2008, it will have to face hundreds of
angry Global South bishops.
At the last, emotional meeting
in 1998, they passed, by 80 per cent, a resolution saying homosexuality
was not compatible with scripture. One Nigerian bishop caused an uproar
when he tried to drive out the "demon of homosexuality" from a gay
"It's hard for the liberal
West," says Reed, "to understand how repugnant our sexual practices are to
No, they've made it abundantly
clear, says Chris Ambidge, of Integrity Canada, a
network of Christian gays and lesbians. He thinks their contempt is
hypocritical. "A frequent remark you hear is that homosexuality is a sign
of Western decadence, but it exists in their countries, too. They repeat
their assertions over and over again and never listen."
Ambidge studied for the
priesthood but was denied ordination in 1980 after he came out to his
bishop. He is now a U of T professor of chemical engineering, lives in a
committed relationship, and believes the crisis is really about cultural
differences and provincial autonomy.
"Toronto is not Tanzania.
New Westminster is not Nigeria.
Canada's same-sex law
will be passed, but being gay is still illegal in Central Africa," he says.
Diverse opinions are held
throughout the Communion on other contentious issues, he notes. Divorced
people are remarried in some regions, not in others. Only
Zealand have female bishops, though they
are not recognized by many other provinces.
Schism is not what gay
Anglicans seek, Ambidge says. But nor do they want the Canadian church
forced to say: "You were right, we were wrong." He'd love to be able to
speak at the June hearing, although Feheley in the primate's office says
the team hasn't been selected "We'll find a good one" pending synod
"It would be nice to go as a
special witness, but that is not how things are structured," says Ambidge,
adding dryly that "the church always talks about us `the poor homosexuals'
they don't talk with us."
Still, he remains a devout and
"I'm not trying to change
other people, but I need them to understand that I am sincere in my
Christian faith. We are on the same journey together."
Few would disagree. But will
the journey now take two separate paths?
Additional articles by Lynda