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A year of turmoil but the Communion is still intact: CEN 1.04.08 p 8-9. January 5, 2008

Posted by geoconger in Anglican Communion, Church of England Newspaper.

The Anglican Communion staggered through 2007, and as a Communion of Churches reached the end of the year—bloodied, bruised but still together.

While the Communion’s sex wars dominated much of the news, Anglicans across the globe were active in almost all spheres of life with mission and ministry paramount in much of the Church.

On the international Anglican political scene, 2007 revolved around the person and work of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams. The self-professed “hairy lefty” whose public persona in the popular press was, more often than not, driven by his resemblance to a character from the Harry Potter films, displayed a degree of political acumen and hard knuckle politics that would not have been out of place at a trade unions congress.

Dr. Williams continued his campaign for an Anglican Covenant to provide boundaries to the faith—and also strengthened his role as Archbishop of Canterbury within the Anglican equation. The Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu was promoted by Dr. Williams to represent England in international gatherings while, Canterbury assumed a de facto primacy as president of Communion’s instruments of unity.

He further strengthened the authority and place of the Lambeth Conference, telling the Primates on Dec 14 that it was now “a meeting of the chief pastors and teachers of the Communion, seeking an authoritative common voice.”

While the great issues dividing the church did not see cease, Dr. Williams kept the church going as a united entity. While disappointing conservatives and liberals in turns on an almost weekly basis, the great crack-up forecasted for 2007 did not take place on his watch.

The year opened with Dr. Williams privately sparring with the leaders of the Nigerian and American churches: Archbishop Peter Akinola and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori—and closed on the same note. However, all the players remained at the table.

Letters and telephone calls passed from New York and Abuja to London negotiating the parameters of the February primates meeting at the White Sands Hotel in Dar es Salaam. The meeting opened with the global south coalition of primates pressing for the immediate sanction of the American church for repudiating the Communion’s call for a ban on gay bishops and blessings.

Meeting privately with Archbishop Akinola and the Archbishop of Southeast Asia, John Chew, Dr. Williams succeeded in bringing all the primates to the negotiating table in Dar es Salaam. A report prepared on Dr. Williams’ behalf by the joint ACC/Primates standing committee, whose principal author—the Archbishop of Wales Dr Barry Morgan—was absent from the meeting and on holiday, undercut the conservatives’ momentum by claiming that the American Church’s General Convention had complied with two of the three principal requests put to it by the Windsor Report-and deserved a passing grade.

The conservatives regrouped and pressed for substantive action against the US—dismissing the JSC report out of hand. Dr. Williams spent the remainder of the meeting fighting a rearguard action to prevent the expulsion of the Episcopal Church from the Communion, while at the same time finding a compromise that Bishop Schori could endorse.

In what he later told friends was one of the most painful episodes of his life, a marathon session produced an agreement endorsed by all the primates for a halt to America’s move left.

Led by the Archbishop of the West Indies, Drexel Gomez, who seamlessly stepped into the shoes of retired Irish Archbishop Robin Eames as the Communion’s chief fixer, a compromise was crafted that gave the Episcopal Church a reprieve until the end of September.

Dr. Williams’ compromise came under assault almost immediately when Bishop Schori stated she had not agreed in principal with the statement from Dar es Salaam, but only to serve as its messenger to the US House of Bishops. In March the US House of Bishops rejected out of hand the Dar es Salaam statement, but conservative Central Florida Bishop John W. Howe attempted to save the situation by asking the US Bishops to invite Dr. Williams and the Primates Standing Committee to the September House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans.

Dr. Williams delayed responding to the invitation for several months, but eventually agreed to come—and through an as yet unexplained slight of hand—the invitation was expanded to include the members of the ACC standing committee and staffers.

The Archbishop’s political skills failed him however, when shortly before the start of a three month vacation, he issued his invitations to the 2008 Lambeth Conference. New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson was not invited, nor were the bishops of the Nigerian-led CANA and Rwandan-led Anglican Mission in the Americas. Harare Bishop Nolbert Kunonga was also left off the guest list.

The surprise announcement over who was in/who was out at Lambeth, caused a summer of upheaval in the wider Communion, with the two largest provinces, Nigeria and Uganda saying they were not likely to attend Lambeth under the terms proposed by Dr. Williams.

Returning to the game in September, Dr. Williams returned to the US for the September meeting of the US House of Bishops in New Orleans. Dr. Williams took his second beating at an international gathering of Anglican bishops that year, but laid out the state of play within the Communion to the American bishops.

The American bishops responded by sidestepping requests to halt litigation against recusant traditionalist congregations, but agreed to a moratorium until 2009 on gay bishops and blessings. Dr. Williams asked the Joint Standing Committee—who helped the US bishops craft their response—to evaluate it.

The JSC gave its stamp of approval to the US report, but was quickly undercut from both the left and right. Bishop Robinson said the JSC was mistaken in assuming that the US had agreed to any ban, while conservatives denounced the report as insincere and unsubstantial.

Dr. Williams finessed the Sept 30 deadline imposed by the Primates by asking them to evaluate the JSC’s report on the US—shifting the conversation from a debate over the US to a debate over a third party evaluation of the US. This tactic kept the conversation going, but revealed “no consensus” by year’s end.

In an Advent letter to the Primates, Dr. Williams moved the goal posts farther down the field once more—saying Lambeth 2008 would be the place where the hard decisions would be made.

Sex was not the sole topic of Dr. Williams’ year, however, as in the international field he made important trips to Southeast Asia, Ceylon, South Africa, Syria, Israel and China.

New doors in Anglican-Jewish relations were opened with a dialogue commission formed with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel—while overtures to the Muslim world were strengthened by meetings in Singapore and in interfaith work at home.

Dr. Williams had a successful tour of China and “opened up” the hitherto closed Protestant state church to engagement and dialogue with the West.

The Panel of Reference created by Dr. Williams and the primates did not have as successful a year. Releasing reports on Fort Worth in January and Florida in March, the Panel’s recommendations were rejected, and by June the morale and mission of the panel’s members faded away with nothing substantive to show for a year’s work.

In the US, law suits, hemorrhaging membership roles, and episcopal defections topped the news. Seven bishops quit the church—three for other Anglican Provinces and four for the Roman Catholic Church. Lawsuits between parishes and dioceses intensified all across the country and in December the first diocese, San Joaquin, quit the Episcopal Church and moved to the Province of the Southern Cone.

Lawsuits from California to Florida to New York—with the largest in terms of parishes and costs taking place in Virginia—dominated US domestic news, while California and Chicago took a pass on electing non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy to the episcopate, despite hard campaigning by activists.

Across the border in Canada, events moved along a similar arc, but with less fanfare. Canada’s General Synod in June agreed that gay blessings were a moral good, but declined to permit their authorization. Three dioceses: Ottawa, Montreal and Niagara voted to permit the blessings, while two bishops quit the Church for the Province of the Southern Cone.

Australia saw a sharpening divide on the issue of church order, as a church tribunal voted 4-3 on a point of grammar to permit women bishops, even though General Synod declined to permit it. The Evangelical diocese of Sydney and the smaller Anglo-Catholic dioceses responded that they would not cooperate with this “innovation” they saw as unscriptural and contrary to tradition.

The unfolding crisis in Zimbabwe dominated the Church news from Africa, with church leaders ranging from Desmond Tutu, John Sentamu to Dr. Williams pushing for regime change. In November years of tension finally reached a head and the controversial Bishop of Harare was  squeezed from office by the Province. However, Dr. Nolbert Kunonga refuses to go and has enlisted the help of the Mugabe regime to allow him to hold onto the assets of the church.

Lake Malawi’s dispute over the election of London vicar the Rev. Nicholas Henderson as bishop of the impoverished Central African dioceses reached its end, after the Province declined to hear an appeal challenging the rejection of his election.

The Church in South Africa elected a new primate, and continued to press the government to respond to the epidemics of HIV/AIDs and crime affecting the country. Kenya’s church too took an activist stance, denouncing corruption and government malfeasance.

The Church of Nigeria continued its aggressive growth in numbers of communicants and dioceses-while at the same time acting as a voice of conscience in the tumultuous West African nation, pressing for clean elections, honest government, environmental reforms, and an end to sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims.

The call for social justice and civil rights rang out from the churches of South Asia. In Ceylon the church repeatedly pressed the government to come to terms with Tamil rebels in that country’s civil war—while the diocese of Colombo became the first Anglican diocese to formally espouse Christian socialism as the standard of conduct—calling for a melding of Marxism and the Gospel.

Anti-Christian violence plagued the Churches of India and Pakistan, with legal campaigns for Dalits (Untouchables), women and tribal minorities in India, and civil rights and equal protection under the law for Christians in Pakistan dominating the work of the church.

The crackdown on dissent in Burma caught hold of the church in that country, as it sought to be a model of peace and vehicle for dialogue between the military government and democracy activists.

Cyclones, natural disasters, and civic unrest challenged the churches of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, while the Churches of Japan and Korea led efforts in for an end to military tensions in the Northern Pacific. The Church in Korea hosted a peace conference which saw the first Anglican service celebrated in the North since the end of the Korean war in 1953.

Closer to home, the Church of Ireland installed a new primate in succession to Archbishop Robin Eames, and continued its quest for peace in Ulster and social development in the south.

The Welsh church took an activist stance, engaging with the new Welsh Assembly and sought to find a place in the new political/social order as further powers were devolved from Westminster.

While local concerns dominated the concerns of the 38 member churches, the overarching issue of the Communion—what it stood for, what it meant, what it believed, remained unresolved. While the oft foretold crack up of 2007 did not take place through Dr. Williams’ efforts to keep everyone talking, 2008 may prove to be the final year of the Anglican Communion as it is currently constituted.


1. Wade Bond - January 7, 2008

Thank you Father Conger for your excellent summary.

The crack up did not happen in 2007, but the chisel and hammer have been put in place. Akinola plans to swing that hammer at the AC Future Conference this summer. After that, will we still be able to say that we are all part of one united communion? For all practical purposes, I think we will have two communions with some bishops and dioceses being part of both. That is my prediction for 2008.

One thing I was happy to see in 2007 was the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church coming together and being so united when they felt our polity was under attack. We are a church that believes in democracy and the rule of law. Americans in general have a strong belief in both democracy and the rule of law. When we think that is being threatened, we come together to defend them. And I see that as a very good thing.

Peace to all.

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