Within a week after General Convention concluded, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams issued a seven-page, 3,300-word statement setting out his perception of the future of the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church’s place in it.
His comments precede the decision of a working group he established to determine whether General Convention responded adequately to concerns many Anglican bodies raised over the consecration of gay bishops and the blessing of same-gender unions.
Williams proposed a way forward in an attempt to keep the deeply divided communion intact: adopt a communion-wide covenant and a two-track membership system. Under his plan, churches that agree to the as-yet-unwritten covenant would be “constituent” churches, while those that don’t would be “churches in association,” he said in a letter to the primates in each of the communion’s 38 provinces.
“There is no way the Anglican Communion can remain unchanged by what is happening at the moment,” Williams said. The outlines of his proposal remain sketchy. He said the continuing debate on sexuality within the Anglican Communion had become much harder after the consecration in 2003 of Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop in New Hampshire, which, Williams said, could be seen to have pre-empted the outcome.
The communion’s structures have struggled to cope with the resulting effects, he said.
“… Whatever the presenting issue, no member church can make significant decisions unilaterally and still expect this to make no difference to how it is regarded in the fellowship; this would be uncomfortably like saying that every member could redefine the terms of belonging as and when it suited them,” Williams said.
“Some actions – and sacramental actions in particular -- just do have the effect of putting a church outside or even across the central stream of the life they have shared with other churches.”
The communion “lacks a set of adequately developed structures with which to cope with the diversity of views that will inevitably arise in a world of rapid global communication and huge cultural variety,” he said.
Though many Episcopalians hailed Robinson’s consecration as a breakthrough for gay rights, conservative Anglicans bashed what they perceived as the Episcopal Church’s abandonment of Scripture and tradition and have attempted to set up parallel jurisdictions.
In the archbishop’s proposal, national churches that signed the covenant “as an expression of their responsibility to each other” would be “constituent churches” and full members of the communion.
Those choosing not to opt in, which the archbishop called “churches in association,” would become “observers,” with no power to make decisions in the Anglican Communion. Williams likened the relationship to that of the Methodist Church, which rose out of the Church of England but later became autonomous.
Williams’ solution is not a “quick fix,” church leaders say, because it would take at least three or four years for the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the member churches to agree.
Reaction to the archbishop’s ideas was swift. “What ever happened to the Anglican three-legged stool of Scripture, tradition and reason?” asked Ted Mollegen, a deputy to General Convention from the Diocese of Connecticut. “Even allowing for the special responsibility of bishops to safeguard the unity of the church, this man is trying to sell his Anglican birthright for a bowl of unity porridge. Any unity achieved this way will only be temporary.”
The Rev. John Liebler, deputy from the Diocese of Central Florida, said the archbishop “is buying time” and wondered about his proposal of a two-tiered communion with a covenant, even though Williams argued “strongly against a Roman-style magisterium.”
“Here’s my question,” said the Rev. Elizabeth Keaton, deputy from the Diocese of Newark. “How can the church do one without the other? … How can the church make decisions in a responsible way if we don’t consider the human rights of any person?” The Rev. Ann Fontaine, deputy from the Diocese of Wyoming, said she doesn’t think resolution will come quickly. “It seems to me, given the way decisions are made and how many resist this idea of a super-oversight … that this would be a long time developing. “