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Sexuality issues test bonds of affection among bishops at Lambeth Conference

By James Solheim
9/3/1998
[Episcopal News Service]  As 750 bishops arrived at Canterbury for the 13th Lambeth Conference, it was already clear that sexuality was the landmine issue. The debate began well before the official opening of the conference July 19, with bishops lining up on opposing sides. Some even predicted that, if the landmine exploded, it could mean the end of the Anglican Communion.

As they packed their bags after three long weeks, most of the bishops headed home convinced that, once more, they had managed to find the via media, the Anglican way, of dealing with a divisive issue. Some bishops, however, were angry with the tone of the resolution condemning homosexual activity and promised to work for a more inclusive position in the future.

The battle lines were drawn first at a meeting of Anglican leaders from the Southern Hemisphere at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in February 1997. In a statement, the 80 participants said that "Holy Scriptures are clear in teaching that all sexual promiscuity is sin. We are convinced that this includes homosexual practices between men or women, as well as heterosexual relationships outside marriage."

The statement added, "We are deeply concerned that the setting aside of biblical teaching in such actions as the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions calls into question the authority of Holy Scriptures. This is totally unacceptable to us."

The Kuala Lumpur Statement laid the issue at the feet of the worldwide Anglican Communion, expressing "concern about mutual accountability and interdependence within our Anglican Communion." The Standing Committee of the Province of Southeast Asia endorsed the statement and said that it would "be in communion with that part of the Anglican Communion which accepts and endorses the principles" of Kuala Lumpur "and not otherwise."

Americans forge alliance with Africans

The Episcopal Synod of America, a traditionalist organization within the Episcopal Church USA, endorsed and commended the action and raised the possibility that the Episcopal Church "should be expelled from the worldwide Anglican Communion" if it failed to reverse its acceptance of the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions.

In the fall of 1997, African bishops from 16 nations met with American traditionalists in Dallas and issued a statement arguing that "it is not acceptable for a pro-gay agenda to be smuggled into the church's program or foisted upon our people—we will not permit it." The statement concluded, "Those who choose beliefs and practices outside the boundaries of the historic faith must understand that they are separating themselves from communion, and leading others astray."

The Rev. Vinay Samuel of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, a sponsor of the Anglican Life and Witness Conference in Dallas, said that the statement was a plea to churches in the North to stop making decisions that breed disunity. "One of the key intentions of the Dallas conference is to enable the church in the South, and all those committed to orthodox Christian faith, to contribute to the shaping of the theological direction of the Anglican Communion."

Spong vows to put issue high on agenda at Lambeth

In November Bishop Jack Spong of Newark (New Jersey) issued a paper addressed to all Anglican bishops and initiated a terse exchange of letters with Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, in which Spong demanded that homosexuality be "openly and authentically" discussed at the Lambeth Conference and questioned Carey's ability to lead such a discussion in an impartial manner. "I am fearful that when we meet at the Lambeth Conference in 1998 we will act out of our long-standing ignorance and fears, instead of out of our Gospel imperative, and thus deal one more violent blow to these victims of our traditional prejudices." He announced his intention to "challenge the prejudice and ignorance that I believe has been inflicted upon this communion."

Carey responded by accusing Spong of using a "hectoring and intemperate tone" and said that he feared that the Lambeth Conference would be jeopardized by a "showdown" on sexuality issues. He warned Spong, "If bishops come to Lambeth expecting a showdown on this issue, I am quite clear that there will follow a very negative and destructive conflict."

Carey assured Spong that "there will be open and honest debate on all issues that concern our communion." He added, "I understand that you feel passionately about this, and that you have the support of a significant number of bishops. However, I ask you in turn to recognize that a very large number of bishops from all over the world disagree with you with equal passion." He urged Spong and those who agree with him to "come in peace, come to learn, come to share—and leave behind the campaigning tactics which are so inappropriate and unproductive, whoever employs them."

Spong responded by charging that the Kuala Lumpur and Dallas statements "were not just intemperate but offensive, rude and hostile," going so far as "to threaten schism if their point of view did not prevail or to break communion with provinces of our Communion who disagreed with them."

With the encouragement of the archbishop of Canterbury, Spong and Bishop Peter John Lee of Southern Africa issued a Catechesis on Homosexuality, a study paper that they hoped would inform the discussion at Lambeth. The two bishops, who stand on opposite sides of the issue, identified the areas of agreement and disagreement and called on their colleagues "to listen to the divergent voices on this issue and to see each other, no matter how deeply divided on this issue, as we really are—faithful Christians seeking God's will."

Is anybody listening?

In briefing the press on the progress of the sub-section charged with bringing a resolution to the plenary on sexuality, Bishop Duncan Buchanan of Johannesburg said that it was clear that its participants came to Lambeth with "vastly different agendas." He said that "for some the issue is crucial and urgent while for others it simply doesn't exist." He pointed out that, at the last Lambeth Conference, "the issue of homosexuality couldn't get on the agenda."

The sub-section had overruled his decision to invite homosexuals to address the group. "The task is to hold together in spite of widely divergent views," Buchanan said, admitting that "nobody is listening" at this point in the deliberations. He expressed a deep concern that the issue would "hijack the agenda on other issues." In a moment of clear exasperation he said, "The strength of anger has left me pretty shocked and traumatized." Yet he insisted that he was "a prisoner of hope."

Bishops from Uganda and Nigeria angrily demanded that bishops who are pushing for equal rights for homosexuals either repent or leave the Anglican Communion. The bishops said that it was an "abuse" to impose the Western concern with homosexuality on the Third World. Bishop Benjamin Kwashi of Nigeria said that many Africans felt "oppressed with this Western problem." He added, "We know that homosexuality is not the will of God."

Bishop Wilson Mutebi of Uganda added, "Homosexuality is a sin and any bishop who teaches otherwise is committing a sin. He must repent in order to be in communion with us. If he does not, we cannot be in the same church as him."

Vote condemns homosexual activity

After several closed sessions the sub-section issued its report and proposed a resolution (see final text in Newsfeatures section) for the plenary, "hammered out on an anvil of pain," according to Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of South Africa. After three hours of debate, and several amendments, the bishops overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution declaring homosexual activity to be "incompatible with Scripture" and advised against the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals or the blessing of same-sex unions. The final vote was 526 in favor, to 70 in opposition, with 45 abstentions.

The resolution also committed the church to "listen to the experience of homosexual people" and called them "full members of the Body of Christ." It also condemned "irrational fear of homosexuals."

Those bishops who argued against the resolution found few allies. In objecting to amendments which strengthened the conservative position, Bishop David Crawley of Canada said that the more moderate original resolution had been eroded. "A document whose face, a little conservative, was a face of love and compassion is gradually, bit by bit, step by step, turning into a judgment and condemnation."

West African bishops sponsored an amendment that condemns homosexuality as "a sin which could only be adopted by the church if it wanted to commit evangelical suicide."

Bishop Catherine Roskam of New York warned that condemning homosexuality would be "evangelical suicide in my region" and result in a "divided church."

Before the final vote, Carey made it clear where he stood, endorsing the amended resolution as standing "wholeheartedly with traditional Anglican orthodoxy." He said that he saw "no room in Holy Scripture or the entire Christian tradition for any sexual activity outside matrimony." He added, "We are aware that we have to go on listening. The dialogue continues."

A rift through all the churches

Bishop Richard Holloway, the primus of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, later blasted Carey for his intervention, calling it a "pathetic" example of leadership. He said that the vote left him feeling "gutted, shafted, depressed." He said some of the gay youth working as volunteers at the conference "are feeling broken-hearted and wondering if they have a place in this family. It is very difficult to be a lesbian and gay Christian. It takes enormous heroism," he said.

Holloway also publicly charged the American conservatives with influencing the Africans. "These Americans have lost the battle in their own Episcopal Church so they have hired a proxy army," he said in a press interview. Observers on both sides of the issue admitted that the climate was operating more like a political system than a theological debate.

In a closing press conference Carey said, "We have to work from theology and we have to find agreement within that theology so that, as well as listening to the experience of the homosexual community, together we have to listen to authority as it comes to us through Scripture, and through the entire Christian tradition as well." He dismissed the notion that it was largely a cultural divide, with churches in the developed world against the churches of Africa. "On the subject of homosexuality the rift goes through all the churches," he said.

Reactions of Americans differ

In the wake of the resolution, a statement (see Newsfeatures section for text) drafted by Bishop Ron Haines of Washington (DC) quickly drew signatures. The statement to gays and lesbians said that "within the limitations of this conference it has not been possible to hear adequately your voices and we apologize for any sense of rejection that has occurred because of this reality." The statement committed the signatories "to listen to you and reflect with you theologically and spiritually on your lives and ministries. It is our deep concern that you do not feel abandoned by your church…."

Among the early signatories were at least 146 bishops, including the primates of Brazil, Canada, Central Africa, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, Southern Africa and Wales. Initially 65 bishops from the United States signed.

Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold said that he abstained from the vote "because I found parts of the resolution positive both in tone and content, particularly when considered in relationship to the nuances of the report on which it is based." Yet he objected to other parts and urged the church to "explore more fully the whole question of what is compatible and incompatible with Scripture." He issued a letter to the church August 14 (see Newsfeatures section for text), offering a "pastoral word" on the vote and pledging himself to "do everything I can to foster a climate of frank and respectful conversation which will allow different points of view to address and hear one another…."

Traditionalists from the Episcopal Church were delighted and relieved with the vote. "Lambeth has spoken clearly and forthrightly," they said in a statement. "The Anglican Communion upholds biblical Christian teaching on sexuality. This is good news for the American church and for our ministry in American society," said Bishop James Stanton of Dallas, president of the American Anglican Council.

"The Western churches, and particularly the American church, have much to answer for," Stanton added. "The willingness of so many American church leaders to try to legitimize homosexual behavior has foisted this difficult decision on the world-wide church. It has sapped our energy from urgent tasks such as evangelism and justice for the poorest of the poor. It is time for those bishops and others who seek to revise orthodox Christian teaching to submit to the mind of the whole church and the teaching of Scripture."

Some express anger

Some American bishops were upset and defiant. Bishop Fred Borsch of Los Angeles issued a letter expressing his disappointment and pointed to what he called "a large gap between the pastoral experience of many bishops in our part of the world from that of bishops from other countries." He said that his diocese, which has about 30 openly gay priests, would continue to take a liberal line. "Things will not change. We ordain human beings, we do not discriminate because of sexual orientation," he said.

Bishop Catherine Waynick of Indianapolis said that she was "saddened" by the debate and the resolution but added, "I think we have chosen foolishly today, but I believe God is still reigning."

A few admitted that they left haunted by Carey's comment that the Lambeth Conference would be a failure if it were known only for its action on the sexuality issue. Others were impressed that sexuality was on the agenda at all and not surprised by the results. Jack Spong even predicted that there would be openly gay bishops at the next Lambeth Conference.

The Rev. Martin Smith SSJE of Massachusetts told his community on returning from Lambeth, where he served as a chaplain, "The archbishop of Canterbury has made no secret of the threats made by certain bishops from Southeast Asia and Africa in particular not only to walk out of the Lambeth Conference but to break up the Communion unless there was a condemnation of homosexual practice. He saw his role as preventing that split and believes he succeeded. It was blackmail," he charged.

"Homosexuals serve as ideal symbols of what is alien, and this stigmatization was eagerly encouraged by a very active group of American conservative propagandists with lots of money to spend who occupied a command center in one of the residences on campus, fomenting and encouraging this movement of collective blackmail," Smith said. "The few bishops who spoke up for the gay and lesbian reality were literally hissed, and denounced in angry whispers as racists and imperialists, for if you supported gays you were opposing the witness of the third world bishops defending purity and scriptural authority," he added.

"But the main shock of this Lambeth Conference was the discovery that Anglicans are going to find it difficult to pretend that from now on we have a common theological method to arrive at truth together," Smith said.

The "bonds of affection" that hold the Anglican Communion together had been severely tested, said one bishop, but he was convinced that the center held. Now he worried about how he would explain to the folks back home what the conference means in their lives.