Anglican Unity Strained As Conservatives Prepare for Key Conference

Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Anglican Unity Strained As Conservatives Prepare for Key Conference

June 17, 2008

( - Conservative Anglican leaders from around the world are preparing for a gathering to discuss the way ahead amid a deepening rift over homosexuality, just days after news broke about the "wedding" of two male Anglican priests in Britain.

More than 1,000 Anglicans clergy and laity, including 280 bishops, many from Africa, are planning to attend the invitation-only Global Anglican Future Conference, to be held in Jerusalem from June 22-29.

The meeting could help decide the fate of the 77 million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion. The denomination has been deeply divided over the 2003 consecration by the affiliated U.S. Episcopal Church (ECUSA) of an openly homosexual priest, Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire, and the blessing of same-sex unions by some Canadian dioceses.

In a low-key ceremony in New Hampshire earlier this month, Robinson entered into a civil union with his long-time partner.

A new outcry erupted after British media reported on Sunday that two male priests at a recent ceremony in an Anglican church in London had exchanged vows and rings. The presiding priest denied it constituted a wedding, saying it was rather a blessing of two people who had contracted a civil partnership earlier.

But while it may not constitute a marriage in law, the ceremony reportedly used liturgical language common to weddings, while the vows included the standard "to love and to cherish, till death us do part" pledge.

The Church of England -- the worldwide Anglican Communion's "mother church" -- has launched an investigation into the incident, which traditionalists charge flouted guidelines established by bishops in 2005.

The Anglican Communion comprises 38 autonomous churches -- known as "provinces" -- that are "in communion" with the Church of England. Its titular head is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Conservative bishops and lay Anglicans, many from the so-called "global south" -- Africa, Asia and Latin America -- have long felt that Williams has not responded sufficiently firmly to the homosexuality issue, and the fact the latest incident involves the Church of England itself will add to the unease.

Much of the opposition to the liberalizing trend has come from Africa, where more than half of the world's Anglicans live. The two largest of the 38 provinces are the Church of Nigeria and the Church of Uganda, with some 20 million and 10 million members respectively.

The Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) initiative is being organized by bishops in Africa, South America and Australia, with the support of evangelical bishops in the U.S. and Britain.

Organizers, who chose Jerusalem as a venue specifically to highlight the foundations of the faith, stress that the crisis is over biblical authority, while homosexuality is merely the "presenting issue."

When ECUSA defied earlier resolutions against approving same-sex relationships, no disciplinary action was taken against it, the Church of Uganda said in a statement about GAFCON.

"That is a crisis of authority in the Communion," it said. "Furthermore, the apparent lack of resolve to take action manifests a deeper crisis, namely a crisis of confidence in the authority of the Word of God as the ultimate standard of faith and moral living."

Rather than focus on homosexuality per se the conference goal is to "prepare for an Anglican future in which the gospel is uncompromised and Christ-centered mission a top priority."

Before leaving for the Middle East to prepare for the conference, the Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, Peter Jensen -- who chairs the GAFCON program committee -- predicted that it would be one of the most significant events in the Anglican Communion in the next two or three decades.

He told members of the Australian delegation that the meeting was aimed at "facing new realities in the Communion and turning them into gospel opportunities."

To split or not to split?

GAFCON is being held just weeks before the Lambeth Conference, a once-a-decade gathering of the Communion's 800-plus bishops, hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Homosexuality was a divisive issue at the last Lambeth, in 1998, when a controversial resolution was passed declaring homosexual practice "incompatible with Scripture" but also calling on Anglicans "to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation."

Some African bishops have decided to stay away from Lambeth, scheduled for Jul. 16-Aug. 3, citing the rift with ECUSA and unhappiness that Williams has invited the American bishops. (Robinson himself was not invited but says he intends to attend anyway.)

"We have not been in fellowship with the Americans who have violated the Bible since 2003, so we are not going to pretend by going to Lambeth that we are in fellowship," the Church of Uganda said of its boycott decision.

"What they have done is a very serious thing, and what the Archbishop of Canterbury has done in inviting them [to Lambeth] is grievous and we want them to know that."

The Ugandan bishops said their decision to stay away was not an act of secession.

"We are still part of the Anglican Communion, and the vast majority of the Anglican Communion opposes what the American Church has done and the Archbishop of Canterbury's tacit support for it."

Some Anglican conservatives are, however, calling for a new and separate global Communion.

"Anything less will leave faithful Anglicans throughout the world as unwilling collaborators in a counterfeit Communion which makes a virtue out of the toleration of teaching contrary to scripture," an umbrella group calling itself the Society for the Propagation of Reformed Evangelical Anglican Doctrine said in a strong-worded document ahead of the GAFCON meeting.

Meanwhile, ECUSA Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has called for a day of prayer for Lambeth this Sunday, June 22, asking American Episcopalians to pray "for a peaceful spirit, a lessening of tension, and a real willingness to work together for the good of God's whole creation."

ECUSA's executive council in a resolution on Lambeth said that although Robinson had not been invited to participate, "we pray that his voice will be heard through those who are there speaking the truth about the Episcopal Church and hearing the truths of others, to the benefit of the wider Communion."

The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM), a British organization, said in a publication prepared ahead of Lambeth 2008 that many Anglicans have been "galvanized into action" over the years since the last Lambeth conference "in the face of mounting threats to the integrity of Anglicanism from conservative and homophobic members of the Communion."

The LGCM said "the power-hungry Global South and the separatist and divisive GAFCON-ites" were trying to take over the Communion.

Copyright 2008 Cybercast News Service