Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Thursday, June 29, 2006
This week, several U.S. dioceses began a process of withdrawing from Anglicanism's liberal American branch, the Episcopal Church (ECUSA).
Differences over homosexuality have triggered one of the most severe crises in the history of the 77 million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion, whose roots predate the Reformation.
ECUSA in 2003 consecrated an openly homosexual clergyman as bishop of New Hampshire, and some Canadian dioceses agreed to bless same-sex unions.
Earlier this month, ECUSA's general convention in Ohio failed to adopt high-level recommendations to repent and declare a moratorium on the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions.
Following the convention, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams put forward his far-reaching ideas about a denomination split in two in all but name.
Williams proposed that churches be invited to sign a covenant in order to be deemed full, "constituent" members of the Communion. Those unable to do so would be assigned the status of "associated" members, retaining historical ties but without voting power.
He did not spell out what the covenant would hold, but the implication was that it would call on churches to affirm a biblically orthodox viewpoint.
In a letter to senior archbishops or "primates" -- the leaders of 38 regions around the world -- Williams said the proposed model would not look like anything the church has known in the past.
"There is no way in which the Anglican Communion can remain unchanged by what is happening at the moment. Neither the liberal nor the conservative can simply appeal to a historic identity that doesn't correspond with where we now are."
Williams stressed he was not empowered to resolve the crisis by decree. He was putting forward his thoughts for discussion, ahead of a primates' meeting early next year.
For Australia's leading conservative Anglican leader, Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen, the church does not need to wait that long to concede the rift is irreparable.
He praised Williams for acknowledging, if belatedly, that "separation" was inevitable.
"I think the loosening of the ties has already occurred," he said at a press conference.
Unlike Williams, Jensen said, "I think that the Communion has already become a looser network of churches with much in common but, unfortunately, much that separates."
Jensen is one of a number of western conservatives who have associated themselves with evangelical conservatives in Africa and Asia, where the liberal drift of the Western churches has drawn the strongest reaction.
He said Williams' statement gave hope to conservatives in the West, some of whom have breached relationships with their nominated bishops over the homosexuality issue.
"The archbishop has made it very clear that this whole controversy is, at a fundamental level, about the authority of the Bible, and the way in which we learn and follow God's will in fellowship with each other," he said.
"The presenting issue may be human sexuality but the real issue remains the word of God."
The rift may lead to the emergence of an Anglican Communion that is a loose federation of networks between dioceses that share common positions, and where the usual geographical ties and boundaries are less relevant.
In recent days, at least four Episcopal parishes in the U.S. - in South Carolina, California, Pennsylvania and Texas - have signaled their intention to dissociate themselves from ECUSA, is some cases asking the Archbishop of Canterbury to provide alternative oversight.
Other Episcopalians are moving in the opposite direction, however. The diocese of Newark in New Jersey on Wednesday named as one of four nominees to become is next bishop in September a priest who is in a same-sex relationship. The nominee's long-term partner is himself the rector of an ECUSA parish in California.
Despite his praise for Williams' statement, Jensen doubted that the proposal for churches to sign a covenant would work on a practical level, because doing so would compromise member churches' independence.
He said new link-ups had already taken place between likeminded parts of the worldwide church and should be accepted.
"Rather than looking into the mid-term future with hopes for the development of new covenants and institutions, I think we need to be looking at the realities of the present situation, and recognizing the need to accept the new relationships that have occurred."
Jensen also said it was difficult to envisage a covenant "which a majority of churches will buy into."
Other Anglican leaders have also questioned the likelihood of reaching agreement on the wording of a covenant, given theological differences within the church over issues beyond that of homosexuality.
Many conservative Anglicans, for instance, are opposed to the ordination of women.
While some regions allow women to serve as deacons and priests, the U.S., Canada and New Zealand are the only Anglican regions to date which have ordained women bishops. ECUSA this month elected a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori, as its first presiding bishop.
Williams supports the ordination of women.
Other areas of dispute within the church include different views on such biblical fundamentals as the virgin birth and exclusive salvation through Jesus Christ.
A survey last year found that only 60 percent of clergymen in the Church of England - the Anglican "mother" body - believe Jesus was born of a virgin.
At this month's ECUSA convention, a resolution proposed by a delegate from Louisiana declared Jesus "the only name by which any person may be saved." To the dismay of conservatives, the resolution failed, both at a committee level, and in the general body.
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