The last act for the Anglican Communion?

Since the busy summer of GAFCON and the Lambeth Conference, nearly two years ago now, there have not been so many stories around about the imminent break-up of the Anglican Communion. It was beginning to look as if a typical Anglican fudge had worked, with only a few Anglicans actually leaving their troubled church.

That is not to say nothing has happened for nearly two years. The Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FCA), which arose from the GAFCON conference in 2008, doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact. More significant was the formation of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), bringing together conservative Anglicans in the USA and Canada who had left the official national Anglican churches. ACNA has become so significant that even the General Synod of the Church of England recently gave it some kind of official recognition, although formally it remains outside the Anglican Communion.

But the process which led to the crisis is continuing, and the papered over cracks are gaping open again. Some people had hoped, and perhaps even believed, that The Episcopal Church (TEC), the official Anglican church in the USA, would abide by the moratorium on consecrating practising homosexuals as bishops, as it had reportedly agreed. But, as I noted at the time, in July last year the bishops and other General Convention members of TEC in effect voted against this moratorium. The Communion survived this vote because, as everyone realises, such a decision is meaningless unless put into practice.

Now, however, things are about to change. A little over a week ago the leaders of TEC officially confirmed the election of the lesbian Mary Glasspool to be a bishop in Los Angeles. If TEC ignores, as is to be expected, some last minute pleas which will no doubt be sent from various directions including Lambeth Palace, and the consecration of Glasspool actually goes ahead on 15th May, then something clearly new will have happened. No longer can people say that the election of the gay bishop Gene Robinson was a one off aberration, and no longer can they claim that TEC is at least more or less abiding by the various moratoria it had supposedly accepted.

Another thing that is different this time is that this move by TEC is being condemned only by those groups in the Church of England which can be written off as extreme. As John Richardson has noted, strong words are also coming from the generally moderate Open Evangelical group Fulcrum. The Fulcrum leadership team has published an important paper about the issue, in which they write:

We are now indisputably in a radically new situation. TEC as a body has determinedly, perhaps irrevocably, chosen autonomy over “communion with autonomy and accountability”.

It is important that this is not simply a matter of disagreement about biblical interpretation and sexual ethics although these are central and important. It is now very clearly also a fundamental matter of truth-telling and trust.  In September 2007, at the Primates’ request and after meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury, TEC bishops confirmed they would “exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion”. They made clear that “non-celibate gay and lesbian persons” were among such candidates.

When asked recently how they could therefore now proceed to confirm Mary Glasspool in the light of that assurance, one TEC bishop said this simply expressed where the bishops were in 2007 and they may be somewhere different now. At least where they are now is crystal clear.  Both moratoria have been rejected. In addition, TEC is pursuing legal actions, with widespread concern its leadership intends aggressive action against the diocese of South Carolina which upholds the Communion’s teaching.

The key question is ‘what happens next?’…

They go on to call for “clear and decisive action by the Archbishop of Canterbury”, and conclude:

Although decisive action is necessary, Archbishop Rowan’s limited powers within the Communion and his laudable desire to keep on going the extra mile to enable dialogue mean many think it unlikely. Some long ago gave up on him. Many, however, both within the Church of England and the wider Communion (particularly in the Global South which meets next month) have been patient and sought to work with him by supporting the Windsor and covenant processes. They need now to make clear that unless he gives a clear lead then all that he and others have worked for since the Windsor Report and all that is promised by the covenant is at risk because of the new situation in which TEC has placed us.

Indeed. The time for “going the extra mile” is past, or will be on 15th May. If Archbishop Rowan continues to take no action, he will now lose the respect not just of extreme conservatives but also of those in the centre, like Fulcrum, whose concern is not so much with homosexuality as with “a fundamental matter of truth-telling and trust”. How can TEC remain within the Anglican Communion while continuing to deceive its communion partners? Rowan Williams’ position will be untenable without the support of the centre of his own church. So he needs to act – or depart and leave his successor to act.

It is not yet quite the end for the Anglican Communion. But we are past the end of the beginning. This is surely the beginning of the end, at least of the Communion as we have known it.

Should errant Christian leaders be restored?

While I am taking a break from my series on Authority, power and rights in the New Testament, my near neighbour (at least from a global perspective, but we have never met) Sam Norton has started a series on a related topic: Does the priest have to be pure? In this he talks about the Donatists, whom I discussed here nearly two years ago. Sam gives an excellent explanation of why they were wrong to teach that the ministry of a Christian leader is invalidated by their personal sin.

This doesn’t mean that the sins of Christian leaders should simply be ignored. Unrepentant sinners like Michael Reid certainly should not be allowed to continue in ministry. But it does mean that those who fall should be allowed to repent and be restored, the process which was at least starting with Todd Bentley (but I haven’t kept up with that story) – and which the Donatists did not allow with the original traditores in late Roman times.

But this argument against the Donatists has its limitations in that it is not really applicable when a Christian leader not only falls into sin but also teaches that that sin is in fact right. This, arguably, is what many of the practising homosexuals in Anglican and other churches are doing: they are not only sinning (at least according to traditional biblical standards) but also teaching that what they are doing is right. But the argument against Donatism doesn’t mean that these people should be accepted, because unlike the traditores they are unrepentant.

Indeed the same can be said corporately of The Episcopal Church, which has this week demonstrated its lack of repentance over the Gene Robinson affair, as well as its contempt for the Archbishop of Canterbury, by approving the consecration of another practising homosexual bishop. This is a direct challenge to the rest of the Anglican Communion, which will renew the tensions which have brought it close to falling apart. But this teaching in effect approved by TEC is also rife in the Church of England.

I am now looking forward to the continuation of Sam Norton’s series. He promises to answer the question “what do we do when the priest isn’t pure?” In a comment I challenged him also to consider what happens when the priest is not “holding fast to the truth of the faith”. I hope he also applies these principles to the current situation in the church and the Communion in which he is a priest.

PS: I will not allow any comments here concerning Todd Bentley, unless they include significant and verifiable new information about him.

When Barack met Gene

Ruth Gledhill has an interesting report (see also her newspaper article) of three meetings between now President-Elect Barack Obama and the controversial Bishop Gene Robinson. Apparently Obama sought out Robinson – but I think only as one of a series of meetings with many religious leaders, so this should not be taken as an endorsement. Ruth writes that these meetings took place “in May and June last year”, but I think she means this year, although pre-Lambeth and pre-US election campaign May and June 2008 must seem at least a year ago!

Ruth’s account is taken from an interview she had with Robinson. Here are some extracts from Gene’s words about Barack:

I must say I don’t know if it is an expression here in England or not but he is the genuine article. I think he is exactly who he says he is. …

He is impressive, he’s smart, he is an amazing listener. For someone who’s called on to speak all the time when he asks you a question it is not for show, he is actually wanting to know what you think and listens, or at least gives you that impression. I think we’ve had eight years of someone who has listened to almost no-one. …

He certainly indicated his broad and deep support for the full civil rights for gay and lesbian people but frankly we talked more about – I pressed him on the Millennium Development Goals. …

The thing that I liked about him and what he said on this issue is that he and I would agree about the rightful place of religion vis-a-vis the secular state. That is to say, we don’t impose our religious values on the secular state because God said so. Our faith informs our own values and then we take those values into the civil market place, the civil discourse, and then you argue for them based on the constitution. You don’t say to someone, you must believe this because this is what God believes. I think God gives us our values and then we argue for those on the basis of the constitution and care of our neighbour. …

He has no hesitation whatsoever to talk about his faith. I find that remarkable not only in a politician but also in a Democrat. For years it’s only been Republicans who wanted to talk about religion. …

One of the things Barack and I did talk about when we were together was just  the experience of being first and the danger of that and we talked about being demonised by one side and, I don’t know if the word is angelicised, by the other. Expectations are laid on you both negative and positive and neither are true. And the importance of remaining centred and grounded in the middle of that so that you don’t begin to believe either your negative press or your positive press.

Good material which, I must say, raises both Barack and Gene in my estimation, although I continue to believe that practising homosexuals should not be in positions of leadership in the church. I particularly like this:

we don’t impose our religious values on the secular state because God said so. Our faith informs our own values and then we take those values into the civil market place, the civil discourse, and then you argue for them …

But of course I differ from Robinson, and perhaps Obama, in believing that among the values which should be informed by faith are recognition that homosexual practice and abortion are not God’s will for his people.

So let’s avoid demonising or angelicising either Barack or Gene but let them “remain[] centred and grounded in the middle”.

UPDATE: It’s only an hour since I posted this, but I have more good news about Barack Obama. Ruth Gledhill reported Gene Robinson “was guarded” about Obama’s attitude to the Millennium Development Goals. But Dave Warnock pointed me to Obama and Biden’s new “Change” website, where, on this page, I read:

Fight Global Poverty: Obama and Biden will embrace the Millennium Development Goal of cutting extreme poverty around the world in half by 2015, and they will double our foreign assistance to $50 billion to achieve that goal. They will help the world’s weakest states to build healthy and educated communities, reduce poverty, develop markets, and generate wealth.

Halving extreme poverty is in fact only one of the eight Millennium Development Goals, but it is surely the most significant, and probably the most expensive. It would be good to see if Obama and Biden have declared policies relating to the other seven goals, but their foreign policy agenda document is incomplete on the web page.

Lambeth: no news may be good news

The long awaited Lambeth Conference has started. But for the moment it doesn’t seem to be very interesting, in terms of any real content. The blogging bishops, and even the usually irrepressible Dave Walker who has got himself a pass through the security fence, are keeping quiet about anything non-trivial. The real press have been reduced to talking about themselves and sneaking through the fence.

The most interesting news I have seen, with the possible exception of the contradictory Roman Catholic reactions, is that the bishops are saying what they think about the Church of England’s antiquated parish system by breaking its rules. They are meeting for their conference without the permission of the incumbent of the parish they are meeting in – as reported by that incumbent, who is also a blogger. But he doesn’t report that a bishop who is not at the Conference will this Sunday attend an open air service in his parish. Nor has the bishop in question yet reported it on his blog; this news was hinted at by Ruth Gledhill and confirmed here. Has the incumbent officially invited this bishop? Does he even know he is coming? Of course the bishop doesn’t need an invitation if he is just going to attend, but will he do more? The bishop I am referring to: none other than Gene Robinson!

What can we hope for from this conference? The press have gathered in the hope of picking over the bones of a deceased Anglican communion. But I doubt if they will find a corpse. I suspect that the whole thing is now being carefully enough stage managed that an appearance of unity will be kept up, even if everyone knows how superficial it is. In that case there will be no news to satisfy the reporters, so I hope the weather warms up so they can enjoy their swimming pool. Of course if the stage management breaks down and real fireworks start to go off among the mitres, that will be news. But I expect that even if the rain stays away Lambeth will be a damp squib, three expensive weeks which will do nothing to solve the terminal sickness of the Anglican Communion if not actually making things worse.

I am sure a lot of Anglicans are taking a “wait and see” approach to the GAFCON process until after Lambeth, and after their summer holidays. But by September they will be starting to realise that they have to make choices one way or another. Time will tell.

Gene Robinson nearly gets it right

Thanks to John Richardson for giving me the link to this article in the Guardian by Gene Robinson, the controversial gay Bishop of New Hampshire, who last month “entered into a civil union with his longtime partner”, becoming “a June bride”.

I can’t help wondering whether John’s reaction to this article is more to its author than to its content. In fact there is very little to object to in its content, beyond the rather trivial objection to the wording “God’s self”, popular in some circles to avoid using specifically masculine pronouns for God.

Now I suppose John’s reaction to Gene is based on these sentiments:

My conservative brothers and sisters seem to argue that God revealed everything to us in scripture. …

Isn’t God – the living God – constantly making God’s self and God’s will more perfectly known to the church over time?

I can understand someone like John reacting against this kind of statement, especially from Gene and because he is already presupposing where Gene is going next. But it is in fact standard evangelical theology that God continues to reveal things to his people, such as his will for their lives, individually and as a church, and what he wants preachers to preach about Sunday by Sunday. Only the most hardline cessationists would deny that God guides his servants and his church today.

Of course the evangelical position is that such guidance will always be within the limits imposed by Scripture. And I would agree. But does Gene Robinson disagree? I’m not sure. His point is surely more that such guidance will sometimes take us beyond traditional interpretations of Scripture:

God, of course, was not and is not changing – but our ability to apprehend and comprehend God’s will for us is. Through the leading of the Holy Spirit, the church was led to permit eating things proscribed by Leviticus, to oppose slavery (after centuries of using scripture to defend it), and to permit and bless remarriage after divorce (despite Jesus’ calling it adultery).

Even on this last point, I would argue, even if Gene doesn’t, that this is a matter of reinterpreting the Scriputres concerning exactly what Jesus was calling adultery.

The real controversy of course comes here:

And now, by the leading of that same Spirit, we are beginning to welcome those who have heretofore been marginalised or excluded altogether: people of colour, women, the physically challenged, and God’s children who happen to be gay.

But note what he says in this last phrase, and what he does not say. He clearly believes that there are people who “happen to be gay” in the sense of having an inner homosexual orientation. There are certainly people who believe this of themselves. And Gene is saying that such people should be welcomed rather than marginalised. He is referring to people as they are or understand themselves to be, not to what they do. On this basis, I fully agree!

There is of course a point on which I would disagree with Gene. I would hold that the church should not unconditionally welcome those who persist in sexual intercourse outside a monogamous heterosexual marriage – a matter of what people do rather than who they are. Presumably Gene would disagree. But that is an issue which he does not even mention in this article.

So I can fully endorse Gene’s next paragraph:

This is the God I know in my life – who loves me, interacts with me, teaches and summons me closer and closer to God’s truth. This God is alive and well and active in the church – not locked up in scripture 2,000 years ago, having said everything that needed to be said, but rather still interacting with us, calling us to love one another as he loves us. It is the brilliance of Anglicanism that we first and foremost read scripture, and then interpret it in light of church tradition and human reason. No one of us alone can be trusted to such a process because, left to our own devices, we recast God’s will in our own image. But in the community of the church, together we are able to discern God’s will for us – and sometimes that may mean reinterpreting and even changing old understandings of things thought settled long ago.

A Lambeth riddle

Ruth Gledhill has had the interesting experience of interviewing both Bishop Gene Robinson and Bishop Greg Venables in the last few days. Her interview with Bishop Gene is available on YouTube; sadly the one with Bishop Greg is as yet not, or not linked to. But she does break the unexpected news that Venables, as well as Robinson, will attend the Lambeth Conference. As Venables has been invited, although perhaps not expected, he will be an official delegate. But Robinson will not be. Also, his “bridegroom” Mark will be in Canterbury only for the first few days of the conference, so it will not be as much of a “honeymoon” for them as I once suggested.

Ruth then gets poetic with her thoughts on the two bishops at Lambeth, including these lines:

He uninvited and he not disinvited will both be tried and found wanting.
They’ll hang either side of the leader who tried to unite them and failed at the asking.

Rowan Williams as Christ between the two thieves, indeed? According to Rev George Pitcher in the Daily Telegraph, linked to by John Richardson,

Dr Williams considers the See of Canterbury as not just his calling, but his cross to bear. He’ll not be driven from it short of illness or an act of God.

It may be the cross from which his body has to be taken down at the end of the Lambeth Conference, and with no guarantee of resurrection. But to which of the two thieves will he say “Today you will be with me in paradise”? There is no Anglican paradise with room for both of them.

UPDATE (6.40 pm): Ruth Gledhill has now posted her interview with Bishop Greg Venables, in written form.

Gene Robinson’s Gay Rite

Controversial gay bishop Gene Robinson has responded to my post about him being a June Bride, in his new book, of which The Times has published an extract. Well, he hasn’t responded explicitly to me, but he has referred to how, after he said “I always wanted to be a June bride”,

Within hours, those eight words had made it around the world, thanks to conservative bloggers and the magic of the internet. …

I’ll be the first to admit that it would have been better if I’d never uttered those eight words – not because they aren’t true, but simply because they gave the conservative forces something else to use against me.

I was one of those bloggers who reacted quickly to those words, and I admit that I used them against him. But I also wrote at the time:

if he will not give up his gay union, it is best that he formally acknowledges it and pledges himself to being faithful to his partner.

And I reiterated this as a general principle earlier today. So I agreed then and still agree with Robinson’s main point in this article in The Times, that it is a positive step for him and Mark to contract a civil union, now that this option is available to them

But I am concerned that Bishop Robinson sees his intended union as an example to

a gay boy or a lesbian girl who will read about it and know that they, too, can aspire to a healthy, whole life with a person of the same sex – and that they don’t have to give up their faith along the way.

It is one thing for Gene and Mark to do what they do between consenting adults. It is quite another for them to promote their practices among impressionable boys and girls whose sexual orientation is still in flux.

My attitude to this of course shows there is still a huge gulf between Robinson’s position, apparently that homosexual relationships are morally equivalent to heterosexual ones, and mine, which is that homosexual practice within a committed relationship should be tolerated only as “the lesser of two evils”, that is as preferable to the greater evil of homosexual or heterosexual promiscuity.

Not the Wright letter

This is not really anything to do with my last post

Ruth Gledhill and John Richardson report on a video message which Archbishop Rowan Williams has sent out to the bishops of the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Communion Office has not only published the transcript but also put the video on YouTube!

Ruth suggests that this is

that ‘Lambeth letter’ that Bishop Wright talked about.

But if this is the same letter that Bishop Tom spoke about, he was badly misinformed about its contents. In Wright’s speech to Fulcrum he claimed that Archbishop Rowan was

writing to those bishops who might be thought particularly unsympathetic to Windsor and the Covenant to ask them whether they were really prepared to build on this dual foundation … having already not invited Gene Robinson to Lambeth, … suggesting that some others might absent themselves as well. But this is what he promised he would do, and he is doing it.

But there is nothing in the Archbishop’s video message to suggest that any bishops should absent themselves from the Lambeth Conference. Although there is some mention of discussions of the Anglican Covenant, there is no hint that agreeing to discuss this is in any sense a condition of attendance.

I wrote before that

Williams’ letter is far too little, far too late.

And that was on the understanding that the letter was going out more or less as described by Wright. Well, perhaps Williams has realised that sending out a letter of the kind described by Wright at this stage would be pointless. Or perhaps he actually has sent out this kind of letter to accompany the video message. If so, no doubt at least one of the 800 or so recipients will be sufficiently upset by it to publish it. So we will soon find out.

But my challenge to the real Bishop of Durham, if he doesn’t want to be confused with any American “Free Universalist Interfaith Bishop”, is to let us know exactly what is in the package which he and his fellow bishops receive from Archbishop Rowan, and whether it includes a letter anything like the one he described to Fulcrum. If not, he should correct his claim that there is

No skullduggery involved either at Lambeth or with me.

Jesus to boycott the Lambeth Conference?

No, that is not what Walter means by Lambeth 2008 is Starting Without Jesus. What he means is that there is no mention of Our Lord in Archbishop Rowan’s opening remarks. Indeed none of the words “Jesus”, “Christ” or “Lord” appear on the page, and “God” is mentioned only in Jane Williams’ words. I wonder if any mention of Jesus is considered too potentially divisive for some of those invited to the conference. After all, it wouldn’t be the Anglican way, somehow, to insist that this is a conference of Christian bishops.

But would Jesus be welcome if he did turn up? 1 Peter 2:25 KJV confirms that he is a Bishop and so should qualify for an invitation. But would he behave himself as a bishop is supposed to? Or would he start overturning the booksellers’ tables in the Marketplace and denouncing any hypocrites he might find? And if he should happen to bump into Gene Robinson and his new “bridegroom” outside the venue, what would he have to say to them? Perhaps “Go, and sin no more”? But for saying that he would probably be asked to leave.

Somehow I think Jesus would be more at home at Gafcon in his home country.

What will Gene Robinson do in Canterbury?

Michael Daley reports that gay Bishop Gene Robinson will not be invited to this summer’s Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, has declined an invitation to be present in the conference’s “Marketplace” exhibit section, but nevertheless plans to be in Canterbury. I submitted the following comment, but it is still “awaiting moderation” after several days.

What will he do in Canterbury for two weeks? If he is there “not as an official conference participant or observer” he can hardly expect to be let into any of the conference venues. So I suppose it will be a kind of honeymoon for him and Mark after their June “wedding”. Well, Canterbury, where I was at school, is an interesting place, but there is not really enough for a fortnight’s sightseeing. If they are lucky with the weather they might enjoy the beach, and they are within easy reach of London, and of the channel ports and tunnel for day trips to France and Belgium. They could even visit EuroDisney, but Gene should take his robes off for that trip in case people mistake him for one of the cartoon characters.

I could have added that he will disappointed if he plans to stock up his theological library at the former SPCK bookshop in the city.

Of course there is another possibility, that Gene will spend his time talking to the press, who will doubtless also be swarming around outside the official conference venues waiting for snippets from any bishop. But I doubt if their interest will last for more than a day or two.