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.