Now that summer at last has arrived, most sensible people have turned their thoughts to beaches, baseball, and the fine art of grilling bratwurst.
Unfortunately for Anglicans, it is their lot to have church politics on their minds. There are dark rumors of schism afoot, hints of plots both liberal and conservative, and more statements issued and meetings held than anyone can possibly keep track of. None of it is enjoyable, and all of it serves as a distraction from baseball (or cricket, depending on how Anglican one is). Be that as it may, any Anglican who cares about his church ought to understand that a great deal depends on what happens in the coming months. If orthodox Anglicans do not hold together, there is a good chance that everything will come apart¯and there appears to be a good chance that orthodox Anglicans will not hold together.
The archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, recently sent out invitations to the Lambeth Conference (the once-every-ten-years meeting of all the Anglican bishops), and there are several names not on the list ¯most notably, Gene Robinson, the actively gay bishop of New Hampshire, and Martyn Minns, the American who recently was installed by the Nigerian church as bishop of a new group in the United States called CANA, one of several collections of conservative parishes that have broken from the Episcopal Church.
This has been cause for a great deal of fuss¯from the left, consternation that their standard-bearer has been snubbed and threats to boycott the whole thing; from the right, the same. At the moment it is unclear who will wind up on the final guest list¯Williams notably reserved the right to withdraw invitations¯and neither is it clear how many bishops will accept. No doubt much will change before the scheduled start of the conference in July 2008. But for now it may be worth outlining what we do and don’t know, what’s at stake, and what to expect in the intervening months.
Of first importance is this: Lambeth will be the principal forum for discussion about the all-important Anglican Covenant , and consequently the shape of the Anglican Communion for years to come will largely be determined by who shows up. Much of the current crisis in the Anglican world stems from the relatively undefined character of Anglican governance¯so that when the Americans decided to consecrate Gene Robinson as a bishop, no one quite knew what would happen next, except (as the primates had warned) that it would "tear the fabric of the Communion." That it did, and events since have been confused in large part because no agreed-upon road map exists for disagreements of such large proportion.
In 2004, the Windsor Report proposed to deal with the problem by creating an Anglican Covenant¯in brief, a basic outline of Anglican essentials joined to a process by which international disputes could be settled in a fair and Christian manner. Since that time, the process of drawing up and ratifying a covenant has moved inexorably onward, and although to the average Anglican in the pew it can look frustratingly drawn-out and difficult to understand, getting a sense of it is absolutely necessary if one wants to decipher what’s reported in the newspapers.
At their regular meeting in 2005, the Anglican primates (that is, the heads of the thirty-eight Anglican provinces worldwide) met and decided to move forward with the covenant; and in January 2007 the Covenant Design Group, chaired by Archbishop Drexel Gomez (a leading Anglican conservative), produced an initial draft . It was discussed favorably at this spring’s primates’ meeting in Tanzania, at which definite plans were made for further discussion at Lambeth in 2008. After Lambeth, the plan is that the covenant will be forwarded to the Anglican Consultative Council (a regular meeting of international Anglican delegates), which then will adopt a final version. After that, the covenant will be sent back to the thirty-eight Anglican provinces for ratification. ( See especially paragraphs 15 and 16 of the Tanzania communiqué .)
Of course, it may be that not all of them will ratify. Rowan Williams himself contemplated this possibility in his June 2006 letter to the primates , in which he spoke of the covenant leading to "constituent" provinces signed on as full members of the communion, and "associate" provinces, which are not. All along, the subtext has been quite clear: If the Episcopal Church decides to maintain the course it chose by consecrating Gene Robinson as bishop, it may do so. But if the covenant is set up so that such unilateral innovations are not allowed¯and so it will be as long as the Global South remains in the game¯then the Episcopal Church as it stands will be demoted to "associate" status, and replaced in the United States by a new "constituent" Anglican province.
Obviously, none of this is smiled upon by Anglican liberals, particularly those who are currently ascendant within the Episcopal Church. They can count, and so they know well that such a covenant would mean handing over their power to the global Anglican majority¯most of whom (as Philip Jenkins has convincingly outlined) reside in the Global South and thus are conservative on issues of sexual morality and biblical authority. As a consequence, most liberals have actively tried to downplay the need for a covenant, or to render it vague and ineffectual.
But in contrast to the vision of many Anglican liberals, Archbishop Williams, in his letter of invitation , made clear that the covenant will indeed be a major topic of discussion at Lambeth. One of the principal goals of the conference, he wrote, is to "try and get more clarity about the limits of our diversity." And by that, Williams left no doubt that he meant "thinking about the proposals for an Anglican Covenant, and about other ways in which we can deepen our sense of a common calling for us as interdependent members of the body of Christ." Such words stand in sharp contrast to the recent vision of absolute provincial autonomy and independence laid out by the Episcopal Church’s bishops .
In light of all this, one might think that orthodox Anglicans would by now have embraced the covenant process the way a drowning man grasps a life preserver¯and indeed, many prominent conservatives, represented most ably by Archbishop Gomez and the theologians of the Anglican Communion Institute , have done so. But not everyone has. In fact, it may turn out to be the case that many Anglican conservatives will soon decide to abandon the Lambeth Conference and the covenant process altogether, tipping the vote count leftward and thereby allowing the liberals, quite improbably, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The problem, as some conservatives see it, is that while Archbishop Williams may have left Gene Robinson off the guest list, he made a point of leaving Martyn Minns off as well, along with other conservative bishops recently consecrated by the churches of Nigeria and Rwanda for American parishes that have broken off from the Episcopal Church. And not only that, the criticism runs, Williams sent invitations to the rest of the Episcopal Church’s bishops, many of whom had participated in Gene Robinson’s consecration. So long as all that stands, the archbishops of Nigeria and Uganda have objected¯who represent twenty-four million Anglicans between them, nearly a third of the world’s total¯then they will not be showing up at Lambeth and neither will their bishops.
Added to this, there have been reports for several weeks now that a certain number of conservative Episcopal dioceses plan to break from the American church this summer, despite the fact that they would likely be forfeiting their Lambeth invitations by doing so. The number varies, but it is thought to be as many as five, with Ft. Worth, Pittsburgh, Quincy, Springfield, and San Joaquin as the likeliest to go.
For years, Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh has led an admirably conservative group called the Anglican Network that aimed to reform the Episcopal Church from within, but reports are that he has given up. He apparently has not taken the rest of the network with him¯South Carolina, Central Florida, Dallas, Albany, and the Rio Grande have backed away from his breakaway plan¯but nevertheless the strategy seems to be to join up with several "Common Cause" partners, such as the Rwandan and Nigerian groups (AMiA and CANA), and together take their stand against the Episcopal Church.
By bypassing Lambeth and the covenant process, some speculate that Duncan intends to form a new orthodox Anglican province by creating facts on the ground, hopefully gaining the approval of influential Global South provinces and thereby forcing the hand of the rest of the communion. The logic of the move would seem to run thus: If the new Duncan-led church is accepted by the others, then fine; Canterbury and the primates will have proven themselves worthy. But if not, then the rest of the Anglican Communion can be left to go its merry heretical way, with the truly orthodox Anglicans now detached from the dead weight of Canterbury and led by the Global South.
To many Anglican conservatives, this is a worrying scenario. Christopher Seitz, president of the Anglican Communion Institute, has argued that it relies in part on an overly monochrome American view of Anglicanism in the non-Western world, in which the Global South as a whole would in one fell swoop unite around such a strategy and stand firm against a united liberal Global North. But that does not seem likely. Global South provinces themselves are a diverse group, ranging from very conservative to moderately liberal, and differing significantly in the value they attach to retaining their membership in a Canterbury-based communion. (Compare, for instance, the differing Global South responses to the strongly conservative " Road to Lambeth " document, which was recently reaffirmed by Nigeria and Uganda but not by others such as Kenya, Southeast Asia, and the West Indies, and never actually adopted by last year’s Global South conference at Kigali .)
Additionally, such a strategy seems to rely on a unity among Western conservatives that does not exist. Only half of Bishop Duncan’s network has shown much interest, and on conservative Anglican blogs such as StandFirm and TitusOneNine , feelings seem to be mixed. Many prominent conservatives are likely to be, or already are, opposed to such a plan, such as the theologians of the Anglican Communion Institute and leading bishops George Carey, Drexel Gomez, James Stanton, Jeffery Steenson and N.T. Wright.
Considered altogether, it would seem likely that such a plan would create more division than unity, exposing long-standing divisions on doctrine and ecclesiology not only between various provinces but within them as well. Such at least is the worry, and hence the hope of many Anglican conservatives that it will not come to fruition.
And that hope, of course, takes us back to the proposed Anglican Covenant. If the path away from it for conservatives is so filled with peril¯and so it certainly seems to be¯nevertheless it is also the case that many concerns expressed by those skeptical of its success appear well-founded.
Since the communiqué issued by the primates’ meeting this February in Tanzania, there has been no word from Canterbury or other official quarters on behalf of its continued authority. As some will remember, the primates in Tanzania made two clear requests of the Episcopal Church: Stop same-sex blessings and promise not to consecrate any more actively gay bishops. Alongside these requests were added a pastoral scheme designed to provide temporary episcopal oversight to Americans made uncomfortable by the theological direction of their liberal church.
That pastoral scheme was roundly rejected by the Episcopal Church’s bishops in March, and so far has been replaced by nothing. Some Episcopal conservatives, hearing no reassurance from Canterbury, the primates, or anyone else, have begun to wonder if they have been forgotten. It is in this context that some conservatives have contemplated forsaking the covenant process entirely, no longer sure if the primates are interested in maintaining the integrity of their status as an Instrument of Communion. A recent statement from the Anglican Communion Institute strongly criticized this conspicuous silence, which they feel has become a vacuum of authority in which the fracturing of the communion has increased.
But even so, it remains possible to appreciate why Rowan Williams and the primates may want to hold their cards close for the time being. The requests made by the primates to the Episcopal Church came with a deadline¯September 30¯and it remains to be seen how the American bishops will respond at their meeting this September.
It ought not be assumed that the American bishops will decide to reject the requests made of them, even though it seems likely. And until they do, given the hope that they might not after all, it makes little sense from Canterbury’s perspective to treat them as guilty until proven innocent. If compliant with the requests made of them by the primates at Tanzania, there could not be any grounds for withholding their invitations to Lambeth or the other councils of the communion. Hence Archbishop Williams’s recently publicized guest list, which was inclusive of the entire American house of bishops sans one¯for now.
"For now" ought to be the key phrase among Anglican conservatives. A key group of American conservatives¯the so-called "Windsor bishops"¯has chosen to follow this course, writing a letter in support of the Covenant process to Rowan Williams and planning to meet twice this summer. There is also a large international meeting of like-minded Anglican conservatives set for this July at Oxford, including leading bishops such as Drexel Gomez. It might be hoped that this approach, orthodox and catholic both, will begin to have an increasing purchase in the communion.
Should the American bishops decide this September to walk decisively apart from the mind of the communion as expressed at Tanzania, then it will finally come time for Canterbury and the primates to act. Indeed, given what’s at stake, it is difficult to imagine that they would not. Bishops who intend to preserve and participate in a Canterbury-based Anglicanism would likely do well to keep this in mind. (Canadian Anglicans¯who this month will decide whether or not to follow America’s lead and approve same-sex blessings¯will hopefully do likewise.)
The Tanzania communiqué, contemplating the possibility that the Episcopal Church would choose to reject the primates’ requests, stated that such would have "consequences for the full participation of the [Episcopal] Church in the life of the Communion." "Those of us who have lost trust in the Episcopal Church," the primates continued, "need to be reassured that there is a genuine readiness in the Episcopal Church to embrace fully the recommendations of the Windsor Report."
This language was echoed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his letter of invitation to Lambeth: "My hope," Williams wrote, "is that as we gather we can trust that your acceptance of the invitation carries a willingness to work with these tools to shape our future . . . . I do not say this lightly, but I believe that we need to know as we meet that each participant recognizes and honors the task set before us and that there is an adequate mutual level of trust . . . . Such trust is a great deal harder to sustain if there are some involved who are generally seen as fundamentally compromising the efforts toward a credible and cohesive resolution."
Of course, as Ephraim Radner has recently pointed out (in an excellent historical survey that should be read by all), church councils do not need to be composed only of those who profess united and pure doctrine. After all, the councils of Nicea and Constantinople, from which we derive our most fundamental orthodox creed, included Arians and other assorted heretics, many of whom probably made claims more heterodox than anything Gene Robinson has said.
Nevertheless, it remains the case that a basic level of trust is necessary for any worthwhile Christian meeting. It is difficult to imagine how the mutual level of trust necessary to a successful Lambeth Conference could be reached were it to include bishops who do not exhibit a willingness to work with the tools of Communion to shape its common future. Furthermore it is difficult to see how Lambeth itself could be seen as authoritative if its ongoing representative¯the primates’ meeting¯was seen to be without authority in its judgments.
One may consequently hope that the bishops of the Episcopal Church will act decisively this September to regain the trust of the Anglican Communion¯and one may also expect that should they not do so, Archbishop Williams and the primates will recognize the serious problems that would be created by their presence at Lambeth. There are reliable sources who believe that the primates fully intend to respond before Lambeth to whatever comes from the Episcopal Church this September¯and that they intend to respond in a clear and decisive way.
If so, there is a good chance that the Archbishop’s Lambeth guest list will look quite different by the time the next Anglican summer rolls around. And if that is true, then it may well be the case that next year Anglicans will have cause to forget their summertime blues and finally, cautiously, begin to sing a new song.
Sadly, things will probably get worse before they get better, if they are to get better at all. The level of tension in the Anglican world has so far risen along with the summer heat, and the sweltering atmosphere has filled up with misinformation, distrust, and confusion. It is all very distressing, and the average Anglican might be excused for engaging in wild conspiracy theories, slightly deranged plots and schemes, and mild bouts of despair. But, hopefully, not too much despair. There is a great deal riding on what happens in the coming months. And if orthodox Anglicans this summer cannot manage to keep their heads without losing their cool, an old maxim from G.K. Chesterton (modified slightly) may well turn out to be grimly apropos: "The Anglican Communion ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried."
It would be most ironic if that wry old English Catholic prophet were proved right¯and it would likely mean the end of Anglicanism if he were.
Jordan Hylden is a junior fellow at First Things .