"We came very close to separation," said Archbishop Gregory Venables of this weekend’s meeting of global Anglican leaders, "but Biblical doctrine and behavior have been affirmed as the norms in the Anglican Church."
It could have gone the other way, and for a time it looked as if it would. But, in the end, Anglican conservatives everywhere breathed a collective sigh of relief on reading the strongly worded statement issued unanimously by the Church’s thirty-eight primates, which bluntly called on the Episcopal Church¯the province of the Anglican Communion in the United States¯to reverse its course or face expulsion. Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not the liberal American church will decide to comply. But by avoiding schism and enacting meaningful discipline upon one of its errant members, the Anglican Communion proved itself to be a reality with substance rather than the failed experiment many feared it had become. Today, concluded the theologian Philip Turner , "Anglicanism remains a credible expression of Catholic Christianity."
Those who follow the story know that the current crisis stems from the Episcopal Church’s decision in 2003 to consecrate a non-celibate homosexual as bishop of New Hampshire and to allow priests in several dioceses to bless same-sex unions formally. Global reaction was swift and sharp, with multiple Anglican provinces (notably Nigeria and Rwanda) immediately declaring a state of "broken" or "impaired" communion with the Episcopal Church. Tensions were high even within the Episcopal Church itself, as numerous conservative parishes began leaving or threatening to leave¯with the national church office suing or threatening to sue all who tried it.
Although on its surface it all seemed to be an argument merely about sex, on a deeper level it was a crisis of unity and authority. Five years prior to Gene Robinson’s consecration as bishop, the 1998 Lambeth Conference (a gathering of all Anglican bishops, which meets every ten years) had upheld the traditional Christian understanding of marriage and sexual ethics. Anglicans, who lack a central executive authority, have long depended on its thirty-eight member churches to abide by the decisions made together in council. The consecration of Gene Robinson called that expectation into question¯and thereby the very idea of Anglican unity and authority.
Since the earliest times of the Christian Church, bishops have acted to represent the unity and authority of the global Church to the local diocese, and the local diocese to the global church. So if Gene Robinson did not believe what the Church believes, then how could he represent the Anglican Church in New Hampshire? The same problem presented itself on a church-wide level: If the Episcopal Church did not believe what the Anglican Church believes, then in what sense does it remain an Anglican church? And what good is the Lambeth Conference if no one actually has to follow it?
Anglican unity, it seemed, did not extend to matters of church doctrine, and Anglican authority consisted in everyone doing as they saw fit. Indeed, the Episcopal Church defended its actions in these terms, arguing that "Anglican comprehensiveness" means making room for all sincerely held beliefs, while "local autonomy" means allowing each Anglican national province to do as it pleases.
For most Anglicans, and indeed for most Christians, this understanding of church doctrine was difficult to accept. Each week, Christians confess in the Nicene Creed their belief in the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church," which among other things means that the Church ought to be united in professing the teachings of Christ and the apostles. But the Episcopal Church by its actions had called this into question. Unity in truth, it in effect held, no longer mattered. The situation was described quite accurately by Bishop N.T. Wright, a leading Anglican intellectual, as "doctrinal indifferentism." The likes of it have rarely been seen in the history of the Christian Church, and to most Anglicans worldwide it was absolutely unacceptable. A solution had to be found.
The way forward was charted in outline in 2004 by the Windsor Report , a document commissioned by the archbishop of Canterbury and drafted by an international Anglican committee. In it, the actions of the Episcopal Church were clearly judged to be an unacceptable breach. Anglican unity and authority would be impossible, the report warned, if Anglicans continue to disregard the authority of ecclesial councils. Part of the problem, however, was judged to be the somewhat ad hoc nature of those councils, and indeed of the Anglican Communion itself.
Much like the British Empire, the Anglican Church grew haphazardly along with the fortunes of the British Crown. So long as authority rested firmly in the British sovereign and the Thirty-Nine Articles, doctrinal crises were generally kept under control. But with the empire gone, the Church was left without much to hold it together beyond informal pledges to keep to traditional Anglican teaching. So long as everyone did, Anglicans managed to muddle through, but, as the challenges of modernity increasingly became manifest, new global structures became necessary.
The once-per-decade Lambeth Conference and the biennial Primates’ Meeting gradually grew to fill the gap and, generally speaking, worked by means of gentlemen’s agreement. Until, that is, the Episcopal Church’s actions of 2003. No mechanism existed to deal with this sort of disagreement, the Windsor Report explained, and so again something new had to be done if unity and authority were to be maintained.
The Windsor Report proposed an Anglican Covenant, which essentially included a brief summary of traditional Anglican beliefs as well as a commitment by each Anglican national church to abide by the decisions made together in council. The flip side of the covenant, of course, would be that churches that decided not to abide by the decisions made together in council wouldn’t get invited back for any more meetings. In effect, they would be choosing to walk apart from the Anglican Communion, and the rest of the Anglican churches would continue on without them.
The archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, became an enthusiastic proponent of the Windsor plan, along with most of the Church of England. In 2005, the rest of the Anglican primates followed suit in their biennial meeting in Northern Ireland , adopting the Windsor Report with only slight modifications as the way forward for the whole Church. It was admittedly something new for Anglicanism, but then again the entire Church had in a sense been a series of ad hoc developments. This was another, and it was overwhelmingly decided to be the best way to preserve Anglican unity and authority.
Which is what made the 2006 General Convention of the Episcopal Church so frustrating. Rather than unequivocally signing on to the Windsor plan, the Episcopal Church gave a sort of half-response. The primates had asked the Episcopal Church to do three things: (1) apologize for its actions in 2003, (2) promise not to consecrate any more actively homosexual bishops, and (3) and promise to stop blessing same-sex unions. The Episcopalians sort of complied with the first two requests and hardly addressed the third.
Things were complicated further by the election, as the new presiding bishop, of Katherine Jefferts Schori, an unapologetic proponent of everything the Episcopal Church had been asked to stop doing. A significant number of Episcopalian bishops and parishes began distancing themselves from their own church, expressing their desire somehow to comply with the Windsor Report, even though General Convention hadn’t. Some parishes left altogether. Tensions rose, and the patience of several conservative Anglican provinces (especially the Church of Nigeria) wore thin. Schism began to look like a real possibility.
Which brings us to the threshold of last weekend’s meeting in Tanzania. Many conservative Anglican leaders, such as Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, seriously doubted that the Episcopal Church would be disciplined for its actions, thus making the idea of Anglican unity and authority something of a joke and turning the Lambeth Conference (as Akinola famously said) into an "expensive jamboree."
Akinola had good reason to be doubtful. Many of the more liberal Anglican provinces, such as Canada and Brazil, did not seem eager to discipline the American church. The problem was compounded by a certain level of conservative mistrust of the English church, whose archbishop, Rowan Williams, had earlier in his career been an advocate of same-sex unions. African conservatives made a number of moves to distance themselves from Canterbury, signaling their willingness to cut ties if need be.
Above all, it was Williams’ goal to maintain the catholic substance of Anglicanism while avoiding schism. On the one hand, Williams had to convince Anglican evangelicals to remain in a church that lacks the confessional clarity and simplicity of mainstream evangelicalism¯even though evangelicals tend to discount the value of church unity if it appears to cut against scriptural truth. On the other hand, Williams had to convince Anglican liberals to discipline an American church with which they had much in common¯even though liberals tend to discount both scriptural truth and church unity if it seems to cut against progressive goals.
He was in a tight spot, and he spoke, quite understandably, of nightmare scenarios in which Anglican unity and authority would explode, leaving a piece here, a piece there¯Lord knows how many pieces, each a group of men in pointy bishops’ hats, having the form of Anglicanism but lacking the substance of Catholic Christianity they once carried.
None of that happened. Instead, everyone at Tanzania miraculously held together, committing the Anglican Communion to a meaningful disciplinary course against the Episcopal Church and promising strict consequences if the Episcopalians do not mend their ways. The primates at Tanzania asked the bishops of the Episcopal Church to do two specific things : first, unequivocally promise not to authorize Rites of Blessing for same-sex unions; second, unequivocally promise not to consecrate any more actively homosexual bishops. It has been described as an ultimatum, and it comes with a deadline (September 30) and consequences: If not followed, the Episcopal Church will not be invited to next year’s Lambeth Conference and so in effect will be judged to have walked apart from the Anglican Communion.
Furthermore, the primates’ statement provides for the creation of an American “church-within-a-church,” fulfilling a long-standing request of conservative Episcopalians . All Episcopalian bishops will be given the opportunity to come under the direct authority of a separate five-member Pastoral Council (two members of which will be chosen by the current presiding bishop and the remainder by the archbishop of Canterbury and the primates). Conservative Episcopalian bishops will be allowed to nominate one of their own number as a "Primatial Vicar," who will act in effect as presiding bishop for the church-within-a-church under the supervision of the primates’ Pastoral Council.
This new council could act as a significant check on the Episcopal Church’s internal authority, and it has been given great leeway to negotiate its own terms. In an especially telling line, it is given authorization under paragraph 157 of the Windsor Report to consider whether the Episcopal Church’s future actions merit further steps toward the withdrawal of the Episcopal Church from membership in the Anglican Communion. In essence, the new church-within-a-church stands ready to become a new American Anglican province in its own right if the Episcopal Church should decide finally to revoke its own current status in the communion.
In addition, the primates have encouraged but not required those who have already left the Episcopal Church to return under the new pastoral scheme, and they have left the door open for their inclusion in more-or-less their present form. The primates have also requested that all legal action currently pending against breakaway parishes come to an end, a significant repudiation of the Episcopal Church’s well-publicized strategy of filing as many lawsuits as possible . It remains to be seen whether the national church office will comply, but one certainly hopes that it will.
The next move belongs to the Episcopal Church, and Anglicans can only wait to see how it will respond to the primates’ requests. For many liberals within the Episcopal Church, for whom the gay-rights agenda is a nonnegotiable justice issue , complying with the primates’ requests would be seen as acquiescing to bigotry . The liberal argument in favor of delaying full homosexual inclusion has long been to wait "for a season" so as to "continue the conversation," thus tactically awaiting the best opportunity to win the greatest gain. But this argument lost much of its luster at Tanzania, since the logic of subscription to an Anglican Covenant (a new and excellent version of which was also unveiled in Tanzania) means that the Episcopal Church would need to bind itself to the decisions of a largely conservative global Anglican body. The civil-rights-era argument that "justice delayed is justice denied" will thus appeal strongly to many liberals, some of whom are already tiring of an endless conversation that seems every time to end with conservatives having the last word. Still, there remains an outside chance that Episcopalians will join together to accept the primates’ requests, thus preserving the church’s Anglican status.
It has been a long road, and much uncertainty lies ahead. But what uncertainty remains is principally related to the decisions now facing the Episcopal Church. As for the Anglican Communion, its choice has been made. Years from now, it may well be that we will look upon this week as a crucial turning-point in Anglican history, crucial as anything since the English Reformation. For the Anglican Communion has finally decided to live up to its name: a global communion of churches, diverse yet united by a common faith and mutual hope, seeking together the mind of Christ, living humbly and prayerfully under the authority of Scripture. So may it remain.
Jordan Hylden is a junior fellow at First Things .