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Summer is almost over, which for most of us means putting away the beach umbrella and suntan lotion and getting back to work, however much we dread facing the mountain of paper piled up in our inboxes.

But if you’re one of the many who wishes that the daily grind could be postponed for just a bit longer, it may at least be some small consolation to know that Rowan Williams feels your pain. Although, in his case, it is probably increased by several orders of magnitude¯for when he gets back to his drafty old medieval office on the banks of the Thames, he has waiting for him an Anglican Communion that may soon explode into a million tiny pieces. And, what’s worse, it nearly all depends upon him.

Before he left on holiday, Williams had sent out an invitation to next year’s Lambeth Conference, the decennial worldwide gathering of Anglican bishops. It’s an important gathering for Anglicans, even crucial, since it’s the only opportunity that Anglican bishops have to gather as a worldwide body and make decisions about their common life. Williams’ problem is that hardly anybody has written back to tell him they’re coming. In fact lots of bishops (representing about a third of global Anglicanism) have told him that they probably won’t be coming .

Williams’ job, between now and next summer, is to somehow convince a majority of them to change their minds. It won’t be easy. Success will require Williams to make a difficult decision that he would rather avoid. And failure will probably mean that Anglicanism will cease to exist as a coherent body of the church catholic.

Things will come to a point at the September 19-25 meeting of the Americans, when the Episcopal Church’s bishops gather in New Orleans. Williams has been invited to give an address and answer questions. It could be the most important performance of his career as the archbishop of Canterbury.

As has been reported by the press, the Episcopal bishops last spring were given three requests and a deadline by the global Anglican primates. They were asked to stop consecrating actively gay bishops (meaning no more Gene Robinsons), to stop formal blessings of same-sex unions, and to provide space for those who dissent from the regnant liberal theology of the Episcopal Church. The deadline was September 30, so the upcoming meeting will in effect signal definitively whether or not the American church will decide to remain in step with the Anglican Communion or instead detach itself and go its own way.

Williams’ stance at the meeting will inevitably signal whose side he is on. The majority of the Episcopal Church’s bishops do not want to comply with the primates’ requests, as they signaled vociferously last spring . The question is: If they refuse, what if anything will happen to them? Will the American bishops get to come to Lambeth and participate in the other global conferences of Anglicanism no matter what they do, or will refusal mean that they’ll have to sit at home?

It’s an important question, because sitting at home would mean that the American church would no longer have any say in the decision-making bodies of Anglicanism. In effect, it would mean that the Episcopal Church would no longer be a fully constituent part of the Anglican Communion¯which, especially when viewed in light of Anglicanism’s history, would be a striking change. Many American bishops who otherwise would support Gene Robinson would at the least be given pause by such a momentous choice.

Of course, it is just this choice that the Americans want to avoid, as, most likely, does Rowan Williams. In many ways Williams is close theological kin to the American church, and it will be extraordinarily difficult for him to prosecute this sort of separation.

But as wrenching as it may be for him, it is probably the only way to keep the majority of Anglicanism together.

Not doing it will likely set off a domino-like series of effects. In essence, the decision-making authority of Anglicanism’s central instruments will collapse¯if the agreement hammered out by the global primates last spring in Tanzania is seen to have no bite, future meetings will become toothless and ineffectual.

This consequence will first spread to the Lambeth Conference next summer. The tepid response to Williams’ Lambeth invitations has already shown how and why this will work¯hundreds of Anglican bishops will simply decide that Lambeth is not worth going to since no one is required to abide by its decisions. This is the argument put forward, for instance, by the primates of Nigeria ( found on the Nigerian church’s website ) and Uganda ( in the August/September issue of First Things ) . Especially when placed in the context of Western colonialism¯Africans do not much like being ordered around by Englishmen and Americans¯this argument has a great deal of force.

Like any group lacking authority, Anglicanism thereafter will break apart into several factions. Many Anglican churches in the Global South will pull away, as some have already signaled they will do. This will not, however, be confined to the south, as Williams himself has publicly recognized¯the dividing line will run down the middle of many Global North churches as well, such has already begun to happen in the United States and surely also would happen in England. And neither will the break be into two groups, one liberal and one conservative. Theological disputes over issues such as women’s ordination and the sacraments (not to mention old nationalistic and racial quarrels) will divide churches even further. Like the rest of Protestantism, Anglicanism will wind up as a confusing and quarrelsome alphabet soup.

Rowan Williams does not want this, and thankfully neither do most Anglicans, which is why this nightmarish (albeit plausible) scenario does not have to play itself out. Many Anglicans, desiring to avoid the demise of their church, are hoping for a better way forward; one characterized by mutual trust, promise-keeping, selflessness and community instead of pridefulness and autonomy. The solution to the current crisis in Anglicanism, as more and more have been coming to realize, is clear¯walking together under the authority of the one Lord Christ Jesus as revealed to us in Scripture.

In July, an international gathering of Anglican leaders at Oxford showed the depth of this sentiment, as dozens of bishops, academics, and other church leaders came together to deepen their commitment to each other and to the covenantal process at the heart of the Windsor Report.

Also in July, the Church of England’s synod demonstrated their commitment to walking alongside rather than apart from the rest of Anglicanism by re-affirming the same Windsor-based covenant proposal . Encouraging signs have been coming from the central Anglican Communion Office as well, along with the many American bishops who have regularly met at Camp Allen, Texas, to signal their support of communion-based decision making .

In many ways, these bishops¯the so-called “Camp Allen” and “Windsor” bishops of the Episcopal Church¯are at the heart of what will happen next. At next month’s meeting in New Orleans, they will almost certainly lead an attempt to pass resolutions in unequivocal support of the requests made in Tanzania. Conservative divisions, which have become manifest in recent disputes over the direction of Bishop Duncan’s “Network,” will at that point not matter. Despite their many differences of opinion, the entire spectrum represented at the most recent Camp Allen meeting will almost certainly stand together.

Will it work? And if it doesn’t, will Anglicanism fall apart afterwards? It is precisely this that falls in large part to Rowan Williams to decide. He and he alone is in charge of issuing invitations to Lambeth, and so in the end he is the one who will determine whether or not Anglicanism coheres or dissolves. If he tells the Episcopal bishops that their response to decisions made in common by Anglicans indeed will result in concrete consequences for their place in Anglican common life, then much hope remains for a true renewal of Anglican communion.

If not, then the unraveling of the fabric of Anglicanism will continue. Many wonder whether Williams’ intentions thus far have been favorable to those who wish to see the authority of scripture upheld and the catholicity of Anglicanism maintained. At present, many such are unsure that they have his support, even while many liberals wonder likewise about his adherence to their own cause. Thus Williams has become a sort of Rorschach inkblot, in which very smart people on all sides have seen very different intentions displayed. This is why the Camp Allen bishops, in their most recent meeting, asked that Williams would clearly state that Lambeth invitations for the American bishops are at stake in their decision.

If he does so¯which will take nothing more than a statement to the effect that, as he previously indicated in his initial letter, invitations to Lambeth will depend upon a demonstrated willingness to abide by the decisions previously made there, without which the trust and cooperation necessary for such a conference will not exist¯then it will make a world of difference. Many North American conservatives, currently pondering whether or not to join up with CANA or AMiA, will hold back, reassured that they have not been forgotten. Many in the Global South will do the same, as indeed archbishops Akinola and Orombi have indicated in their recent published essays. Lambeth will go ahead as planned, with the vast majority (save for a small cohort of Gene Robinson supporters) of Anglican bishops present, and the continuing process of covenant and ever-greater coherence will be maintained.

At bottom it will due to the reaffirmation by Williams that there is such a thing as an Anglican Communion; that it consists of forgiven and repentant sinners who, as Archbishop Michael Ramsey reminded us in his classic work The Gospel and the Catholic Church , have died to self and therefore find themselves born anew into the one body of Christ, which is the Church. In such a body words like “independence” and “autonomy” have no meaning, for as St. Paul taught us, the Gospel means that we have died and our lives are hid with Christ in God. We are utterly dependent upon the Body, for our lives and for our salvation, and so in all humility we seek one-mindedness in Christ, who prayed that we might all be one even as he and his Father are one.

It is in a way fitting that this task should fall to the archbishop of Canterbury, who sits in the chair of St. Augustine where all this began in England over a thousand years ago. No doubt those who hope for the renewal of Anglicanism will keep Rowan Williams in their prayers. And no doubt God, in his providence, will remain faithful to those who show themselves faithful, no matter how dark the road may become in the days ahead.

Jordan Hylden, a former junior fellow at First Things , is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School.

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