Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

No one can deny there is plenty of disagreement in the Anglican Communion, but right now straightforward confusion is carrying the day.

Around the world, Anglican primates have been asking the Americans to provide the rest of the church with clarity about their position on gay bishops and same-sex blessings. And so the question arose at the pivotal meeting last week in New Orleans of the bishops of the Episcopal Church. After much hard work and wrangling, a statement was finally produced .

Unfortunately, as reaction to it has shown, even the clarity of disagreement is still a long way off in the Anglican world. It is not just that people do not agree on what to do next; it is rather that no one even agrees about what is going on.

The New York Times last Wednesday morning reported "Episcopal Bishops Reject Anglican Church’s Orders." There is a case to be made for that, and the reporter made it finely, but the London Telegraph saw quite the opposite: "For Now," it claimed, "US Anglicans Give In to Archbishop." The London Times , for its part, thought that the "Bishops Rejected Same-Sex Blessings," but the New Orleans Times-Picayune claimed that the "Episcopal Bishops Decline to Roll Back Inclusion of Gays." Prognosticating a bit, the Boston Globe surmised that the "Episcopal Leaders Act to Avert Schism." And that was all very nice, but the BBC thought otherwise: "Threat of Anglican Schism Still Looms," they concluded. The Economist , wisely, scratched its collective head and simply called its readers’ attention to "The Turbulence of Priests," probably the most accurate headline of them all.

Normally, the best explanation for this would be the well-known fact that the only requirement for finding work as a religion reporter is a complete ignorance of religion. But in this case, the poor scribblers were reproducing the confusion within Anglicanism itself. Graham Kings, a widely respected English conservative, initially thought things went quite well : "Refreshing and surprising," he stated, and all in all quite "encouraging." Other conservatives joined him, including many of the "Windsor bishops" of the Episcopal Church. In fact many conservative bishops saw it as an unexpected victory, even if not complete: "I think we did better than I expected," said Bishop John Howe , and he along with other conservative bishops, such as Michael Smith and Bruce MacPherson , thought that they had essentially done what the Anglican primates had asked of them last spring in Tanzania regarding same-sex blessings and episcopal consecrations.

But not all conservatives were so sanguine. Bishop James Stanton issued a meticulous six-page report detailing why he thought in the end the statement amounted to "walking apart" from the rest of the Anglican Communion¯in the end, he claimed, the bishops had not really changed course in the way the primates had asked. Bishop Edward Salmon concurred , as did Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz of the Anglican Communion Institute , along with Andrew Goddard and others from Fulcrum , a leading English evangelical think tank. (The Fulcrum statement and Bishop Stanton’s report are probably the clearest and most helpful to be found anywhere.) In particular, Bishop Stanton’s essay shows how the statement differs from the resolutions initially offered by the "Windsor bishops," which is a central point of concern for Seitz, Radner, and many others.) Kendall Harmon joined in , calling the statement equivalent to "bearing false witness," in that he thought it tried to make it seem as if the bishops’ liberalizing position had changed, when in fact it had not. And as expected, Bishop Bob Duncan of the Anglican Communion Network left before the statement was produced to consult with cohorts about how to replace the Episcopal Church with a new conservative American province.

Some key African leaders were not satisfied either. Archbishop Akinola of Nigeria and Archbishop Nzimbi of Kenya both issued quick negative responses to the American church, no doubt soon to be joined by others. In contrast, however, the Ugandan church’s response seemed initially more positive: The Americans "deserve to be appreciated for making such a good decision" regarding gay bishops, remarked Aaron Mwesigye , the Ugandan provincial secretary.

Even the gay-inclusion lobby groups could not agree. Susan Russell, president of Integrity USA, issued a press release applauding the Episcopal bishops’ "strong stand against the primates," and Gene Robinson, the actively gay bishop of New Hampshire, said he was "comforted" by the outcome . But Martin Reynolds, president of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in the U.K., expressed profound disappointment with the statement , dismissing it as little more than another "attempt to suck up to the homophobes."

There seem to be as many opinions as there are Anglicans, and they do not appear to be coalescing. The optimist, of course, might say that the widespread disagreement is proof of the Episcopal bishops’ success, in that they managed to find a middle ground that dissatisfied the extremes on both sides. Indeed, many Anglicans seeking to be moderates have already made such an argument. The pessimist, however, might just as easily say that the widespread confusion goes all the way down, demonstrating the incoherent muddle at the heart of Anglicanism itself.

Jeffrey Steenson, the admired bishop of the Rio Grande, more or less said as much in his farewell address last week as he departed for the Roman Catholic Church. It all goes to show, he argued, what happens when you reject papal primacy; in essence, it creates a vacuum of authority that, thanks to human fallenness, leads inevitably to doctrinal and moral chaos. And of course Cardinal Newman had said the same thing about Anglicanism more than a century ago. Both the optimist and the pessimist perspectives¯neither of which are necessarily the result of mere "optimism" or "pessimism"¯are well worth keeping in mind for anyone seeking to understand Anglican events in the days ahead.

What of the text of the statement itself? There is a sense in which it almost does not matter. Nevertheless¯and bearing in mind Donald Rumsfeld’s sage advice about the difference between known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns¯a few things can profitably be pointed out.

First, the context: The Episcopal bishops had been asked by the Anglican primates this past February in Tanzania to do three things: stop same-sex blessings, promise not to consecrate any more actively gay bishops, and create a church-within-a-church for conservatives with partial oversight from outside primates. And everyone does agree, at the least, that the Episcopal Church said a clear "no" to the third request . (A sort of internal "flying bishops" plan was endorsed by last week’s statement, but it rejected outside oversight and almost certainly won’t dissuade Bishop Duncan’s group, and probably more besides, from breaking off in the near future.) So what then of the other two?

The first item, having to do with the consecration of actively gay bishops, seems to be the likeliest candidate for assent to the primates’ requests. The summary portion of the Episcopal bishops’ statement isn’t particularly helpful¯it simply repeats a resolution (B033) passed at General Convention last summer that called on bishops and diocesan committees to "exercise restraint" by not consenting to the election of any bishop whose "manner of life" would present a challenge to the wider Anglican church.

The problem is one of interpretation. Is it a full-stop pledge to refrain from consecrating actively gay bishops, or just a "call" to think twice about it? And what does "manner of life" actually mean? The explanatory portion of the bishops’ statement, however, is somewhat more helpful. For one thing, it affirms that the resolution does in fact refer to "non-celibate gay and lesbian persons." And for another, it affirms that a report on this subject issued last spring by a subcommittee in Tanzania had correctly understood what Resolution B033 had meant. Crucially, that report had concluded that the Episcopal Church had in fact decided to refuse to consecrate noncelibate gay bishops.

So there do seem to be good reasons to think that the bishops met at least one of the three requests. What about same-sex blessings?

The context here goes back to the last Lambeth Conference, at which Resolution 1.10 held that neither the "legitimizing" nor the "blessing" of same-sex unions was permissible. At the Episcopal Church’s 2003 General Convention, however, a resolution was passed that in contrast held same-sex blessings to be legitimately "within the common life" of the American church, even though no official rites of blessing were created. Obviously this led to problems.

Last spring in Tanzania, the primates spelled out their concern. It’s worth quoting in full:

We believe that there remains a lack of clarity about the stance of The Episcopal Church, especially its position on the authorization of Rites of Blessing for persons living in same-sex unions. There appears to us to be an inconsistency between the position of General Convention and local pastoral provision. We recognize that the General Convention made no explicit resolution about such Rites and in fact declined to pursue resolutions which, if passed, could have led to the development and authorization of them. However, we understand that local pastoral provision is made in some places for such blessings. It is the ambiguous stance of The Episcopal Church which causes concern among us.

Ambiguous is right¯the Episcopal Church seemed to be saying that it didn’t allow same-sex blessings, except that it allowed them.

The problem, however, was that further down the Tanzania document, the primates’ rubber-hits-the-road bullet point requests may have intentionally been left open to interpretation, perhaps reflecting a difference of opinion among the primates themselves about what was being asked. The wording was: "The primates request . . . that the Episcopal Church make an unequivocal common covenant that the bishops will not authorize any Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions in their dioceses or through General Convention." Here, language about unofficial "local pastoral provision" is absent, and conspicuously so.

But last week a majority of the Episcopal bishops took this to mean (or at least decided to take it to mean) that they didn’t have to stop permitting same-sex blessings after all; so long as they made plain they weren’t officially authorizing rites of blessing in the prayer book, they were in the clear. Reports are that representatives present from the primates’ Joint Standing Committee and the Anglican Consultative Council (for example, the central office in London) agreed with this interpretation and said so. Consequently, at least some conservative bishops decided that they were able to support the statement as published.

Were they right to interpret the primates’ request this way? This now is perhaps the principal point of disagreement amongst Anglican conservatives. In a sense it is a dispute that cannot be adjudicated, since the answer depends on the primates themselves and how they understood their own requests in Tanzania. That right now is what comes next.

Rowan Williams has pledged to consult individually with the primates and members of the Anglican Consultative Council within the next couple of weeks. No doubt he will hear widely differing reactions. The problem he faces is twofold: First, he will have to draw together what he is told into some sort of coherence, so as to make a response that is truly reflective of the mind of the Anglican Communion and not simply the mind of the Anglican bureaucracy in London. Given the immense breadth, even deep incoherence and confusion, of the responses given so far, that will be no easy task. Second, Williams will have to decide what to do about next summer’s Lambeth Conference. As of now, his RSVP list is quite short¯many Anglican bishops, not just the most conservative, have held off promising to attend. And if he accepts the statement of the Episcopal Church last week as good enough to get all the Americans but Gene Robinson to Lambeth, he may well have on his hands a Lambeth quite a bit smaller, and quite a bit whiter ethnographically, than he had planned on.

Will the primates he chats with tell him that, in effect, two out of three requests met ain’t bad? Will they even give the Episcopal Church two out of three? What does it mean for the integrity of the Primates’ Meeting if it becomes generally understood that its requests are highly negotiable? Furthermore, did the Episcopal bishops do enough last week to restore the bonds of trust they broke in 2003 with the consecration of Gene Robinson? And what about the deep confusion that seems to run rampant through everything we Anglicans do and say?

As for the primates, we’ll see. As for the restoration of trust, it’s hard to see how the numerous antagonistic elements present in the bishops’ statements, both last week and last spring, will convince those who need convincing of the American church’s humility and goodwill. Last week the Episcopal bishops heard, in no uncertain terms, from several Anglican representatives from the Global South (including the Egyptian bishop Mouneer Anis ) of the pain and concrete harm the Episcopal Church’s actions had caused to their mission. Arguably the American bishops’ actions were a step in the right direction, but one may doubt that they have gone far enough.

And as for Bishop Steenson and Cardinal Newman’s troubling conclusion about the incoherence at the heart of Anglicanism¯one must at least wonder if the widespread confusion and cacophony within the Anglican Communion is a strong point in their favor, even if the Roman answer is illusory as well. At bottom it ought to lead Anglicans to hard questions about the nature of authority in the church, particularly as the Anglican covenant process moves forward. Bishop Steenson, a profoundly good and wise man, contended that Anglicans faced many of their problems because they had not yet opened "Peter’s gift." No doubt many of us will want to ponder his parting query to us in the days to come.

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

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles