Lambeth bishops air differing views on covenant

Suggested suspension of same-sex blessings also contentious
August 2, 2008

Anglican bishops meeting at the Lambeth Conference on August 2 said there were passionate disagreements about aspects of a developing covenant designed to hold together churches with theological differences.

In addition, the bishops on the next-to-last day of the July 16-August 3 meeting clashed over proposals that would require churches to stop entering other provinces to minister to conservatives, blessing same-sex unions and consecrating partnered gay persons to the episcopate.

It was the second day of discussions about the so-called St. Andrew's Draft of the covenant, and the moratoria contained in the 2004 Windsor Report. The report, which was produced by an international committee, was drawn up after the Canadian and U.S. churches took several moves toward liberalizing attitudes toward homosexuality, including the 2003 consecration of openly gay bishop Gene Robinson in New Hampshire.

"In my own [discussion] group today, there were widely differing views expressed about all of those issues," said Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, primate of Australia who is acting as official spokesman for the conference. "The tone, however, was deeply careful, respectful, prayerful, but how it all shakes down remains to be seen."

Archbishop Paul Kwong, primate of Hong Kong, in a news conference expressed frustration about a lengthy process that has sought to heal differences over biblical interpretation. "We have spent a lot of time sharing and listening and we need more time to talk about actions. Where do we move from here? We have talked a long time," he said.

In terms of sacrifices that member Anglican provinces might make, he used the example of the Hong Kong church, where a bishop in the 1940s ordained a woman, the Rev. Florence Li Tim-Oi, but revoked the ordination due to protests that ordination of women was not allowed. Tim-Oi waited until female ordination was allowed in some provinces in the 1970s to resume her ministry in holy orders.

The bishops talked about the issues in groups of 40 and are scheduled to meet in a full session on August 3. Their deliberations will go to the next meetings of the Covenant Design Group and the Windsor Continuation Group, both of which meet this fall. The Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) will also review the bishops' opinions when it meets in Jamaica in May 2009.

Several bishops said the most contentious area of the St. Andrew's Draft of the covenant is an appendix that suggests a procedure for churches that breach the covenant. There are various bureaucratic options involving the Archbishop of Canterbury and a group of assessors but in the end, wrote Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies, "if a church exercises its autonomy to reject a request made to it … then a decision has to be made whether rejecting the request amounts to abandoning the commitments of the covenant." Gomez is chair of the Covenant Design Group.

The covenant is "not setting out to be punitive," said Aspinall, but if a church is found to have abandoned the covenant, "what might flow from that is still being talked about -- whether that would mean no invitations to Lambeth or you lose seats on the ACC …those kinds of things might be possible." But, he added, "immediately there is established a process to seek reconciliation."

The idea of a covenant itself was mainly accepted by Episcopal Church bishops, said Bishop Charles Jenkins of Louisiana. "I did not find any American bishop who was unable to accept the idea of covenant," he said. "I think that there is a strand amongst us that … is not necessarily going to be happy about it."

Jenkins added that "part of the sacrifice most American bishops are willing to make is that we will accept a covenant and accept the moratoria." Aspinall said that one American bishop told him that he came into the conference opposed to a covenant, but his support is growing day by day.

However, Bishop Marc Andrus of Diocese of California -- where the Supreme Court recently ruled that marriage is open to gays -- said that a moratorium "is a non-starter for me." He also noted that in relation to the other part of the moratoria -- ending incursions into other churches -- "the main perpetuators of the incursions are not present so [it's difficult] for me to make an agreement on moratoria on that basis.

"The [main] reason I am committed to continuing blessings is because it's a justice issue," he said. "While we defer and wait, there are many gays and lesbians, transgendered and bisexual people all over the world who continue to be denied their civil and human rights."

Although Jenkins said he believed "it is possible to make a sacrifice without selling out," he said that it is "a moral dilemma for me" if gay and lesbian Anglicans have a sacrifice imposed on them. He added that the covenant proposals represent "a commitment to minimize the impact of something I do upon another person."

Bishop Edward Little of Northern Indiana, speaking to reporters, said that he is "happy to support the moratoria, all three of them," but also noted that "it is important to realize they are a kind of package. The Windsor Report holds all three up in order to enhance our unity, to help us come to the deepest level of communion possible." He also said his discussion group realized that "the Episcopal Church has stretched a good way toward the wider communion."

Bishop Mark Sisk of New York, also speaking to reporters, said the areas of disagreement in his group concerned making the regular meeting of the communion's primates, or leaders of the provinces, more authoritative than it is now. There was also dissent, he said, on a section of the report "that has to do with accountability." The section called "Our Unity and Common Life" has been described as a summation of the commitments expected of provinces that sign onto the covenant.

Also on August 2, the bishops considered the fourth draft of a document that will comment on the scope of the conference, including the sexuality issues and the idea of a covenant. The final version of the "reflections document" will be produced on August 3.

The current draft notes "many positive responses to the idea of a Covenant," but articulates several concerns including the perceived punitive nature of the St. Andrew's Draft and the cost of implementing the process.

One suggestion calls for a "theology of abiding," rather than a covenant, because it would allow communion members to "affirm one another in Christ."