The primates of the Anglican Communion emerged October 16 from a closed two-day meeting at London's Lambeth Palace, headquarters of the archbishop of Canterbury, with a strong statement on what they perceive as threats to unity.
The special meeting was called by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to address "controversial decisions by the Diocese of New Westminster" in Canada to bless same-sex unions, and the confirmation of the election of an openly gay bishop by the Episcopal Church's General Convention in August.
"These actions threaten the unity of our own Communion as well as our relationships with other parts of Christ's Church, our mission and witness, and our relations with other faiths, in a world already confused in areas of sexuality, morality and theology, and polarize Christian opinion," the statement said.
The statement said that the actions in Canada and the US "could be perceived to alter unilaterally the teaching of the Anglican Communion...Whilst we recognize the juridical autonomy of each province in our Communion, the mutual interdependence of the provinces means that none has authority unilaterally to substitute an alternative teaching as if it were the teaching of the entire Anglican Communion." Such decisions "jeopardize our sacramental fellowship with each other."
The 37 primates representing the provinces or autonomous churches of worldwide Anglicanism argued that "each province needs to be aware of the possible effects of its interpretation of Scripture on the life of other provinces in the Communion." The statement made it clear that the primates reaffirmed the resolutions from the 1998 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops stating that homosexual behavior is contrary to Scripture and that blessing of same-sex relationships was not acceptable.
At the same time the statement pointed to another resolution that calls on the church "to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and to assure them that they are loved by God" and full members of the Body of Christ.
The statement also warned that the consecration of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as bishop in the Diocese of New Hampshire would signal that the church has "reached a crucial and critical point," one that could place the future of the Anglican Communion itself in jeopardy. "This will tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level, and may lead to further division on this and further issues as provinces have to decide in consequence whether they can remain in communion with provinces that choose not to break communion with the Episcopal Church USA," said the primates.
The primates asked the archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a commission "to consider his own role in maintaining communion within and between provinces when grave difficulties arise." The statement concluded, "It is clear that recent controversies have opened debates within the life of our Communion which will not be resolved until there has been a lengthy process of prayer, reflection and substantial work in and alongside the commission."
Honest and open meeting
In comments at a closing press conference, Williams said that "what we have achieved has been hard won but we found the will to keep working together." Noting that the meeting "has certainly been anything but easy and not without pain," he added that "it has been honest and open and I hope we have grown in some real shared understanding as a result."
Williams said that "we have grown closer together rather than, as many people predicted, further apart during this meeting". Yet he admitted that "issues around homosexuality will continue to be difficult and divisive for the Anglican Communion, as they are for many Christians. It will continue to cause pain and anger and misunderstanding and resentment all around."
Williams also said that the final statement "renders talk of winners and losers irrelevant."
Difficult but truthful
Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold agreed with Williams that it was "a difficult but truthful meeting. We work in very different contexts," he said, so what may be good news for one province can turn out to be bad news for another province."
Underscoring the comments by Williams, Griswold said that "sexuality issues are far from settled" but that "the Anglican Communion is not static but dynamic" in the way it addresses issues.
Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies, a leading spokesman for the conservative primates, was asked at the press conference if he thought the statement would fall apart if Robinson were consecrated. He said that "we will follow the process" and wait for the commission report. "That's what I expect to do."
-- James Solheim is director of Episcopal News Service. Dan England, director of communications, contributed to this report.