Reactions to Canterbury's reflections range from support to disagreement, dismissal

July 31, 2009

Reaction to the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent reflections on the actions of the Episcopal Church's recent General Convention have come from such diverse sources as advocacy groups, bloggers, breakaway Anglicans and the Vatican. The comments have ranged from support to disagreement, many accompanied by detailed parsings of Rowan Williams' July 27 statement titled "Communion, Covenant and Our Anglican Future." In his 26-part reflection, Williams, who was present for the first three days of the July 8-17 meeting in Anaheim, California, wrote that "that a realistic assessment of what convention has resolved does not suggest that it will repair the broken bridges into the life of other Anglican provinces; very serious anxieties have already been expressed." He was referring to the passage of two resolutions (D025 and C056) that focused on issues of human sexuality and the Episcopal Church's commitment to the Anglican Communion. Resolution D025 affirms "that God has called and may call" gay and lesbian people "to any ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church." Resolution C056 calls for the collection and development of theological resources for the blessing of same-gender blessings and allows bishops to provide "a generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this church." Williams acknowledged that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and President of the House of Deputies Bonnie Anderson had written to tell him that they understand Resolution D025, in particular, to be "more descriptive than prescriptive in nature." However, he added that their assurances are "helpful, but unlikely to allay anxieties." Anglican Bishop of Durham N.T. Wright "unpacked" Williams' reflections in a July 30 essay here. "At the heart of this document are two things which the communion has badly needed to hear, hedged about with all kinds of assurances which make it clear that this is neither a knee-jerk reaction nor a mere statement of prejudice: a strong reaffirmation of the Anglican position on sexual behavior, and a strong insistence on the Windsor [Report] point that global issues cannot be decided locally -- and that the decision as to what is global and what is local cannot itself be decided locally," Wright wrote. Robert Duncan, the deposed bishop of Pittsburgh recently installed as archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America, told a reporter July 28 that "sadly, the archbishop of Canterbury has given us another nuanced statement in the midst of a crisis." Duncan, who led the organization of ACNA in hopes having the group of dissident Anglicans and others recognized by the communion, predicted that others "will fill the void" he perceives that Williams has left because of his lack of "clear leadership." The Rev. Phil Ashey, chief operating officer of the American Anglican Council, an ACNA member, echoed that sentiment in his comments to Julia Duin, reporter for the Washington Times. "In typically Rowanesque fashion, he has left an open door for the Episcopal Church to dominate," Ashey said. (Ashey, who lives in Atlanta, was rebuffed in his attempt to be seated as a Church of Uganda delegate to the May 2-12 Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Jamaica.) While Williams underscored in his reflections that "no Anglican has any business reinforcing prejudice against LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered] people," he also said that "the question is not a simple one of human rights or human dignity." "It is that a certain choice of lifestyle has certain consequences," Williams said, explaining that as long as the entire communion or the Church Catholic (those churches claiming historic continuity with the ancient Christian church) does not bless same-sex unions, "a person living in such a union cannot without serious incongruity have a representative function in a Church whose public teaching is at odds with their lifestyle." Noting Williams' insistence that Anglicans must be penitent about the times they have reflected society's "bigotry" against LGBT people, the Chicago Consultation said in a July 28 statement that it hoped Williams' words "will embolden Anglicans across the world to stand against hatred and discrimination when they encounter it in their midst." "We also urge all Anglicans, including the Archbishop, to regard the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the body of Christ as nothing less than a Gospel mandate and a requirement of our baptismal vows," said the Rev. Dr. Ruth Meyers, the group co-convener. Meyers offered to the rest of the communion the Episcopal Church's experience of " a long, albeit imperfect, history of developing theology and doctrine to support fully, including women, people of color, and LGBT people in the life of the church" as the communion "continue[s] discerning God's call for our common life and mission." The Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity USA, which supports the full inclusion of LGBT people in the Episcopal Church, said that the group is "tired of being told we 'haven't done the theology when the truth is that there are those in our wider Anglican family who do not agree with the theology we have done. But what we can do is keep doing it. We can keep reaching out. We can keep working together with our communion partners on mission and ministry all over this worldwide Anglican family of ours with those who will work with us." In his reflection, Williams said that a province of the communion, which he called a "local church," endangers the communion's ecumenical relations if it changes its practices in controversial ways so that they no longer "recognizable" as adhering to the body's "global consensus." The Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity issued a statement July 29 in which it noted Williams' desire to maintain communion unity by stressing common faith and practice rooted in Scripture and tradition. The Catholic News Service reported that the council said it "supports the archbishop in his desire to strengthen these bonds of communion, and to articulate more fully the relationship between the local and the universal within the church." After Williams' November 2006 meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, the two leaders said that the two denominations have "many areas of witness and service in which we can stand together," but they noted "new developments which, besides being divisive for Anglicans, present serious obstacles to our ecumenical progress." A.S. Haley, blogging as the Anglican Curmudgeon, wrote just after Williams' statement was released that it is "no accident" that the archbishop refers so frequently to the impact of the communion's tension on ecumenical relations. "He has his eye on the main ecumenical prize --- a greater unity between Canterbury and Rome (not a complete reversal of the Reformation, but a full recognition of Anglican orders would be a good start)," Haley wrote. The archbishop also used his reflections to urge the communion's 38 provinces to adopt an Anglican covenant (whose text is not yet final) as a way of "mutual recognisability, mutual consultation and some shared processes of decision-making." Williams said that a covenant mechanism is "the only proposals we are likely to see" that address some of the" risks and confusions" that exist in the communion's structure while "encouraging us to act and decide in ways that are not simply local." Williams suggested that those Anglican provinces that cannot accept a covenant's way of "intensifying relationships" may wind up on the second track of a "two-track model" of the communion. Those who have "decided that local autonomy had to be the prevailing value" would not be included in ecumenical dialogues and other official processes. Reviewing Williams' reflection on his blog, the Very Rev. Sam Candler, dean of St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta, Georgia, wrote July 28 that "it is the way that Archbishop Rowan uses 'choice' which is bothersome, as if it would be as easy for someone to choose a homosexual lifestyle as it would be them to choose a certain way of being Anglican." "At their deepest levels of identity, neither homosexuality nor Anglicanism is a choice," Candler said. "In particular, Anglicans have claimed that Anglican Christianity is a gift; and part of that gift is a joint realization of local grace and global grace." Candler called it "a distinctly un-Anglican maneuver to sever local autonomy from global communion. Those very poles, taken together within one orbit, are exactly what define the structure of the wider Anglican tradition." The Rev. Canon Mark Harris, a member of the Episcopal Church's Executive Council, wrote on his personal blog that Williams' reflections are "unhelpful to those of us who believe that the future can be 'both-and' not 'either-or' -- both justice and faith community, both local development in practice and core communion wide agreement in faith." Changing Attitude, a Britain-based advocacy group, said that it hopes "this period in the Communion's life might genuinely be the beginning of a new era of mission and spiritual growth." "It must include all who value the Anglican name and heritage and are committed to listen openly and speak truthfully," the statement continued. "It must not be a tactic to delay the full inclusion of LGBT people which will eventually become an issue in every province."