Sexuality most volatile of tough issues facing Lambeth Conference

July 1, 1998

When nearly 800 Anglican bishops gather on the grounds of the University of Kent and Canterbury Cathedral this summer for the 13th Lambeth Conference they will be bringing more than their vestments. Most will also be carting a satchel brimming with cultural, political and theological concerns--some more volatile than others.

Although international debt has been given top billing by the conference organizers, it is likely to be upstaged by simmering issues of faith and order, such as the role of gays and lesbians in the church, especially in the ordained ministry. At the last conference in 1988, the ordination of women pushed other issues to the wings, prompting a protest from African bishops who felt their concerns over human rights, poverty, debt relief and evangelism were being shortchanged. Those issues are back on the agenda, along with the keynote issue of 1988—structure and accountability in the Anglican Communion—but are just as vulnerable to being shunted to the periphery as they were in 1988.

Bishop Duncan Buchanan, bishop of Johannesburg in the Church of the Province of Southern Africa, predicts that sexuality could be the scene-stealer this July. Like the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate 10 years ago, homosexuality "will throw its shadow pretty much over the present conference," said Buchanan.

Kuala Lumpur statement urges conservative positions

The pressure to put sexuality at center stage is coming from several directions. The conservative wing of the Episcopal Church in the United States, represented by such organizations as the Episcopal Synod of America (ESA), the American Anglican Council (AAC) and the Irenaeus Fellowship of Bishops, is among the most persistent. All three organizations have endorsed the Kuala Lumpur statement on sexual morality, which opposes the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions. The ESA also has called for the establishment of an independent "orthodox province of the Anglican Communion" within the boundaries of the Episcopal Church.

Siding with them are several primates and bishops of Third World provinces in Africa, Asia and South America who have advocated a strict biblical interpretation of sexual morality and joined their North American counterparts in calling for greater accountability for bishops operating outside "the historic faith."

Meeting at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in February 1997, about 80 bishops and church leaders from the Southern Hemisphere issued a statement calling for "a clear and unambiguous" teaching of the biblical understanding of human sexuality which, they said, prohibits sexual expression outside of marriage, and declared as "unacceptable" the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals and blessing of same-sex unions. The following September at a conference in Dallas organized by the AAC and Bishop James Stanton of Dallas, 45 bishops—over half of whom were from Third World provinces—reaffirmed the Kuala Lumpur statement and called for greater accountability and discipline for those "who choose beliefs and practices outside the boundaries of the historic faith."

The Standing Committee of the Province of Southeast Asia not only endorsed the statement but said that it would not regard itself in communion with any province that did not endorse it. The ESA bishops wrote to Archbishop Moses Tay in May, "rejoicing in the reports which have come out of the recent meeting of Anglican primates in Jerusalem" where "you made it abundantly clear to the American primate that you felt his province should be expelled from the world-wide Anglican Communion should the American church fail to reverse its ipso facto acceptance and endorsement of the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions."

Statement provokes strong responses

Their foray has drawn counter fire from several liberal bishops, most notably from Bishop John Spong of Newark who, in a paper sent last fall to all Anglican primates, characterized conservatives as "uninformed religious people" whose literal interpretation of the Bible "has become one of embarrassment to the cause of Christ." His statements led to a caustic exchange of letters with the Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey who scolded Spong for his "hectoring and intemperate tone." In return, Spong took Carey to task for not being equally critical of the hostile language in both the Kuala Lumpur and Dallas statements which, he contended, were "not just intemperate but offensive, rude and hostile."

Though Spong and Carey adopted more cordial rhetoric in subsequent letters, the prospect of firefights erupting in the plenaries and section meetings remains a serious concern for Buchanan. As chair of the Lambeth Conference subsection dealing with human sexuality, he will be responsible for refereeing disputes, and ensuring that all views are heard.

"There are some people who would want to say that the question of homosexuality is not fundamental to the faith. Other people would say it is. One of my jobs at Canterbury is to try to balance the whole lot of it," said Buchanan.

A model for dialogue

That will be a difficult assignment, he admitted, given the impassioned stance of both sides and the ambiguous evidence each puts forward, whether from science or scripture. The only way through, he said, is to approach the issue "with a degree of grace and love, and be able to hear each other even if we don't like what we are hearing."

That is the process the Lambeth Conference adopted 10 years ago when it grappled with the issue of women's ordination. Faced with potential schism over the impending election and consecration of women bishops in some provinces such as the United States, the bishops created a framework for maintaining communion between provinces on opposite sides of the issue. The result was a monitoring group appointed by Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie (named the Eames Commission after its chair, Archbishop Robin Eames of the Church of Ireland) that was charged with ensuring that provinces remain in communication with each other and committed to a process of open reception that stresses courtesy, tolerance and mutual respect.

Bishops and dioceses that support the ordination of women need to recognize "that within a genuinely open process of reception there must be room for those who disagree," stated the Eames Commission in its final report to the Primates Meeting in 1994. The approach has been remarkably successful according to a study by the Eames Monitoring Group, the successor to the Eames Commission. All but four of the communion's 32 self-governing provinces responded to the monitoring group's survey, and all responses endorsed the principle of open reception.

Endorsing study or a statement

Some bishops are suggesting the same process be applied to the equally volatile issue of sexuality—and Carey has sent clear signals that he would seriously consider such a move. Whether the conference chooses a study process over an explicit doctrinal statement like Kuala Lumpur will depend on a coalition of conservative U.S. and Third World bishops. Several primates, notably Tay of Southeast Asia and Maurice Sinclair of the Southern Cone, have made it clear they will lobby for passage of the Kuala Lumpur statement. Others, including Archbishop David Gitari of the Church of Kenya, are adopting a more conciliatory posture.

Many African bishops regard the ordination of homosexuals and blessing of same-sex unions as a complete denial of biblical truth, but acknowledge that the Lambeth Conference as a whole needs to study the issues in greater depth, Gitari said. While he might support a resolution on Kuala Lumpur, Gitari said he would also back the formation of a commission to study sexuality under the same guidelines used for women's ordination.

An Eames Commission study also has the support of Spong. His position is not to force the rest of the Communion to accept the ordination of gays and lesbians, he said, but merely to prevent the Communion from rendering judgment on his diocese, where gay and lesbian clergy are welcome. "I am seeking the absence of a negative prohibition. That is all I am seeking," said Spong.

Respecting cultural differences

The situation is analogous to the debate on polygamy at the last Lambeth Conference, which largely reversed a 100-year-old ban on permitting polygamists to join the church, he said. While upholding monogamy as ordained by God, the 1988 resolution allowed the baptism and confirmation of polygamists on the condition they not marry again as long as their present wives remained living.

Spong voted for the measure out of pastoral concern for the women, he said, who would have been divorced and likely forced into prostitution if the ban had remained in effect. While willing to make accommodations for the cultural realities in east Africa, Spong isn't ready to put polygamy on the same plane as ordaining gays and lesbians or blessing same-sex unions.

"I think that polygamy is a better alternative for Kenya and Uganda than the rigorously enforced Victorian monogamy given the cultural realities," he said. "But I think those cultural realities ought to be addressed."

For Gitari there is no comparison given that the Bible acknowledges and accepts polygamy in some instances but does not condone homosexuality. Said Gitari: "We don't say that having more than one wife is ideal. We say it is part of the fallen nature of man, and we approach it from a pastoral point of view."

If social stability is enough of a concern to warrant an accommodation of polygamy, Lambeth should show the same tolerance to his diocese's ministry to gays and lesbians, said Spong, highlighting the issues of cultural differences that underlie many Lambeth discussions.

"I am not going to say to the province of Uganda that they have got to take the same attitude toward gay people that I take," Spong said, "but they are not facing my reality."