November-December 2004 – The results of a year-long study by an Anglican commission, convened to resolve the rupture over the issue of homosexuality, failed to satisfy either side of the dispute, giving new life to fears of the denomination’s ultimate disintegration.
The controversy within the 77-million-member Anglican Communion erupted in the summer of 2003, when its American province, the Episcopal Church (ECUSA), elected openly-homosexual Gene Robinson to the bishopric of New Hampshire.
In response, 22 of 38 Anglican provinces worldwide either severed or minified relationships with the ECUSA. Most of the conservative provinces are in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Conservatives in the ECUSA also were distraught over Robinson’s consecration. An Episcopal renewal group, the American Anglican Council (AAC), spearheaded attempts to protect orthodox Episcopalians from the sudden and radical turn of liberal ECUSA bishops.
In January 2004, conservatives launched the American Communion Network (ACN), a network of ECUSA dioceses and congregations who wanted to place themselves under orthodox bishops. Currently the ACN has the support of nine dioceses, consisting of 800 dissenting congregations and some 160,000 Episcopalians.
This alternative network has been overseen by both retired orthodox ECUSA bishops and those from conservative provinces overseas, effectively circumventing the oversight of the liberal bishops who voted for Robinson’s election.
Last fall, in an attempt to head off a permanent schism, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams appointed the Lambeth Commission, composed of 17 archbishops and theologians, to make recommendations on how to heal the breach. Their 93-page Windsor Report was released October 18, and immediately served only to harden the resolve of both factions.
Retreat ruled out
The Lambeth Commission did sharply criticize the ECUSA for electing Robinson, and asked the U.S. province to express “regret” for failing to consider the beliefs of the conservative Anglicans worldwide, who form the majority of the denomination.
The Windsor Report also called for the ECUSA to stop ordaining openly homosexual persons to the bishopric and to stop blessing same-sex unions until the Anglican Communion could resolve the issue.
The alternative conservative movement within the ECUSA – including both the dissenting denominations and the bishops who support them – was also taken to task, and asked to refrain from further separation.
However, ECUSA Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold made it clear that the report had not changed his mind about the fundamental issue. “[A]s Presiding Bishop I am obliged to affirm the presence and positive contribution of gay and lesbian persons to every aspect of the life of our church and in all orders of ministry,” Griswold said in a prepared statement. “Other Provinces are also blessed by the lives and ministry of homosexual persons. I regret that there are places within our Communion where it is unsafe for them to speak out on the truth of who they are.”
Griswold applauded the Windsor Report’s recommendation for continued discussion among Anglicans of differing opinions “with a view to greater understanding about homosexuality and same gender relationships.”
But he also made clear that such an effort towards reconciliation “does not mean the reduction of differences to a single point of view,” all but ruling out any attempt to reverse course on the subject of the normalization of homosexuality.
Must ‘reject false doctrine’
Conservative Anglicans were also unswayed by the Windsor Report. The ACN released a statement citing its concerns that the Lambeth Commission called “only for the Episcopal Church USA to ‘express regret’ and fail[ed] to recommend direct discipline.”
Calling on the ECUSA to “reject false doctrine,” the ACN said Anglican unity could not come at the expense of biblical truth. “We must not allow a desire to hold the church family together to allow us to maintain the fatal disease that grips ECUSA and by association, the Anglican Communion,” the statement said.
Despite the Lambeth Commission’s request that conservatives cease their breakaway movement, the ACN again called for “permanent structural relief” from liberal bishops. The statement expressed gratitude for conservative bishops “who have provided temporary pastoral accom-odation, at great cost, for faithful Anglicans in America who have been persecuted for upholding the apostolic faith.”
The ACN also said it was “deeply saddened” that Griswold had responded immediately to the Windsor Report by rejecting “its core presupposition that is the church’s traditional teaching on human sexuality.”
If the ECUSA continues to follow Griswold’s blueprint, the ACN said, it “will ultimately lead to the demise” of the denomination.
Meanwhile, there are still opportunities for further discussion. The conservative African bishops were scheduled to hold an October meeting in Nigeria, where both sides of the issue were sure to come up.
In January, active and retired bishops of the Episcopal Church will meet in Salt Lake City, Utah, while all 38 bishops will meet in Ireland in February. The Lambeth Conference, the once-a-decade meeting of all Anglican bishops, will be held in 2008.