This has been a controversial summer for the Anglican church. For theological conservatives, the worst moment came on Aug. 5 in Minneapolis, when the General Convention of the U.S. Episcopal Church ratified the election of an openly gay bishop.
Gene Robinson, 56, a divorced father of two who has been in a sexual relationship with another man for the past 13 years, was elected Bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson was cleared of allegations of inappropriate touching and links to pornography, and was approved by 62 American bishops and rejected by 45.
Earlier in July, a gay British priest, Canon Jeffrey John, who had been appointed Bishop of Reading, withdrew his name after an enormous outcry from conservative bishops around the world. Peter Akinola, Archbishop of Nigeria, threatened to withdraw his 17 million-member church if John was made bishop. Similar opposition was expressed in the U.S., but to no avail.
“God has once again brought an Easter out of a Good Friday,” declared Bishop Robinson when he heard his election was confirmed. Liberals are hoping the current opposition will fade, as did opposition to the ordination of women in the 1970s. But conservatives are speaking instead of a “dramatic realignment.”
The American denomination has about 2.3 million members and is considered one of the most liberal of all the national churches in the global Anglican communion. There are 77 million Anglicans worldwide.
After Robinson’s ratification, most of the conservative delegates in Minneapolis left the convention floor, some in tears. Many never returned. “May God have mercy on this church,” declared the Bishop of Pittsburgh, Robert Duncan. He urged the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, and bishops throughout the Anglican communion to “intervene in the pastoral emergency.”
“Difficult days lie ahead for the Anglican church,” the Archbishop of Canterbury acknowledged in a prepared statement. “It is my hope that the church in America and the rest of the Anglican Communion will have the the opportunity to consider this development before significant and irreversible decisions are made in response. I have said before that we need as a church to be very careful about making decisions for our own part of the world, which constrain the church elsewhere.”
Before becoming archbishop, Williams supported non-celibate gay clergy and same-sex marriage, but says he has no desire to preside over the rending apart of the Anglican Communion. Some observers speculate that separate ecclesiastical provinces will be created in North America to accommodate conservatives in both Canada and the United States if national splits occur.
Williams has called an emergency meeting of all the world’s primates for Oct. 15 and 16 in England. (An Anglican primate is the spiritual leader of each national church or, in some cases, region.) Both American primate Frank Griswold and Canadian primate Michael Peers are tolerant of non-celibate gay clergy and same-sex unions. Most of the 38-nation Anglican communion, however, disapproves.
David Phillips, of the Church Society of England, was blunt. “We consider the Episcopal Church of the United States has put itself outside the fellowship of faithful Christians. They have created a schism. They have shown they are pursuing a religion that is not Christianity.”
“There are numerous issues that divide the Anglican church, but this comes before us as a salvation issue,” said Peter Jensen, Archbishop of Sydney. “It puts souls at risk. It is something we cannot afford to let pass.”
For orthodox Anglicans, the summer certainly did not bode well. On May 28, the first official Anglican same-sex blessing was held at St. Margaret’s Cedar Cottage, a tiny church in the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster. Two days later, the diocesan synod voted by a two-thirds majority to continue such blessings despite warnings by conservatives to wait until the Anglican Church of Canada had addressed the matter at its General Synod next year.
A year ago, when the Vancouver-area diocese first approved blessing same-sex unions, delegates from eight parishes walked out in protest. They stayed out, forming the Anglican Communion in New Westminster (ACiNW), which represents almost a quarter of the population of the diocese. They ceased paying diocesan taxes and instead now pay their clergy directly through their coalition.
In mid-July of this year, a ninth congregation, Holy Cross, joined the orthodox coalition. What was particularly striking was that the priest, Dawn McDonald, had for 13 years been in a promiscuous lesbian relationship. She has since testified publicly to God’s power to bring real change in her sexual orientation and healing to the horrendous sexual abuse she suffered in her childhood.