Last week I was among a group of 10 people who had breakfast with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was participating in a conference at Georgetown University. That afternoon, I had lunch with his press secretary the Rev. Jonathan Jennings, whom I have had the privilege of having lunch with a time or three before. The previous week, I’d had a chance to interview Sue Parks, the conference manager of the Lambeth Conference, and we will have a piece based on that interview in the May issue of the Washington Window.
I mention all of this not to show how well-connected I am (the Archbishop always has breakfast with somebody, unless he has breakfast alone) or to prepare you for any juicy revelations—I leave that for people who think they can determine the future of the Anglican Communion by an exceedingly close analysis of a handful of choice paragraphs culled from the recent speech of the Bishop of Exeter.—But to offer my own admittedly partial and subjective sense of where things stand in the Episcopal Church’s relationship to the rest of the Anglican Communion as we approach our General Convention in June.
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It has been suggested that unless the Episcopal Church agrees to do precisely what is asked of it in the Windsor Report (affecting moratoria on the consecration of bishops in same-sex relationships and on the blessing of same-sex unions) we will be bounced out of the Anglican Communion, but that if we do precisely what is asked of us, the other provinces of the Communion which have laid claim to the Church’s property, and claimed the right to found competing churches in our province. will cease and desist having gotten what they wanted from us.
I think it is safe to say that the first is unlikely, and the second, alas, is preposterous. The Archbishop, I think it is safe to say, wants the fullest possible compliance that he can get from us because it will strengthen his hand when he says to the rest of the Communion: “Not bad, huh? They are trying.” The question, I think, is whether we can, in good conscience, give him what will be considered “enough.” From his point of view, again, I am surmising, the worst we could do is to approve the consecration of another gay bishop. The best we could do, on that count, is to approve the moratorium. If we don’t consecrate a gay bishop, and express our understanding that doing so in the future will have grave consequences, have we done enough? That answer, I think, will be influenced by the response of two constituencies: provinces not closely allied either with the North American Churches or with Peter Akinola and his faction, and Williams’ episcopal brethren (there are no episcopal sisteren) in the Church of England.
On the issue of same-sex blessings, the best we can do for the Archbishop is to give him a full moratorium. I would be very surprised if the Convention felt it could go this far. (And, I am not sure it is going to be asked to go that far, though we will know more on this score within two weeks when the much discussed, but never seen report of the committee convened to coordinate our response to the Windsor Report makes its recommendations public.) What we might be able to give to the Archbishop is a moratorium on the development of authorized rites for same sex blessings. We would affect this, I am guessing, with the understanding that the question of whether a particular priest should bless a particular same sex relationship will be made by that particular priest. Or, perhaps, we will leave the authority to determine how much leeway the priest has with his or her bishop. I don’t have a feel for which of these scenarios would be deemed most likely to pass the Convention, nor do I know which one Dr. Williams would prefer.
So, again, the question will be: Is this enough? It is worth remembering that Bishop Mark Dyer, of Virginia Theological Seminary, who served on the commission that wrote the Windsor Report said in a lecture that the use of the words “public rites” in the report was meant to indicate that the blessing of same-sex relationships in a pastoral context should be allowed to continue. On the one hand, I don’t think he made that up. On the other hand, at least some other members of the committee have disputed his interpretation.
And, again, in my limited judgment, I think the answer may come from the two sources I listed previously. If it is not enough, I think we can expect consequences, although I don’t know what they will be. I don’t think we will be expelled from the Communion, but the nature of our membership might well deteriorate, and the Communion itself may begin to fragment if we remain.
The Archbishop and his advisors realize that our church’s response to the Windsor Report won’t please all provinces, no matter how fulsome it might be. We should not expect the Primates who have either claimed our Church’s property or asserted a right to minister within our province to simply up and go home. After all, some of these incursions predate the consecration of Gene Robinson. The intransigence of these Primates may, perversely, work on our behalf, marginalizing them, rather than us, within the eyes of the Communion.
But before Episcopalians find solace in this, they should realize that the Archbishop has to be mindful that these boundary-crossing Primates could attempt to sew in every province the kind of dissension that they have labored to sew in ours. The result, potentially, is not a schism in which X number of provinces go this way and Y go that way, but a much more chaotic breakdown in which numerous provinces experience internal schisms.
Some commentators have attempted to paint the Archbishop as either too weak-willed or to wooly-headed to handle the crisis in the Communion effectively. I think they have misread him. His will to keep the Communion together is intensely strong, and he is clearly willing to push our side of the current conflict to make sacrifices to preserve it. He has yet to push the other side in any public way, but I can’t say whether that is because he feels they hold a strategic advantage over him, or because he is waiting for us to “make an offer” that he can translate to the rest of the Communion..
Likewise, his appreciation of Communion politics is especially keen. Unfortunately, I think he believes, probably correctly, that these politics dictate that he keeps his distance from us, at least publicly. The unhappy reality, it seems to me, is that by playing the honest broker, Rowan Williams might hold the Anglican Communion together, but he will never be able to be the warm friend to our Church that so many of us expected him to be. In our gain lies our loss, and vice versa.