Anglican Covenant

The threats to split the Anglican Communion

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Threats of schism in the Anglican Communion have been front page news since 2002. The bone of contention is gay and lesbian sexuality.

What happened in 2002 to generate threats of schism over the issue? Odd though it now seems, the big event was the announcement that Rowan Williams was to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. What made him apparently unacceptable to many was his liberal views on gay and lesbian sexuality. The storm of opposition, unexpected by most Anglicans, quickly revealed that a carefully orchestrated campaign had already been prepared. Whatever Dr Williams' strengths or weaknesses, it was as though the only thing that matters about archbishops of Canterbury is their views on this one issue. Repeated, and heavily publicized, demands were made that he should not be permitted to take up his post. By the time of his enthronement in February 2003, it was clear that much work had been done behind the scenes to create a public dispute over the ethics of this issue. (The story was described in detail in the Church of England Newspaper).

From then on, every church event with any connection to gay or lesbian sexuality became a topic of controversy. Three months later Jeffrey John, Chancellor and Canon Theologian of Southwark Cathedral, was named the new Suffragan Bishop of Reading. Canon John was living with another man in a relationship which, he said, had previously been sexually active, and refused to repent of the practice. Again there was a well-organized high profile campaign to get his appointment overturned. There was endless discussion about what he had and had not done in bed, and which church statements he could assent to. Philip Giddings, a leading evangelical in the diocese, declared in the Church of England Newspaper (13 June 2003) that

I do not think the appointment is sustainable. His views are and his lifestyle has been incompatible with him being made a bishop. If the appointment goes forward it will have consequences and those consequences will be that a number of clergy and parishes in this episcopal area will not accept the bishop. A number will seek alternative episcopal oversight and a number will not pay their parish share.

Similarly, Peter Akinola, the Archbishop of Nigeria, threatened to precipitate a schism if the appointment went ahead. At the beginning of July, after pressure had been put on him by Archbishop Williams, Jeffrey John formally asked for his nomination to be withdrawn.

While this controversy was taking place the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster authorised a liturgy for blessing same-sex relationships and Gene Robinson, who openly admitted to being in a gay relationship, was elected Bishop of New Hampshire in the USA. Once Jeffrey John's nomination had been withdrawn these became the focus of the campaign. Opponents demanded that the North American provinces should be expelled from the Anglican Communion unless they revoked their actions. However, they were within their rights as they had provincial autonomy. It would have been blatantly unjust to create new legislation forbidding these actions and then apply it retrospectively.

In October a Primates' Meeting was held to discuss the situation. It published a statement which blamed the churches of Canada and the USA for threatening the Anglican Communion's unity. At its request the Eames Commission was set up and asked to make recommendations. Why did they support the campaigners?

The Commission was given a year to produce its report. In the meantime the campaigners saw no reason to hold fire. Their submissions to the Commission - and there were a great many of them - were full of ire. A statement by 14 primates declared that the New Westminster blessing service 'displays a flagrant disregard for the remainder of the Anglican Communion'. The Church of England Evangelical Council complained of 'provocation by a liberal and revisionist elite on an orthodox and unsuspecting Church' and added the warning that 'heaven and hell are both alternative destinies'. Anglican Mainstream proposed that the bishops who attended Gene Robinson's consecration should no longer have their ministries recognised - just because they attended the service! There was much talk of 'disciplining' the North American provinces and demands for 'alternative episcopal oversight' segued into 'adequate episcopal oversight'.

Meanwhile plans for the schism proceeded apace. Most of the action was in the USA, where splits and the foundation of new churches have always been common. Anti-gay Anglicans with pro-gay bishops were encouraged to persuade their parishes to make formal statements declaring that they could not in all conscience accept their bishop's authority - simply because of the bishop's pro-gay views - and demand oversight by a different bishop.

In January 2004 a secret letter was leaked to the press. Written by Geoff Chapman on behalf of the American Anglican Council it explained that while, in public, they were asking for 'adequate episcopal oversight', the real aim, being secretly planned on both sides of the Atlantic, was a major realignment of Anglicanism, a 'replacement jurisdiction' to exclude the liberals. There followed four pages of detailed plans, leading up to the point at which they would be able to go public and take over the leadership of the Anglican Communion.

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