After somewhat of a shaky start, the Lambeth Conference ÔÇô the 10-yearly gathering of Anglican bishops ÔÇô has ended. So what came of the 19 days of prayer, theological debates, deliberations and quiet reflection? It depends on who fields the question.
If you listen to the conservative voices, the storm hasn’t passed yet. In the week leading to the conference’s closure, Archbishop Henry Orombi from Uganda accused the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams ÔÇô the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion ÔÇô of “betrayal” by inviting to the conference American church leaders who had consecrated the gay bishop of New Hampshire, Gene Robinson, in 2003. Writing in a newspaper op-ed, Orombi said there was an “unrelenting commitment” by the United States Church “to bless sinful behaviour”.
“In every case, homosexual practice is considered sinful, something that breaks our relationship with God and harms our wellbeing.
“It is something for which one should repent and seek forgiveness and healing, which God is ever ready to do,” Orombi wrote.
He said Robinson’s consecration was a “deep betrayal”, adding that when “the Archbishop of Canterbury invited these American bishops to participate in the Lambeth Conference… in the face of the unrelenting commitment of the American Church to bless sinful behaviour, we were stunned. Further betrayal”.
Orombi’s article also said it was “peculiar” that the Archbishop of Canterbury was not elected by his peers.
“Even the Pope is elected by his peers, but what Anglicans have is a man appointed by a secular government… Over the past five years, we have come to see this as a remnant of British colonialism, and it is not serving us well,” Orombi ÔÇô one of the 250 clergy who boycotted the conference ÔÇô wrote.
The public had hardly completed Archbishop Orombi’s article when two of Williams’s close bishops challenged the Archbishop of Canterbury to declare a split in the church for the sake of orthodox Christianity. They said that Dr Williams would fail to avert a schism because liberals were determined to press ahead with their pro-gay agenda.
Instead, they called on Dr Williams to acknowledge that there were now two distinct Churches and negotiate an “orderly separation” to preserve a traditional identity for Anglicanism. The Rt Rev Michael Scott-Joynt, the Bishop of Winchester, said that the Archbishop’s plan to maintain unity lacked a sense of urgency and was unlikely to work.
“We need to negotiate a separation in the Communion sooner rather than later, to leave the strongest possibility of remaining in some kind of fellowship,” said Bishop Scott-Joynt, at the same time expressing concern that traditional Churches in Africa would break away unless the Lambeth Conference delivered a clear definition of what Anglicanism represents in the final report.
Bishop Scott-Joynt even cast doubt on plans for an Anglican Covenant, or rule book of beliefs, which Dr Williams hopes will bind the Communion together behind a shared set of tenets.
“My greatest worry about the covenant is who’ll still be around to use it,” he said.
His fears were echoed by the Rt Rev Michael Langrish, the Bishop of Exeter, who accused America’s Episcopal Church, which consecrated Anglicanism’s first openly gay bishop, of being selfish and establishing a rival Church.
The liberal voices maintain the position long articulated by the Bishop of the Diocese of Botswana, Rt. Rev Trevor Mwamba, that the Church should concern itself with more pressing social and economic needs. The view finds expression in the views of people such as Rev Giles Goddard, the chairman of Inclusive Church, a liberal lobbying group.
“The traditionalists are in the minority and an increasing number in the Church of England would side with the American Church now,” Goddard told one interviewer on the sidelines of the conference. “The people in the pew wonder what all the fuss is about.”
The man in the eye of the storm has remarkably managed to retain his cool through the toughest weeks of his ministry.
“I’m content, I think,” Dr Williams told reporters after the conference. “I feel a great deal of what I hoped for has happened… We’ve found that very slowly there’s a slightly different way of doing business. What we haven’t had is a very consistent counter-narrative flowing through the conference from people feeling disenfranchised.”
He was asked about the attack from Uganda.
“That’s tough hearing… I felt that Archbishop Orombi’s comments slightly misunderstood the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, as if the Archbishop directed the Communion. It’s a historical given that this is where this particular mission began from and the Archbishop retains permission to convene the Communion. No one has come up with a coherent alternative,” he said.
He comes across equally impatient with the English bishops who have openly expressed impatience with his soft stand towards the Americans.
His response is by way of a question. “How would you effect a quick separation? It sounds easier than it is. Actually, not easier; it just sounds quicker than it possibly could be… And their language that speaks of two churches; I don’t think that’s been the experience of the overwhelming majority of the people at this conference. What you see at the Eucharist every morning is not two churches.”
Even in the dying moments of the conference, Williams had to face what was interpreted as a last effort to undermine his position when a letter he wrote eight years ago was leaked. In the correspondence, Williams appears to compare homosexual relationships to marriage.
“By the end of the 1980s I had definitely come to the conclusion that scripture was not dealing with the predicament of persons whom we should recognise as homosexual by nature. I concluded that an active sexual relationship between two people of the same sex might therefore reflect the love of God in a way comparable to marriage, if and only if it had about it the same character of absolute covenanted faithfulness,” he wrote.
The immediate impact of the letter cannot be immediately gauged. But the act of throwing private mail into the public domain might be a harbinger of what awaits in the coming weeks and months as Dr Williams fights to keep the Communion united.