Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, head cleric in the Church of England, has responded to the Episcopal Church’s decision to allow the ordination of homosexual bishops. Saying that a change in Anglican teaching, if necessary, would require broader agreement, he proposed a “two-track” church structure which recognizes “two ways of being Anglican.”
On July 14, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention voted to approve homosexual bishops. It was seen as a rejection of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s and the Anglican Communion’s call for a moratorium on the practice.
Writing in a July 27 document titled “Communion, Covenant and our Anglican Future,” Archbishop Williams said the wording of the resolution showed that it did not want to “cut its moorings from other parts of the Anglican family.” The two most controversial resolutions, he said, do not have the “automatic effect” of overturning the moratoria on homosexual clergy.
However, he said the resolutions do not suggest the General Convention will “repair the broken bridges into the life of other Anglican provinces” and have led to the expression of “very serious anxieties.”
He said the issue is not simply about civil liberties, human dignity, or the freedom of individual Christians to form their consciences.
“It is about whether the Church is free to recognize same-sex unions by means of public blessings that are seen as being, at the very least, analogous to Christian marriage,” he said.
Based on the Christian Church’s consistent reading of the Bible for two millennia, the archbishop said, an innovation would require “the most painstaking biblical exegesis” and “a wide acceptance of the results within the Communion.”
“This is not our situation in the Communion,” he said, noting that persons living in homosexual unions cannot represent the Anglican Church without “serious incongruity.”
He also counseled Anglicans to recall how a local church decides on a “sensitive and controversial matter” so as not to be “completely trapped in the particularly bitter and unpleasant atmosphere of the debate over sexuality, in which unexamined prejudice is still so much in evidence and accusations of bad faith and bigotry are so readily thrown around.”
Noting past Christian errors, he also warned about the danger of a local church simply becoming “isolated and imprisoned in its own cultural environment.”
He suggested the possibility of a “twofold ecclesial reality,” with a “covenanted” Anglican global body fully sharing a vision of how the Church should be. To this would be joined “in less formal ways” associated local churches in “various kinds of mutual partnership.”
Rather than a “two-tier” system, he suggested, this is a “two-track model” with two ways of “witnessing to the Anglican heritage.”
“The ideal is that both 'tracks' should be able to pursue what they believe God is calling them to be as Church, with greater integrity and consistency,” he continued.
“It helps to be clear about these possible futures, however much we think them less than ideal, and to speak about them not in apocalyptic terms of schism and excommunication,” he said, stating that they are “two styles of being Anglican.”
“All of this is to do with becoming the Church God wants us to be, for the better proclamation of the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ,” the Archbishop of Canterbury’s document concluded. He said the present situation should be seen not as “an unhappy sent of tensions” but rather “an opportunity for clarity, renewal and deeper relation with one another” and with God.
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s conciliatory statement contrasts with the response of prominent biblical scholar and Anglican Bishop of Durham N.T. Wright, who said the Episcopal Church’s recent decision formalized a “schism” and marked a “clear break” with the Anglican Communion. Bishop Wright also criticized those Episcopalians who have “long embraced a theology in which chastity, as universally understood by the wider Christian tradition, has been optional.”