New archbishop faces hurdles to Anglican unity

The first Archbishop of Canterbury was St. Augustine, who was sent by the pope to England as a missionary in AD 597.

The 104th Archbishop of Canterbury - who is being enthroned today - is head of the Church of England and spiritual leader of 70 million Anglicans worldwide. A Welsh theologian and poet, the Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams takes St. Augustine's chair at a time of unsettling change in the global Anglican Communion.

As the denomination has declined dramatically in the West in recent decades, it has surged in the developing world, particularly in Africa. So great is the disparity that some Africans are heading to the North as missionaries to help reevangelize the English-speaking field. The new archbishop shares this priority.

But as global leader, he faces yet another challenge - a potential split in the Communion that his predecessor, George Carey, termed "of crisis proportions." A cultural divide between an orthodox South and a liberal Western church has sharpened in recent years over issues of gender and sexuality, and particularly homosexuality.

Dr. Carey warned, as he prepared to step down, that unilateral actions by bishops and dioceses were "steadily driving us towards serious fragmentation and the real possibility of two - or more likely more - distinct Anglican bodies."

For example:

• Two bishops in the Episcopal Church (Anglicans in the US) have publicly stated a willingness to bless same-sex unions, and others are doing so behind the scenes; some bishops are ordaining gay clergy.

• Archbishops in Africa and Asia took the unprecedented step in 2000 of consecrating US priests as bishops to serve under them to bring the US church "back to its biblical foundations."

• A diocese in western Canada has voted to permit rites for same-sex unions, leading eight of its parishes to withdraw.

• Evangelical groups in the Church of England have threatened to look abroad for alternative spiritual leadership because of the new archbishop's views on homosexuality.

The Anglicans are far from alone in their tribulations.

"The problem of what to do about homosexuality runs across most denominations from the pope to the Mennonites," says Martin Marty, professor emeritus of the University of Chicago Divinity School. "But the Episcopal Church - which was also out front on race relations - has been more hospitable to the gay movement than any other except the United Church of Christ; and a tremendous number of gay people and clergy find it their home."

Yet at the last global conference of Anglican bishops in 1998, the majority passed a resolution rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with scripture and opposing the legitimizing of same-sex unions or ordaining gays. Some complain that Western church leaders are not reining in bishops who stray from biblical authority.

Complicating the situation is that Dr. Williams, a respected theologian, has been an outspoken liberal on social issues and admits to ordaining a gay priest. This led evangelical groups in the church to call for his resignation when he was appointed. He has assured them he will not seek to impose his views on the church.

"Archbishop Williams is very sensitive and prayerful and brings a broad sense of the multiple realities in which Anglican Christians live - their very distinct historical, political, and religious contexts," says the Most Rev. Frank Griswold, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Some churches in Africa, for example, which neither accept homosexuality nor have the latitude for broad debate, at the same time make room for people in polygamous marriages because that is their cultural reality. The key, Bishop Griswold adds, is "recognizing that what unites us is more important than what divides us."

Griswold recently chaired a three-year International Anglican Conversation on Human Sexuality. "While there was suspicion at the start, we found we were profoundly one on the basics of the Christian faith, and we discovered the importance of context," he says. "They saw our situation wasn't just wild liberalism but an attempt to deal pastorally with our particular situation" - a society where homosexual issues are being openly dealt with.

Those taking bold steps say they are doing it for pastoral reasons. The Rev. William Smalley, bishop of the Diocese of Kansas, last summer announced a limited plan for blessing nonmarried couples, including homosexuals. The rite cannot resemble a marriage ceremony and the rector and parish must approve before the request comes to him.

"What led me to it after a long struggle was Jesus' model of compassion in the gospels," Bishop Smalley says. "We have a group of people who are shut out and almost treated as modern lepers, yet they are Christians committed to a lifelong relationship." Some parishes in the diocese support the idea and some oppose, he adds; none has yet requested a blessing.

The Diocese of New Westminster in Vancouver, British Columbia, which last June voted for a rite for same-sex unions, has tried to reconcile the parishes who oppose it. But this month the parishes indicated they were more interested in separation.

One direction they may turn is to the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA), the group started by US clergy under the supervision of the archbishops of Rwanda and Singapore. "The Anglican Communion is in flux," says the Rev. Jay Greener, AMiA spokes-man. The group formed, he says, because of US bishops taking positions "apart from historic Anglicanism" and "a lack of action" to hold them to account.

AMiA now has 55 churches and 12,000 members. Most are disaffected Episcopal churches, but the focus now, Mr. Greener emphasizes, is on converting the unchurched. Yet, he adds, "there are a number of scenarios the international community is working on" to help the parishes in Vancouver.

The Anglicans are divided globally and locally, Dr. Marty says. And the new Archbishop of Canterbury has only moral suasion, no power to intervene. The reality is that, since the 16th century, "they have always been a church of 'comprehension' - one that is not supposed to force boundaries that throw people out.... That's been its history."

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