The appointment of a woman Bishop to lead the Episcopalian Church in the US has deepened rifts within the Anglican Communion. Church leaders have tricky territory to navigate this summer to avoid a permanent split. Susan Roberts reports
The Rt Rev Katharine Jefferts Schori uses her skills as a pilot to visit far-flung parishes scattered over the mountains and deserts of her vast diocese in Nevada.
Since her appointment as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US last month, she will need keen navigating skills to negotiate the huge cracks that are developing in the Anglican church worldwide.
The talk of schism is rather like the war in the former Yugoslavia; to outsiders issues involved in the struggle can seem complicated and hard to grasp. But to those involved they are of visceral importance.
This is actually a battle for the soul of the Anglican Communion, the affiliation of Anglican churches around the world with the Archbishop of Canterbury as its spiritual leader.
The affiliation is loose and more, say members, like being part of a family than being partners in any kind of legal structure. Crucial to its functioning are the Lambeth Conferences, regular meetings bringing together Bishops from around the world to discuss theology and policy.
The Conferences have no binding power over member churches, but up to now they have largely worked as ‘a family of Churches willing to learn from each other across cultural divides’, to quote the current Archbishop Dr. Rowan Willams.
But because of this lack of formal authority deep and bitter divides have emerged. Some members have acted apparently in defiance of the Communion and debate rages over not only who has power to make policy – but the nature of the Anglican Communion.
Arguments over homosexuality and the church have been the catalyst. Cracks started to form in 2003 when the Episcopalian Church appointed the openly gay Rev Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.
The appointment defied a resolution passed five years earlier at the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury which stated that practising homosexuals should not be priests.
Churches in Africa were outraged. Bishops there had long been uneasy about issues that had been emerging in the US over gays and lesbians – their ordination and the blessing of same sex unions.
Conservative Bishops in the US were also appalled. They began a process – which continues – of aligning themselves with the Church in Africa.
Just before the Gene Robinson appointment, there was a painful row in the UK when the gay Canon Jeffrey Johns was nominated to be Bishop of Reading. Pressure mounted for this appointment to be blocked and he was eventually persuaded to step down, but not before serious tensions were exposed.
The Windsor Report, a review of homosexuality and the church, was then commissioned by Dr Williams. Its recommendations included a moratorium on the blessing of same sex relationships and the ordination of gay bishops. It also asked for an apology from the Episcopalian church.
None, though, has been forthcoming. At a key meeting in Columbus, Ohio, in June members stopped well short of saying sorry. Interventions by English bishops urging union – the Bishop of Durham in particular – were not appreciated.
Instead, members voted to ‘exercise restraint’ on the consecration of gay bishops and dropped completely the proposal to cease blessing same-sex unions.
The Rt Rev Jefferts Schori, 52, who had voted in favour of the appointment of Gene Robinson but did not attend the consecration, was appointed head. A former scientist, she entered the priesthood only 12 years ago.
She appears thoughtful and non-confrontational, though sits firmly within the church’s liberal wing and referred to ‘Mother Jesus’ in her sermon at the Ohio convention’s closing Eucharist.
But divisions between the conservative and liberal wings of the Episcopalian church have started to widen and many foresee the eventual split of the US from the Anglican Communion.
Several dioceses within the US have asked Dr Williams for ‘alternative primatial oversight’ – a conservative bishop from another Anglican Church to oversee them for the time being. Ordinary churchgoers, Episcopalians who are neither extremely conservative or liberal but fall somewhere in the middle, find themselves adrift.
In response Dr Williams has suggested a two-tier system. The Anglican Communion would have a central core with ‘full members’, and a second level of associate members which would have observer status.
But storm clouds are gathering.
Critics say that in the looseness of this reaction, the Archbishop has given way to conservative pressure. The ‘inner circle’, they fear, would be dominated by those more inclined to take traditional views on teaching.
“…any convenant risks being an instrument of division, not unity, where a highly traditional version of Anglican doctrine will be agreed by a majority, leaving those who cannot sign up to it orbiting helpless and without influence.” said the Guardian an editorial.
At stake is the future of something up to now valued and unique – a broad church.
A central tenet of the Anglican Communion, up to now accepted without question, is that being a member means being in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Its spirit and working has been rooted in the Christian doctrine of ‘Love thy neighbour’.
It has been – most members would agree - a working example of how humanity ought to live with compassion and mutual care, a Christian community together in the eyes of God.
Any divide would diminish all this. The authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury as a spiritual leader would inevitably be weakened. Quite simply, there would be less of a Church for him to speak for.
The Rt Rev Jeffers Schori wants to avoid conflict. “We’re more interested in feeding hungry people and relieving suffering than we are in arguing what gender someone is or what sexual orientation someone has,” she said in an interview shortly after her appointment.
But this is not simply an argument about the human rights of gay people. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey recently pointed out, what is really at stake is the integrity of the Anglican Communion.
He said he was saddened by the shrill, angry and vindictive tones of much of the debate.
This regrettably masked what was really at stake – ‘our mission, our integrity and our ministry to the poor of Africa’.