Source: Sydney Morning Herald
I have worshiped God in Anglican churches in places as remote from each other as Punta Arenas, at the southern tip of Chile, Darwin, Cape Town, Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Oxford, Washington and Vancouver. I could visit many more places, in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere. In all, there is a family resemblance stemming from origin, relationships, teaching and practice.
These churches are in communion with each other. As an Anglican clergyman, I was welcome to minister with few questions asked. In a world of division, great international movements such as churches are precious reminders that we all belong to the same human race. Through them, people from around the world care for each other in practical and effective ways. Christians are world-citizens. Unity matters.
On the other hand, the Church is not infinitely flexible. It cannot be, if it is to be true to its calling. It has a task to bear witness to the truth that is in Jesus Christ. There are boundaries to that truth, and hence boundaries to the Christian fellowship. Christians sometimes have to decide that the truth of some major issue does not permit them to have unity with each other in the same way as before. We must be welcoming, but we cannot embrace indifference about doctrine, and hope to survive.
The world-wide Anglican Communion is struggling with the issue of human sexuality. Despite the pleas of other Anglicans from around the world, the American church consecrated as a Bishop a practising homosexual. Very significant numbers of Anglicans, both inside the USA and elsewhere, regard this as a clear violation of the Bible, which is the prime authority of Anglicans everywhere. They have, therefore broken relationship with those who have taken this step.
This has made life very awkward for the Archbishop of Canterbury. He has some immensely hard decisions to make involving questions of relationship. Who still belongs to the Anglican Communion? The Archbishop is also troubled by developments in England surrounding the same issues. For the Archbishop, with the Lambeth Conference looming in 2008, a time of crisis is at hand. He has to decide who to invite.
In a few days, the Primates of the Anglican Communion will meet in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. The largest churches are in the Global South. There is a clear loss of patience with the Americans and their allies. Decisions may have been taken by some leading members of the group not to have fellowship with the Americans. Indeed, various parishes in America have already joined overseas dioceses, rather than remain in the American church, and the Nigerians have set up a branch of their numerically powerful church in US itself. Considerable pain is being experienced, and it may well get worse as Anglicans rearrange their relationships.
Bishop Katharine Schori, the new Presiding Bishop of the American Church will be present at the invitation of Dr Williams. There is doubt about the welcome she will receive from a number of the Primates. To them, she represents a church which has broken the boundaries needed to hold the communion together. Whether the American convictions prove to be prophetic and true, or wilful and badly mistaken, they have chosen to follow them to the end. They cannot be surprised that this will cause turbulence in the communion. They had more than sufficient warning over the years.
Already Anglicans are not as welcoming of each other we have been in the past. In a world where truth is often regarded as no more than opinion, this is a struggle over important matters of principle. The Americans have clearly voted for the truth of their convictions over unity, although they would like both. The same thing applies to those who are opposed to them. But this is actually not without hope. We are seeing not a mere power struggle, but the clash of deeply held convictions.
It is not unchristian to have serious disagreement over truth. But here is a biblical command for us all: speak the truth with love. Can Anglicans continue to witness to the truth and also love those with whom we differ so significantly? If so, perhaps one day we will see unity restored. The Dar es Salaam meetings may well clarify the way ahead for Anglicans.
Dr Peter Jensen is the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney