The question of the formation and recognition of a new Anglican Province in North America is currently being debated in the Anglican Communion. There is the urgent need on the one hand to regularise the situation of Anglicans who cannot in conscience assent to the innovations in doctrine and ethics being introduced into the life of TEC. On the other hand there is a natural reluctance to create a rival body alongside what has been a historic part of the Anglican Church. Institutions tend to avoid decisive measures, and minimise risk. However, reasons are given here for giving official support to the first steps in the formation of the new Province. It can be argued that failure to take these measures actually increases risk to the institutional as well as the spiritual life of the Communion.
1. The Indaba process in this year’s Lambeth Conference gave what may be considered definitive proof that irreconcilable positions are held in respect to the controversial issues in human sexuality. Those who stayed away from the Conference certainly hold a view, which they will not relinquish. Even without their presence, the majority at Lambeth holding to the historic position was entirely stable. Mature reflection held them to the view that the Church could not revise its teaching to accommodate sexual activity outside the marriage of a man to a woman. The significant minority in favour of such revision also remains convinced of the rightness of its stance. For them to change would, in their understanding, be a betrayal of lesbians and gays. One the one hand we have a large majority of Anglicans who cannot conscientiously continue in a church in which the alternative sexual ethic is an option. On the other hand we have a strongly motivated and resourced minority committed to the pursuit of this option.
2. The fact that the proposed revision in sexual ethics has no prospect of carrying the majority in the Anglican Communion is reflected in the Ecumenical life of the Church. Although this more radical expression of liberalism has made some impact in the historic Protestant Churches it is effectively rejected by Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal and independent Evangelical churches world-wide. The case for change has been argued passionately, political leverage has been used extensively, but the Christian Church as a whole is still convinced that the creation ethic applies today, as in the past.
3. Granted this Anglican conclusion, strongly confirmed by the Ecumenical consensus, an attempt to keep open options on the sexual ethic or even the avoidance of some closure of the debate, is self defeating. It is pastorally damaging for all homosexuals, as it is more widely among the membership of the church. The impact upon the public as a whole is equally damaging. For lack so far of a sufficient response through our Instruments of Communion there is an increasing risk of fragmentation of the Communion.
4. The dangers inherent in this situation have led to the GAFCON initiative and the formation of a Primates’ Council ready to make its own intervention in North America with the aim of bringing together in one body the Anglicans Churches and groupings currently standing out against the revisions sanctioned by TEC. The professed intention of GAFCON is to work within the Anglican Communion, and therefore we may conclude that the preference of its leaders is that a new North American Province should from the outset be supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates as a body. Failing that development, the GAFCON council is evidently willing to act on its own.
5. Clearly the ‘official support’ for a new province is much better than sectional support. Actually the ‘section’ represents the majority of Anglican membership world wide and that fact makes the ‘official support even more critical. The Archbishop of Canterbury, together with the Primates’ Meeting has a crucial role in preserving the unity of the Communion. The majority of his fellow Anglicans wish unambiguously to retain the historic and biblical ethic. His own conviction is that the Church is not free to introduce unilateral changes in doctrinal or ethical matters. Yet two Member Churches in North America are continuing to pursue this path against the conscientious objection of significant numbers of their members. These conditions surely underline the rightness and the necessity of official support for a new North American Province in formation.
6. If one compares the outcome of a positive decision on the part of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates with its alternative: a GAFCON supported province, then very different scenarios may be anticipated. In the first instance Anglicans have the opportunity of uniting around their historic Instruments of Communion. The vast majority may be expected to do so. The second procedure will lead to a developing role for GAFCON in which, even if reluctantly, the authority of the Instruments of Communion will be further undermined. Consequently the most damaging split could occur in the Anglican Family: the largest West and East African Provinces and sympathetic provinces, dioceses and parishes on one side, and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other Instruments of Communion relating to an Anglo-Anglican remnant. The first option will be opposed by those committed to the controversial revisions. The second option risks in the end alienation on a massive scale.
7. It might be concluded from the above that GAFCON may be attempting to force the hand of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates as a whole. Here though we need to look at the deepest motives. Granted human failures that we all hold in common, we may safely assume that no one in this dispute is working purely cynically, and that by our lights we are all looking for a future God can approve. Revisionists believe that they are acting out of justice love. Conservatives seek to be loyal to the way of Christ according to the traditional interpretation and plain meaning of Scripture. Surely it is better that both follow conscience rather than demanding a compromise of conscience that neither is willing to make. Those with greatest responsibility in the Communion have corporate responsibility for preserving conscientious membership. Does it matter who it is who is taking the preparatory steps? The important thing is that they should lead to decisive measures that can be endorsed by the whole leadership?
8. It is clear that the decision whether or not to support a new Anglican province in North America is linked with the outcome of the Covenant Process. The presumption would be that the newly formed province would participate in the Covenant once established. TEC, still committed to its revisions, would not qualify as a participating member church. With these questions as yet unresolved there is actually a costly and very damaging process of litigation taking place, affecting many Episcopal parishes and some dioceses in the United States. Would the authorisation of a new Province and the establishment of a strong Covenant increase or decrease this level of litigation in the U.S. and increase or decrease the risk of similar conflict in other parts of the world? It could be argued that total clarity in the way the instruments of Communion seek to resolve this controversy will actually hasten the end of the litigation. North American leaders who believe in the alternative ethic will finally realise that they cannot co-opt or coerce fellow Anglicans to this new agenda and may be content to pursue it on their own and using the resources and plant that more naturally correspond to them.
9. Finally there may be a case for the Archbishops and Primates to support the initial steps in the formation of the new Province of North America, and require for their completion an ongoing process of collaboration and consultation with participants appointed at the Primates’ Meeting itself. How the new province is set up is crucial. The birthing of the new entity may need the work of a supervisory group chaired by a Primates’ appointee.
2nd November 2008
The Most Rev. Maurice Sinclair
Former Archbishop of the Southern Cone