Conference Highlights Important Divisions Among Anglican Bishops

DUBLIN, Ire.—The 13th Lambeth Conference may prove the unluckiest yet for the Anglican Communion, which in the United States includes the Episcopal Church.

For after the last Lambeth Conference before the dawn of the Third Millennium, the Anglican Communion is more divided than ever and now stands even further away from full communion with Rome. Most media coverage has concentrated on the confer-ence's decisive vote in favor of traditional Church teaching on homosexuality, but the conference which ended Aug. 9 also raised more important issues concerning an Anglican magisterium and the sanctity of human life.

Lambeth Conferences, which are held once every decade, are an assembly of archbishops and bishops belonging to the 40 provinces of the Anglican Communion. In theory, resolutions passed at the conferences are not legislative and have no binding effect on the autonomous provinces, but Anglican bishops report back to their dioceses on conference proceedings and, in the words of Cambridge historian Owen Chadwick in his introduction to Resolutions of the Twelve Lambeth Conferences, the conferences have acquired an influence “so close to authority as hardly to be distinguishable from it.”

Among the hundreds of resolutions discussed on issues including inter-faith relations, Third World debt, and Middle East peace talks, the most divisive involved homosexuality. The conference passed a resolution by 526 votes to 70, with 45 abstentions, stating that homosexual practice were “incompatible with scripture.” In effect, the resolution condemns the practices, common in Britain and the United States, of blessing unions between homosexual couples and of ordaining Anglican priests who are openly homosexual.

A move to recommend homosexual “chastity” which might have allowed long term monogamous homosexual unions was defeated when a further amendment replaced the word “chastity” with “abstinence.”

The vote has exposed the divisions between Anglicanism's liberal and evangelical wings more than ever. In the past, Anglicanism was described as having three equal parts — high Church, low Church, and liberal — which co-existed side by side and gave what was called “Anglican comprehensiveness.” In Anglican circles, it was generally seen as a good thing to appoint a liberal as a bishop, because it was believed they made good intermediaries in the conflict between those of the high Church, also known as Anglo-Catholics, and those of the low Church, now more commonly referred to as “evangelicals.”

Following the decision of many Anglican provinces to ordain women priests, many Anglo-Catholics took “the road to Rome” and became Roman Catholics, thus weakening the influence of those in the high Church. The row over homosexuality has therefore been a contest between the liberal and the evangelical wings.

The evangelicals are particularly strong in Africa and Asia where the Church Missionary Society was aided and abetted by the British Colonial regime in securing converts to Christianity while Catholic missionary activity was suppressed. As a result, the largest bloc at this year's Lambeth Conference were African, with 224 of the 736 archbishops and bishops present coming from the African continent. A further 95 bishops came from Asia.

The liberal wing is strongest in Britain and the United States, with Bishop John Spong of New Jersey seen as its most prominent member. The motion condemning homosexual practice was formulated by African bishops and was a deliberate challenge to Bishop Spong and his followers. Once the resolution was passed, one African churchman, Bishop John Kabango Rucyaghana of the Diocese of Shyira, in Rwanda, called on the head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop George Carey of Canterbury, to expel 70 bishops belonging to the Episcopal Church of the United States after they had signed the pro-homosexual Koinonia statement drawn up by Bishop Spong.

However, Archbishop Carey has no such power and Bishop Spong stands by his practice of ordaining homosexual men. He predicted that openly homosexual bishops will attend the next Lambeth Conference in 10 years and said: “Be assured that today's minority will inevitably be tomorrow's majority.”

There was one openly homosexual bishop present at this Year's conference, Otis Charles, the retired Bishop of Utah, who said the “sin and abomination” of his life was not to come out of the closet and declare that he was homosexual. He confessed: “My sin was my unwillingness to listen to God saying ‘Otis, your are beloved. Come out!.’“ Whether or not the liberal pro-homosexual wing does become dominant remains to be seen. Twenty years ago the evangelicals boasted that they had the majority of Anglican seminarians, that would follow through to the parishes and, eventually, to the Anglican hierarchy. The evangelicals' distaste for homosexuality was made especially clear by Bishop Alexander Malik of Pakistan who compared it to bestiality. He asked if liberals would come to the next Lambeth Conference demanding permission to bless relationships between Anglicans “and their pets, dogs, and cats.”

The hullabaloo created by the row over homosexuality diverted attention from other important issues. The conference passed a vote condemning euthanasia, but that particular resolution also included a clause allowing “excessive” medical treatment and intervention to be withdrawn when “consonant with the Christian faith in enabling a person to die with dignity.” The clause continued: “When a person is in a permanent vegetative state, to sustain him or her with artificial nutrition and hydration may be seen as constituting medical treatment. “ This is a significant departure from the teaching of the Catholic Church which sees the provision of food and water to comatose patients as part of “basic nursing care” rather than as medical treatment.

It is the issue of Church teaching in general which may in the future be seen as the most important aspect of the 13th Lambeth Conference. As the conference began, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Vatican's Council for Promoting Christian Unity, warned that new divisions were emerging between the Anglican Communion and the Church of Rome. He was commenting on the “Virginia Report,” drawn up as a discussion document for the Lambeth Conference and which explores authority within the Anglican Church. Cardinal Cassidy warned: “It [unity] is put in question when pluralism in the Church comes to be regarded as a kind of “post-modern” beatitude.” Anticipating the debate on homosexuality, the cardinal also asked: “Are we not experiencing in fact new and deep divisions among Christians as a result of contrasting approaches to human sexuality.”

A major concern to the ecumenical movement is that the “Virginia Report” suggests that the Lambeth Conference become an embryonic Anglican magisterium, which would represent the overwhelming opinion of the majority of bishops on matters of doctrine. If followed through to its logical conclusion, matters of faith and morals in the Anglican Communion would not be decided on the Word of God and the Gospels, but on a democratic vote and societal views of the time. That is the fear of the evangelicals, which is why they voted so strongly, in line with the Gospels, against homosexual practice.

Bishop Spong tried to undermine the evangelicals by describing African Christianity as “superstitious” and was later forced to apologize for his remarks. For those of a superstitious mind, the 13th Lambeth Conference may prove to have been particularly unlucky for Bishop Spong and the liberal wing.

Cian Molloy writes from Dublin, Ireland.