Saturday, May 29, 2010

Archbishop of Canterbury imposes first sanctions on Anglican provinces over gay bishops dispute

The Archbishop of Canterbury has imposed the first punishments on Anglican national churches judged to have inflamed tensions over homosexuality in the church.

Dr Rowan Williams announced that provinces which had ignored his “pleading” for restraint would be banned from attending official discussions with other Christian denominations and prevented from voting on a key body on doctrine.

He admitted the 80 million-strong Anglican Communion was in a time of “substantial transition” but held back from taking the most serious step of expelling national churches from it.

His action, taken after years of patiently asking both conservatives and liberals to abide by agreed rules, will affect both sides in the dispute over whether the Bible permits openly homosexual clergy.

It has been triggered by the progressive Episcopal Church of the USA, which ordained its first lesbian bishop, the Rt Rev Mary Glasspool, earlier this month.

The Episcopal Church also elected the first openly homosexual bishop in the Communion, the Rt Rev Gene Robinson, in 2003.

But the move will also hit orthodox provinces in the developing world – known as the Global South – that reacted to the liberal innovations in America and Canada by taking conservative American clergy and congregations out of their national churches and giving them roles in Africa and South America.

This has triggered bitter legal battles over the fate of church buildings.

The Anglican provinces found to have broken the “moratoria” - on ordaining homosexual clergy; blessing same-sex unions in church; and making “cross-border interventions” - will soon be sent letters telling them about the proposed punishment for straying from the Communion’s agreed positions.

This will involve them being asked to step down from formal ecumenical dialogues such as those with Orthodox Churches or the Roman Catholic Church, and being denied decision-making powers in the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order that handles questions of church doctrine and authority.

The heads of all the national Anglican churches, known as the Primates, will discuss the Archbishop’s plan at their next scheduled meeting in January.

The provinces are also going through a lengthy process of establishing a “covenant” of agreed behaviour and consequences for those who break it.

Dr Williams wrote in a Pentecost letter to the Anglican Communion, of which he is the spiritual head: “Our Anglican fellowship continues to experience painful division, and the events of recent months have not brought us nearer to full reconciliation. There are still things being done that the representative bodies of the Communion have repeatedly pleaded should not be done; and this leads to recrimination, confusion and bitterness all round.

“It is clear that the official bodies of The Episcopal Church have felt in conscience that they cannot go along with what has been asked of them by others, and the consecration of Canon Mary Glasspool on May 15 has been a clear sign of this. And despite attempts to clarify the situation, activity across provincial boundaries still continues - equally dictated by what people have felt they must in conscience do.

“I am therefore proposing that, while these tensions remain unresolved, members of such provinces - provinces that have formally, through their Synod or House of Bishops, adopted policies that breach any of the moratoria requested by the Instruments of Communion and recently reaffirmed by the Standing Committee and the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order (IASCUFO) - should not be participants in the ecumenical dialogues in which the Communion is formally engaged. I am further proposing that members of such provinces serving on IASCUFO should for the time being have the status only of consultants rather than full members.”

It is the first time the Archbishop has imposed such sanctions on Anglican provinces.

In 2005, Primates called on the Episcopal Church and its Canadian counterpart to "voluntarily withdraw" their representatives from a gathering of the Anglican Consultative Council in Nottingham.

The churches still sent delegations and made presentations but did not officially participate.