ECUSA goes it alone

Date of publication

ECUSA goes it alone

by Andrew Goddard

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Anglican evangelicals utterly oppose the consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop. A spokesman outlines the steps that should now follow.

FOR some Christians, the consecration of Canon Gene Robinson as bishop of the diocese of New Hampshire in the United States is a cause of great celebration. It bears witness to the inclusivity of the Christian Gospel. Those Christians are, however, a small minority both within the Anglican Communion and the wider Church. For the overwhelming majority of us, the events of last Sunday are both sad and scandalous. The Archbishop of Canterbury, though personally sympathetic to a reconsideration by the Church of its traditional teaching on homosexuality, clearly opposed the consecration. The appointment of a bishop to a diocese of only a few thousand Episcopalians in the Episcopal Church of the United States (ECUSA) now threatens the future of the 70 million Christians in the worldwide Anglican Communion. This is both because of what has been done and how it has been done.

The problem is not that Robinson is “gay” or even “openly gay”. Questions surrounding the Christian interpretation of the nature and significance of gay identity are important, but the problem lies elsewhere. He is someone divorced from his wife who for many years has lived openly in a sexual relationship with another man. Despite some debates about biblical interpretation, there is no doubt that whenever Scripture refers to sexual conduct between people of the same sex – as it does in both the Old and the New Testaments – it does so negatively.

Whereas parts of Scripture commend women in forms of Christian leadership, Scripture nowhere commends any sexual relationship other than marriage. In the light of the clear and consistent biblical witness, the Church has traditionally viewed either faithful marriage between a man and a woman or abstinent singleness as the forms of life fitting for a faithful disciple of Christ. Scripture and church law are also clear that church leaders should be examples of godly living to the flock.

Of course, the Church might have misunderstood the Bible. Not even ECUSA, however, has been bold enough to declare this. Nor has it justified an alternative pattern of godly sexual conduct. Instead, under pressure from cultural forces and political lobbies, it has consecrated as bishop someone living in a non-marital sexual relationship that even ECUSA does not officially recognise. ECUSA's presiding bishop was therefore lost for words when asked why Robinson was eligible to be a bishop when in a sexual relationship with a man but would be excluded were he to have followed his divorce by entering a non-marital sexual relationship with a woman.

A bishop is consecrated as bishop in the Church of God, not simply as the local leader of an autonomous diocese or province. Especially in an age of global communication, it is ridiculous to pretend that what one small part of Christ’s body does has no bearing on the whole. That is why Archbishop Rowan Williams had to call the emergency meeting of primates last month and why, afterwards, he spoke about the damaging effect this action would have on the mission and witness of Anglican Churches in many parts of the world.

The primates made quite clear that the Anglican Communion has limits; not every local Christian option can be recognised as within the diversity of genuine Anglicanism. They reaffirmed that the Anglican Communion has teachings on sexual morality as stated in the relevant resolution of the 1998 Lambeth Conference. This “upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage”, declares “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture” and “cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same-sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same-gender unions”. The interpretation of these statements and their application to New Hampshire is even easier than understanding the relevant biblical texts.

If Scripture, Anglican precedent and basic principles of Christian fellowship and unity had been followed, the consecration should not have progressed. In 1978, long before this issue predominated, the Lambeth Conference advised Churches “not to take action regarding issues which are of concern to the whole Anglican Communion without consultation”. In relation to ordaining women, provinces waited until the Communion declared that, even if all could not agree to it, “this should not cause any break in communion in our Anglican family”. In contrast, the primates unanimously declared less than a month ago that if Robinson’s consecration proceeded, “this will tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level”. Indeed, the damage caused by innovations such as formally blessing same-sex unions is even more severe. Such actions, they all agreed, also “threaten … our relationships with other parts of Christ’s Church, our mission and witness, and our relations with other faiths, in a world already confused in areas of sexuality, morality and theology, and polarise Christian opinion”.

Despite this clear combined appeal of Scripture and the wider Anglican Communion, not to mention that of Christian tradition and our ecumenical partners, the presiding bishop proceeded to consecrate.

ECUSA's current leadership has clearly now abandoned the Anglican Communion. The Communion defined itself in 1930 as a fellowship within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church marked by such features as upholding and propagating the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order and being “bound together…by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference”. ... ECUSA has shown arrogant disregard for the wider world, especially its poorer regions. In the name of “autonomy” it somehow believes itself authorised by God’s Spirit to take unilateral action without regard to its consequences, to Scripture, or the counsel of the wider Church.

Three key players will now shape the future of the Anglican Communion and orthodox Anglicanism in the United States. First, the significant minority in ECUSA who oppose these innovations are forming a network of orthodox parishes and dioceses. This realignment, supported by the primates and being carried out in consultation with the Archbishop of Canterbury, is already facing legal threats from church authorities who are strict legalists in defence of their great power at home while antinomians when faced with moral appeals from abroad. It needs protection in order to become the body of Anglicans in the United States recognised by the wider Communion.

Secondly, the Anglican Communion back in 1930 recognised that its member Churches are not bound together “by a central legislative and executive authority”. That, in part, explains why the primates did not as a body take disciplinary action against ECUSA. Separate provinces of the Communion, however, are already signalling that relationships with ECUSA have been damaged and will change. It is clear that most provinces, including England, will not recognise Robinson as a bishop. Most primates are unlikely to enter any form of “common counsel” in future with those in ECUSA who have shown no loyalty to that counsel and have disregarded Anglican teaching and order.

There will, though, be restraint from wider irrevocable actions until the new Eames Commission reports on the legal and theological issues raised by the crisis. That commission, however, must recognise that the “good old English” way of working (based on trust, moral authority and conventions) has been torn up by those who claim that “autonomy” means they are constrained only by legal authorities and then find only moral authority in the existing Communion. The commission faces the difficult task of avoiding new permanent legal structures that significantly alter the nature of the Communion while responding effectively to the emergency need both for discipline and for the setting of boundaries to Anglican diversity produced by these radical innovations.

In the third place, the Archbishop of Canterbury as the focus of Anglican unity will play a decisive part. His mediating role and yet clear stance won him much praise at the recent primates’ meeting and he is well placed to continue this in his office. In particular, by publicly maintaining his communion with orthodox Anglicans in North America, he can demonstrate the Communion’s commitment to them. He is, however, simply first among equals within the Communion. It is therefore clear that, barring a radical change of heart in ECUSA, any continuing relationship he has with its current leadership must be detached from his pivotal role within the Communion of gathering Anglican leaders to primates’ meetings and Lambeth Conferences.

Humanly speaking, the situation is grim. Thankfully, as some distressed American Anglicans reminded me when I spoke to them last week before the consecration, this is God’s Church.

The Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is tutor in Christian ethics at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.