The best that could be hoped for from the House of Bishops meeting in New Orleans was clarity. In fact it was this that the Primates in the Dar-es-Salaam meeting earlier this year were particularly requesting after a decade of obfuscation.
Firstly, the General Convention resolutions of last year were ambiguous in their response to the call for a moratoria on same-sex blessings and the consecration of so-called ”˜partnered homosexuals’. As usual the Bishops and deputies of the Convention gave themselves a large amount of wriggle room to pursue their own agendas. Thus we had the spectacle at one of the House of Bishops press conferences this week of the Bishop of Los Angeles, Jon Bruno, earnestly informing the press that same-sex blessings had not been authorised in his diocese. It later came to light that they were routine in his diocese and he had even presided at one himself. In other words, they didn’t need authorisation because they were an accepted part of diocesan practice.
So in some senses, the eight-point plan adopted by the Bishops and thrown as a lifeline to the embattled Archbishop of Canterbury might be seen as a move forward towards this clarity and honesty that is so badly needed.
The Bishops reiterated the General Convention resolution which promised restraint in the election of bishops ”˜whose manner of life’ presented a challenge and spelled out helpfully that this included practising homosexuals.
They also promised not to authorise public rites of blessing, but clung to the get-out clause that allowed a diversity of pastoral responses to gay men and lesbians. In other words, plenty of wriggle room there.
Another crucial response which was required in the Primates’ Tanzanian demands was a scheme of alternative Episcopal oversight. It is here that the American Bishops chose to raise their two-fingered salutes to the rest of the ”˜Americans and Europeans are religious in different ways’ Communion by rejecting any notion of ”˜alternative’ oversight in favour of modifying their ”˜delegated oversight scheme’. The trouble is that this has never worked because it has never had the confidence of those it was established for. The Bishops accepted some degree of outward influence on the ”˜delegated’ scheme giving Presiding Bishop Schori the decisive role in taking this forward.
And then comes a list of demands from the House of Bishops. Find a place at the Lambeth Conference for Gene Robinson and we’ll send a delegation to the Archbishop of Canterbury to help him do so ””presumably the heavy brigade to twist Dr Williams arms behind his back. End incursions by African Archbishops onto American soil and protect the human rights of lesbians and gays throughout the communion. This latter point in a sense is the least controversial to western ears, but badly needs saying in parts of the world where homosexuality is still criminalised and gays face persecution and violence. However, with its credibility as a Church which values the opinions of the wider body in absolute tatters, I’m not sure that The Episcopal Church’s voice can be heard on this fundamental point.
The eight-point plan, endorsed almost unanimously [We now know this is not true, thought what is true exactly remains murky–KSH], promised no consent for any more gay bishops, no public blessings, and the adoption of a plan for Episcopal visitors to conservative parishes which cannot accept their liberal bishops. On reflection, the House of Bishops statement goes some way towards answering the demands of the Tanzanian communiquÃ©, but probably not far enough. It will certainly not reassure Primates who are already marking out territory in the United States and will not roll back the incursions there.
We are left with chaos and we are all left with the blame. Firstly, so-called ”˜conservatives’ in the US and elsewhere have not stood united together in opposing changes in theology which have led us to our current pass. Secondly, liberals have played fast and loose with scripture. When they have failed to change the mind of the Church they have resorted to placing facts on the ground, and accomplishing their agenda by dishonest manoeuvres rather than open theological debate in the councils of the Church and communion. Sadly, the Archbishop of Canterbury and his advisers have made two recent catastrophic errors. In sending out Lambeth
invitations to all US bishops they ignored the weight of the Windsor Report towards a distancing of Gene Robinson, and the coconsecrators from the councils of the Communion.
This has introduced confusion into a process which was absolutely clear from the time that the Windsor Report was published. Secondly, during the time of negotiation last week with the House of Bishops, Dr Williams openly declared that September 30, which the Primates had set as a deadline for response, was no ultimatum but merely a convenient date following the House of Bishops meeting.
It is clear that this is not a view shared by many of his fellow primates and does not reflect the language of the communiquÃ© itself. This declaration however gives an open signal that Dr Williams himself is not prepared to lead the Communion in any proper sanction against The Episcopal Church. We can therefore expect further tragic fragmentation in the coming months.
–This article appears in the Church of England Newspaper, September 28, 2007, edition, page 15