Well, it was hardly surprising that Lambeth Palace, in negotiation with Gene Robinson, the American House of Bishops and other interested parties were unable to find any suitable way of inviting the Anglican Communion’s only ”˜partnered gay’ bishop to the 10-yearly Lambeth Conference. The Archbishop of Canterbury offered him a venue in the conference’s exhibition hall – an offer which not surprisingly he rejected, since it was an avenue already open to him in the first place.
Consequently, Gene Robinson told this week’s meeting of US bishops that he had cleared his diary in any case to be present in Canterbury for the duration of the conference presumably attached to the hordes of activists of both the ”˜left’ and the ”˜right’ who will swarm over the campus, although he was not able to come as an official participant or observer.
“I am not here to whine. I learned of the result of this negotiation on Friday evening. I have been in considerable pain ever since,” he said. The trouble with this situation is that by singling out Bishop Robinson, his puffed-up sense of victimhood is reinforced. His propagandists already constantly remind the world that he had to wear a bullet-proof vest to his own consecration, as if he was seriously in danger from gun-toting conservative Anglicans.
But creating ”˜martyrs’ is frankly never a good idea: it tends only to reinforce divisions, heightens the sense of injustice felt passionately by various groups and creates deep feelings of anger. In one sense, it’s no use going back over old ground, but this all could have been avoided had the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican bureaucracy actually taken any notice of the Windsor Report which they commissioned in the first place.
The Windsor Report specifically asked the American bishops who had elected and participated in the consecration of Gene Robinson to withdraw from the councils of the communion. This approach had merit in that it didn’t require a specific scapegoat in the form of Gene Robinson, who it has to be said is an attractive and courageous figurehead. It also drew attention to the specific issue many of us are concerned about ”” not a sense of personal revulsion at homosexual acts or a hostility to gay and lesbian people, but the damage that is caused to unity when particular parts of the body of Christ act as though they have no need of the other parts. The offence of The Episcopal Church is not to offer pastoral care to homosexuals, but to unilaterally change the teaching of the Church.
The recommendation that The Episcopal Church withdraw from the councils of the communion had the potential to draw the sting out of this particular debate for a season while a more sensible approach could be developed towards dealing with our deep divisions. After all, it shouldn’t have been beyond Anglicanism to come up with some form of appropriate pastoral response to homosexuals without throwing out the Bible’s commitment to sexual expression only within monogamous marriage.
Additionally, the Windsor recommendation created distance between the Episcopal Church and many of the more outraged parts of the Anglican Communion. While retaining the semblance of communion it relegated the liberal wing of Anglicanism to a sort of secondary status within the Anglican Communion albeit for a temporary period while the Anglican Covenant was worked out. Had the Windsor model been followed then it might have been possible to have all the Anglican Bishops present this summer at Canterbury ”” even Gene Robinson. Most of the American and some Canadian bishops would be at the Conference in a non-voting capacity and a great deal of diplomacy might even have kept a larger number of Global South bishops at the table.
Instead, we have the worst of all worlds ”” a Lambeth Conference a shadow of its former self in terms of numbers. And in the gaze of the world’s press we will have the sight of Bishop Gene Robinson, an icon of living martyrdom, filmed and interviewed ad nauseam, while the real business of the conference is marginal at best to the centre of Anglicanism.
However, it’s not only liberal Anglicanism which has its martyrs. The Bishop of New Westminster, Michael Ingham, is trying his best to create a martyr for all evangelical Anglicans in the form of the octogenarian theologian, JI Packer, by moving against one of evangelicalism’s most respected theologians with a threat to ”˜depose’ him for ”˜abandonment of communion’, Bishop Ingham couldn’t have picked a worse target. Packer is of course a totemic figure for evangelicals both inside and outside the Anglican Communion (his ”˜Knowing God’ still a work which repays careful reading, even if he doesn’t quite have the appeal of John Stott).
It hardly matters that ”˜abandonment of communion’ has no equivalent in English canons and amounts to little more than the removal of Packer’s licence ”” a licence he no longer wants, given that the church he belongs to has voted to place itself under the oversight of the Southern Cone, which will presumably licence the clergy of the parish in future.
Yet it highlights the canonical fundamentalism to be found in North America. Having abandoned various fundamentals of faith, Anglicanism seems to be retrenching around the rules and order of the institutional Church. Whilst favouring ”˜untidiness’ in faith and morals, liberals like Bishop Ingham cannot seem to tolerate messiness in institutional terms.
–This article appears in the March 14, 2008 edition of the Church of England Newspaper, page 12