Faith & Reason: Sharks move among the Anglican jellyfish

Two resolutions with bite will be lying in wait for the bishops at the Lambeth Conference when they emerge from the cosiness of their small groups next week
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The Independent Culture
TOWARDS THE end of a long and rather tiring lunch some years ago, a leading traditionalist finally explained his policy on homosexual clergy: "If I had my way, Andrew, I'd sew up all their arseholes and throw the scissors away." For one reason or another, this remark has stuck with me when other, more theologically nuanced, expressions of the orthodox position have faded from memory.

It is still a popular line as the Lambeth Conference enters its last week. Canon Elizabeth Kaeton, the lesbian from New Jersey who was prominent in the opening demonstrations about homosexuality, has now retreated to America and claimed from there that one English bishop told her: "There isn't a bishop in all of Western Christendom who could lay his hands on your head and remove the stain and the stench of your homosexual sin and make you a wholesome example to lead the flock of Christ." The fluency may be hard to credit, but the sentiment is not.

So there are plenty of splits and vicious divisions within the conference even without counting the curious alliance between conservative Africans and southern American homophobes, which has seen one parish in Little Rock Arkansas place itself under the protection of a Rwandan bishop rather than be associated with a liberal line on homosexuality. None the less, I think the real news of this conference is not about splits, but their opposite.

I am not, here, trying to be shocking. Getting the bishops into line at the Lambeth Conference may be a lot like herding jellyfish - but that was true when the conference opened. It has been apparent ever since about half-way through the last Lambeth Conference 10 years ago that any kind of binding or definite resolution which might require a bishop to do or refrain from doing anything at all would be ignored even if it were passed. Hence the structure of the conference seems designed to prevent any such resolution from ever coming before the plenaries. Almost all the bishops' time is being spent in small groups and it is hard for the participants to find out what is going on in groups other than their own. This is an excellent method of promoting human sympathy and imprecision of drafting. It also means that only the conference organisers have a clear idea of what is really going on. Everyone else will find out when the motions finally emerge for debate next week - each one being allotted about half an hour, without any amendment being possible.

This would look quite cunningly undemocratic, if any of the resolutions mattered. Still, it is a delightful shock to discern among the jellyfish the shark-like contours of two resolutions that might matter.

The first repeats a resolution made at the last Lambeth Conference, calling on bishops to refrain from operating in the territory of other primates. This is, you would have thought, a fundamental principle of any church. If you have two bishops in one place, then you have two churches. This is of course the position that prevails in large parts of the Anglican Communion already, including England, where the opponents of women priests have their own bishops who do not really consider themselves in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, even if they have come to Canterbury to meet their friends and allies from around the world while he meets his.

But such limited compromises as the "flying bishops" scheme are worked out on a provincial basis; the English flying bishops are appointed by the Church of England. The ambition of the American traditionalists is wider and the opposition of their official church fiercer. They want to be able to choose bishops from all over the world and to set up more openly a parallel church within a church. Hence the spectacle of the Rwandan bishop John Rucyahane taking under his wing a parish in the one-time segregationist stronghold of Little Rock, Arkansas.

The motion proposed by the Primate of Canada, Michael Peers, would make this arrangement impossible, and with it the dreams that traditionalists have of setting up a parallel network which would gradually take over more and more of the churches and property of their enemies. In the end fights like that will always involve lawyers, and a clear declaration by the Lambeth Conference of the principle of provincial integrity would be a formidable legal weapon in the hands of the established churches.

But Bishop Rucyahane is important in the other centralising motion working its way through the closed sections last week. This would allow the Archbishop of Canterbury to intervene in the internal affairs of other provinces when invited to do so. His pressure last year on the Rwandan church to replace the bishops tainted by the country's genocide - of whom Bishop Rucyahane was not one - is being held up as a successful and necessary exercise of such a ministry.

It would not exactly be an executive power, nor yet a legislative one. But it would enable him to function as the court of last appeal in Anglicanism - and that, after all, is how the papacy got its start before there were bishops in England at all.

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