Contrary to predictions the Anglican Communion stepped back from the brink of schism when its 38 primates issued a unanimous statement at the end of their emergency summit on homosexuality agreeing "not to act precipitately".
The outcome was a diplomatic victory for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. There are traditionally three outcomes to a church crisis: the Archbishop can crack down on rebels, capitulate to opponents, or offer a fudge. Yesterday Dr Williams did all three - and even drew a tribute from a leading anti-gay conservative, Drexel Gomez, the Primate of the West Indies, who praised "the inspired leadership given to us by the Archbishop of Canterbury".
The lengthy statement offered something for everyone. There was an admonition to the US church for "short-circuiting" the procedures of the 70 million member worldwide Communion by electing an openly gay man, Gene Robinson, as Bishop of New Hampshire, and for the Canadian diocese which has instituted blessings for same-sex couples. Such moves, it said, "do not express the mind of our Communion as a whole and jeopardise our sacramental fellowship."
However, the prospect of a split in the Anglican communion remained when the diocese of New Hampshire later declared that it would go ahead with the consecration of the Rev Robinson.
"We look forward to the consecration of Bishop-elect Robinson on 2 November, believing that God has called him to this ministry," the diocese declared.
Referring to the dangers ahead, the church leaders' statement said: "If his consecration proceeds, we recognize that we have reached a crucial and critical point in the life of the Anglican Communion and we have had to conclude that the future of the communion itself will be put in jeopardy."
While saying that no province "has authority unilaterally to substitute an alterative teaching", it conceded that bishops must respect the autonomy of dioceses and provinces other than their own.
Its chief practical measure was the establishment of a commission to consider the role of Canterbury in "maintaining communion within and between provinces when grave difficulties arise".
It will look, said Dr Williams, at "separation, new alignments and new jurisdictions. We need to look carefully at what our canons provide before we encourage such steps."
The primates also agreed for provision for anti-gay bishops to enter pro-gay dioceses to minister to dissenting minorities.
Intriguingly there were hints that pressure may be put on Gene Robinson to step down as bishop before his consecration on 2 November. His primate, Bishop Frank Griswold, was cagey on the subject. "All ordinations are provisional; it says 'God willing' on the invitations. Any number of things can happen," he said. "I am scheduled to be there on 2 November, I hope I will be there." But the statement, he added, would be "thought about very seriously by the people of New Hampshire and Gene Robinson".
Asked if he had betrayed Gene Robinson as he had Jeffrey John, who was pressurised to stand down as Bishop of Reading, Dr Williams said, "My primary duty is to the church whose unity I have to serve as best as I can."
But there were signs that the statement was also designed to avoid the disintegration of the communion if Gene Robinson refused to stand down.
"If this consecration proceeds," it said, "many provinces are likely to consider themselves to be out of communion with the Episcopal Church (USA)." But they would remain in communion with the Church of England, which might remain in communion with the US Church. "Communion means many things," said Dr Williams. "I'm not in a position as an individual to declare who the Church of England is and is not in communion with."
Pressed for clarification the three primates, from England, the US and the West Indies, were gnomic in their responses. But it became clear that the two-day summit was not so much a seminar on homosexuality as one on where authority lay in the Communion. "Talk of winners and losers is irrelevant," said Dr Williams. "Our understanding has been very hard won; that's what makes our work together all the more significant. We've grown closer together rather than, as many predicted, further apart."
How long a respite the Archbishop of Canterbury has bought for his Communion is unclear. His commission has 12 months to do its work. Whether those hardline anti-gay conservatives who were not in the primates' meeting will stay their threat to walk away is unknown. But the split which loomed at the start of the week appears to have been averted.Reuse content