The Big Question: Why is the Anglican Church facing a schism, and can it be prevented?


Why the panic?

A meeting of the primates of the Anglican Church's 38 self-governing provinces starts today in Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania. Top of the agenda is how to stop a schism developing following the decision of the Episcopal Church, the US branch of Anglicanism, to ordain an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in November 2003.

Surely that can't be still causing ructions?

Yes it can, and some. The conservative churches, especially in Africa, believe homosexuality is a sin according to Scripture. They have formed themselves into a separate group, Global South, based in a different hotel in Dar Es Salaam, and are threatening to secede from the worldwide community unless the US either mends its ways or is expelled from the community.

The anger of the traditionalists has not been helped by the presence of the head of the American church, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first ever elected female head of any Anglican province and a noted supporter of the ordination of Gene Robinson. Some traditionalists are even threatening to leave the chamber if Katharine Schori enters it.

Can't our own dear Archbishop step in to mend fences?

He will try. As senior primate of the worldwide community, the "first among equals", he has the status, and the obligation, to try and hold the institution together. He has also been tasked with coming up with various compromise ideas that might allow the churches to go their own ways but remain in communion before the deadline of the ten-yearly Lambeth conference of worldwide bishops due in 2008.

Can he succeed?

You don't understand religion if you don't comprehend the ferocity with which issues of "moral right" are held. To the liberals, who mainly come from the "Western" provinces, but also include elements in the African and Asian churches, the acceptance of sexual differences has become a litmus test of modernity and tolerance. For the traditionalists such proposals are anathema. They take literally the biblical instruction (not by Christ himself) that the family is at the centre of the Church as the community and that all forms of deviation should be condemned. They may not believe in stoning homosexuals but they do protest that the church itself, if it is to lead by example, cannot promote them.

Where does the C of E stand in the debate?

Wriggling agonisingly on the proverbial fence. On the issues of women priests, gay clergy and gay marriage it has proved even more split than the worldwide Anglican Church. The cracks opened up by women priests were only just papered over. The issue of women bishops has still to be properly faced. The question of gay marriage has been sidestepped. You would be hard put to ask any Anglican today just what the Church actually believed on these questions.

How strong are the traditionalists?

They are certainly the most vocal, not least because they are the most absolute in their beliefs. In terms of numbers, the conservative provinces represent over half the Anglican Church's 75 million members. They also have the advantage of representing the few areas of growth in communicant numbers.

How powerful are the liberals?

The strength and weakness of the liberal Anglican communities are that they are most prominent, though far from only present, in the "Western" parts of the old British Empire - North America, Australia and New Zealand. These are the richest provinces of the church but also the ones recording a decline in attendance. In the UK, although 26 million say they regard themselves as Anglicans, only 1.7 million attend church regularly.

Is Dr Williams the man to bring them together?

Yes, in principle. In practice it will be more difficult. The Archbishop, Dr Rowan Williams, has the gift of the gab, while his years as a theologian and college teacher have also given him a somewhat disengaged air which could stand him in good stead during difficult negotiations. On the other hand he has appeared weak and vacillating through much of this crisis. This may partly reflect tensions in his own mind. Whilst he is liberal by instinct he feels duty-bound to represent a conservative institutional view. But Dr William's indecisiveness may also reflect the simple fact that the opposing positions are so difficult to reconcile.

Can the sides be reconciled?

Most observers would say not. Not on the fundamental questions of right and wrong. The opposing positions are too rigid and are, if anything, hardening. The traditionalists are insisting on a full apology and retraction by the North American churches. The Episcopal Church is adamant in its refusal to back down. The best hope that Dr Williams can have is that he can just keep the various sides talking through the conference on the basis that anything that steps back from the brink is better than lurching into a full fracture of the worldwide communion - even if this means accepting that some parts of the Church will refuse to speak to other parts. It also leaves him some time for further efforts at conciliation before the Lambeth conference next year.

Would it matter if the Church fractured?

In a formal sense, probably not. The whole history of the Christian churches has been one of successive schisms. If the differences cannot be bridged, there are many even within the Church who believe that each should go their own cultural way. As the provinces are self-governing anyway, little would be lost.

Against that there is strength in global reach, in ecclesiastical as in commercial organisations. More worrying too is the fear that a split in the worldwide church could open the way for splits within the separate churches. Already conservative parishes in America have threatened to secede from the Episcopal Church and join African bishoprics. England is perilously close to rupture, its position made worse in its peculiar status as the Established Church of England. If the Tanzanian summit fails completely we could be seeing not just the end of the worldwide Anglican communion but the beginning of the end of the Anglican church here and elsewhere.

Is a split in the worldwide communion now inevitable?

Yes...

* For the traditionalists there can be no compromise on a matter of biblical authority

* The North American churches will never accept the retraction demanded of them

* The Anglican provinces are self-governing and could manage on their own

No...

* The churches could agree to disagree on the issue and still keep in communion

* The splits are not only between provinces but within them so there is a shared interest in compromise

* For most of the laity, sexual politics are not of paramount importance

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