Faith & Reason: Must I be right, or is it enough that I think I am right?

This week the Lambeth Commission on Communion reported, and the apologies have started coming in. But are they sufficient?
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What is it with saying sorry? First Tony, then Boris; and now demands are being made on the Queen. But, if you thought apologies were so last week, here's news: the Church is going to be trading apologies for months to come.

What is it with saying sorry? First Tony, then Boris; and now demands are being made on the Queen. But, if you thought apologies were so last week, here's news: the Church is going to be trading apologies for months to come.

This is, of course, the doing of the Windsor Report, launched last Monday by the statesmanlike Robin Eames, Archbishop of Armagh, to help patch up the split over homosexuality in the worldwide Anglican Communion. To be dull for just a minute or two, the report contains the radical proposal that, since the present Communion doesn't seem to be working very well, they should start again at the beginning, only this time with some written rules. Up until now the Anglicans have been rather proud about not having any rules, being instead (they say) a loose, Spirit-led, open, tolerant sort of church. But what we thought was the result of Christian charity was, all along, really just ignorance.

Poor communications meant that parts of the Communion had no idea what other parts were up to. Then came the internet, with its capacity for instant news and infinite plotting, and kaboom! It is as if the Anglicans have been taking part in a century-long disco with the lights down - this is just a metaphor, you understand - and suddenly somebody has come in and turned the lights up. Hey, look over the other side of the room! Those two men are dancing together!

The answer, says Lord Eames, is the painstaking business of rebuilding the Church with a written constitution. This would allow separate provinces to decide things inessential to the faith; but anything major would have to go to a central forum.

You don't need legal training to spot the fun and games to be had defining what is inessential and what is major. Actually, it's worse than that, since, being Christians, Anglicans are enjoined by the Bible to respect their weaker brethren. This means, says the Windsor Report, that if you're on the point of introducing some change or other, but it is "something that, nevertheless, a sufficient number of other Christians will find scandalous or offensive", you have to stop. So, when the lawyers have finished defining "inessential", they can make a start on "a sufficient number".

Since Monday, the Church has been teetering. Should it fall in with the Eames scheme? Or should it carry on trading insults, drawing lines in the sand, and all the other pleasurable activities of a disintegrating institution? Everything rests on the apologies. The church leaders in the United States and Canada have been asked by Lord Eames to "express regret that the proper constraints of the bonds of affection were breached . . . and for the consequences which followed". From his experience in Northern Ireland, Lord Eames knows that you don't start a process of reconciliation by demanding that one side grovel to the other. The careful wording means that the Americans and Canadians don't have to apologise for consecrating a gay bishop or approving same-sex blessings - just for having done so without taking proper account of the effect such actions would have worldwide.

Within 24 hours of the Windsor Report's coming out, there had been statements of regret from New Westminster in Canada (same-sex blessings), New Hampshire (gay bishop), and the leader of the American Church (a bit of both). Too quick! Too quick! You could hear the conservatives thinking: "If they can apologise just like that, it can't have cost them much. We've been sold a pup." It was as if the liberals in America had whistled a few bars of "My Way" then carried on as normal. "Regrets, I've had a few, but then again . . ." Several months of heavy debate and breast-beating, followed by a sullen, grudging apology, would be much more convincing.

Back in 1998, Rowan Williams delivered an address that touched on this business of how to stay in communion with people you disagree with. His example was our link with the Christians of the past, known as "the communion of saints". The trouble was, said Dr Williams, that many of these saints had held views about women, say, or warfare, or "infidels", that now seem highly scandalous and offensive. "I don't think for a moment that they were right," said Dr Williams, "but I acknowledge that they knew what their own concrete Christian communities taught them to know, just as I know what I have learned in the same concrete and particular way."

In other words, nobody is to blame, exactly, for applying the views that they have been taught. We have to accept the saints for what they were, not just because we can't force them to say sorry, but because they did what they thought was right. Lord Eames is counting on his fellow Anglicans to recognise this saintliness in their opponents. Let's hope he doesn't come to regret it.

Paul Handley is Editor of the 'Church Times'