Faith & Reason: There is a way to avoid an Anglican schism at Lambeth next week

The 38 primates who gather to confront the Church's crisis over homosexuality need to avoid modern ways of thinking about sex and single issues
Click to follow

To judge by what you read in the newspapers, a split in the Anglican Communion looks inevitable next week when the 38 primates who lead the 70 million-strong worldwide communion gather at Lambeth Palace for their emergency summit on homosexuality. Reports coming all week out of the pre-summit gathering of American hardline evangelicals have suggested that a potent international anti-gay coalition is consolidating.

The movement was given added impetus by the Pope's warning to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in Rome at the weekend that the issue - which was an "essential matter of faith and morals" - was a new and serious threat to reconciliation between the churches.

Rome's seriousness was underscored two days ago when it emerged that its guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had written, over Dr Williams' head, to the US hardliners endorsing their stance. Such an intervention in the affairs of another church is highly unusual for Rome, though not out of keeping with the hardening of the ecclesial arteries which characterises the dying days of this sclerotic papacy.

The long arm of Rome would, of course, have met with an outraged rebuke from such arrant Protestants had it been concerned with almost any other subject. But the mood is that all is fair in this particularly angry war. The polarised choices the hardliners will present at Lambeth are that the pro-gay lobby should be over-ruled, disciplined or expelled - or that the conservatives will storm out of the communion. Either way, schism is the result.

Rowan Williams has gently pointed out the problem with such thinking. The challenge before the primates' meeting is twofold, he has said: to agree that there must be limits to what the 38 individual provinces of the communion can do; and to make real "a sense of responsibility to one another and therefore some mechanisms for better decision-making in common". This is a masterly cutting to the heart of things. On the one hand it is politically realistic (in contrast to his handling of the gay celibate Jeffrey John's appointment, which he should either have headed off when it was first mooted, or carried through after he had initially allowed it). But it is also theologically weighty in its requirement to keep two issues in balance.

We live in an era of single-issue politics. Single issues are black and white and offer the comfort of moral certainty in a world which has grown too complex for us to handle. But they are out of place in religious thinking, and the chief mistake of the anti-gay Christians is the reductive nature of their biblical literalism or their theological conservatism.

There is an irony in this, for the anti-gay extremists are usually branded as having a world view which is stuck in the past. Yet their position is curiously modern. In insisting that homosexuality is a practice, rather than an identity, they buy into the contemporary view which removes sex from the context of a loving creative relationship and sees it as a mere instrument of pleasure. And in making homosexuality the litmus test of Christian orthodoxy they bring the banality of single-issue politics into the complexity of faith.

This is why Rowan Williams' insistence that there is more than one consideration here is so important. There will be those among the primates at Lambeth who will push for a resolution of the issue next week; they will demand a declaration of impaired communion, the exclusion of the openly gay bishop Gene Robinson from the 2008 Lambeth conference, a censure, or at the very least an expression of bitter regret at the unilateral actions of the guilty provinces.

With luck (or prayer) and skill, Dr Williams may get them to agree to the compromise of an international commission on sexuality, following the precedent of the Eames Commission on women priests during Anglicanism's last major convulsion. (If so, its brief should extend to wider sexuality, for the church has problems with the sexuality of the single, the childless, those in bad marriages, and much more too). Or he may have to agree to anti-gay "flying bishops" to oversee conservative clerics working in liberal dioceses, as was the device to avoid schism over the ordination of women, and as is already happening in practice on the ground in some cases.

But in all of this he needs constantly to remind his fellow primates that the urge for resolution may be part of the problem, rather than the solution. "Living with differences, I think, is actually the genius of Anglicanism," as his predecessor George Carey once put it.

Or, to quote another cardinal, Pope John Paul II, speaking to Dr Williams at the weekend: "When our theological dialogue began, our predecessors Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey could not have known the exact route or duration of the path to full communion, but they knew that it would require patience and perseverance, and that it would come only as a gift of the Holy Spirit".

Were he not so modest, Dr Williams might even quote himself: "We see God through each other's eyes. We learn from looking at each other." There may be no answers which the primates can offer next week, but they ought to be able to arrive at a more constructive mode in which to seek them.