Primates' creative ambiguity averts schism

Mon, Feb 28, 2005, 00:00

Brendan Behan remarked that the first item on the agenda of any new Irish organisation was "the split". This is clearly not the case where Anglicans are concerned. Except, perhaps, among the Irish membership.

In 1978, 1988 and 1998, when Anglican bishops gathered in Canterbury for Lambeth conferences it was, as with the primates' meeting in Newry last week, amid confident forecasts of "schism".

In 1978 the issue was women priests. In 1988 it was the even tougher matter of women bishops. In 1998 it was whether Anglicans should accept gay priests and the blessing of same-sex unions. And in 2008 it will be same-sex issues again. Prepare to be told "the end is nigh!"

At Lambeth in 1998 the bishops came down firmly in favour of traditional teaching on sex. The primates endorsed this at meetings in Brazil and Lambeth in 2003. For their trouble they were ignored twice that year alone.

The diocese of New Westminster in Canada approved a rite for same-sex blessing and the diocese of New Hampshire in the US elected an openly gay man, Canon Gene Robinson, as its bishop. This latter was endorsed by the Episcopal Church of the USA.

Both North America events underlined the simple fact that Lambeth conferences, as with primates' meetings, have no binding power.

Even last week's "deferral of schism", as some insist on seeing it, at Newry was expressed sotto voce in the primates' communique.

The US Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada were requested "to voluntarily withdraw their members from the Anglican Consultative Council" (ACC) until the Lambeth conference in 2008. Before then they were requested to reflect on their position and respond to relevant church bodies. However, even that fudge was fudged further, a few lines later,when the primates encouraged the ACC to hold a hearing at its meeting next June at which the Americans may put their cases.

Clearly they must stay away from the ACC - but not just yet!

It is hardly difficult to see why the Americans felt it possible to go along with such "creative ambiguity" last week, as did their critics. A leading opponent, Archbishop Akinola of Nigeria, felt so good he organised a special celebration on Thursday night.

But some among the Irish are unhappy. Others remain significantly silent. To date Church of Ireland Bishops Clarke, Colton, and Mayes have barely concealed their agitation at the communique, while the two Irish ACC representatives can hardly contain themselves.

The unhappy ones see the primates as getting above themselves and show a very Irish determination to put them in their box. But a split? Don't hold your breath.