Only days after the the Episcopal Church (TEC) at Anaheim. Calif., defied the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lambeth Conference by agreeing to resume gay blessings and consecrations of actively gay bishops -- read MSW here -- comes news that 34 American bishops have defied the defiers. The rebels have issued a "letter of dissent" from the decisions taken at Anaheim and say they agree to the moratoriums and to the Covenant process agreed at last year's Lambeth conference of Anglican bishops worldwide.
Lost already? Here's a quick recap of the slow-mo train crash that is the Anglican crisis:
In 2003, the North-American Episcopalians (now called TEC) -- membership: 2m -- consecrated Gene Robinson, a divorced man in a civil partnership with another man, as bishop, against the express wishes of the 38 Anglican primates, or heads of provinces. This precipitated a long-simmering crisis over homosexuality within the Anglican Communion (membership: 80m).
- The developing-world Anglican churches demanded that TEC be disciplined. The Archbishop of Canterbury calmed the crisis by appointing a commission to suggest how Anglican unity could be strengthened. The Eames Commission produced the Windsor Report (2004), which laid out two conditions for TEC remaining in the fold: the Church should not ordain more gay bishops, and should desist from approving same-sex blessings. In 2006, TEC agreed to these moratoriums.
- Although Gene Robinson was not invited to last year's Lambeth Conference, the once-in-a-decade meeting of Anglican bishops worldwide, TEC was. This was unacceptable to 280 developing-world bishops (about a third of the total), who boycotted the Lambeth Conference, and set up their own parallel Communion, the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FOCA), which does not recognise the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
- Dr Williams persuaded the delegates at Lambeth to agree to a process leading towards a Covenant, which is the beginnings of a Catholic-style ecclesiogy of communion, but without "papal powers". It will involve some degree of agreement on doctrinal questions.
- Last week, at Anaheim, the bishops at the TEC Episcopal General Convention voted 104-30 to develop liturgies for blessing same-sex relationships, while the motion to allow the consecration of gay bishops passed 99-45.
Quite what was actually decided in the Los Angeles suburb is a matter of dispute -- especially among those who were there. But it's clear that TEC's commitment to maintaining the moratoriums is over. Writing recently in the Guardian, Jim Naughton, canon for communications at the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, saw last week’s vote as a chance finally to “push back” what he calls Dr Williams’s “centralising agenda” and his attempt to impose “a single-issue magisterium on the issue of homosexuality”. This piece at Episcopal Cafe offers a fascinating example of just how strong in parts of the TEC is its anti-Catholic prejudice: Dr Williams's efforts are seen as "Romanesque" and examples of "Catholic authoritarianism".
Yet "there are many American Episcopalians, inside and outside the present TEC, who are eager to sign the proposed Covenant," writes the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright -- and the dissenters' letter bears this out. Bishop Wright adds that their "aspiration must be honoured" -- implying that those in TEC who did not vote for abrogating the moratoriums should be in some way recognised by Canterbury.
So we now have the prospect of Canterbury recognising those in the TEC who agree with the Covenant, and not those that don't. That split adds to the other between TEC and the breakaway conservatives in the Anglican Church of North America (membership: 100,000) which is seeking recognition from Canterbury.
The point is, "schism" is not the right word for what is happening. A schism refers to a part of the Christian body separating from another. But the TEC is insufficiently united in itself to break away from the wider Anglican Church; and the Anglican Communion is insufficiently united to constitute something that can be broken away from.
It's much more complex, and messy, than schism. It's full-on balkanisation.
But out of chaos, order is emerging. Anglicans are splitting into two camps: a core of Anglicans -- those committed to the Covenant process -- are coming closer together, under Dr Williams's leadership, while the rest are spinning away from Canterbury and from each other.
The real split is not over homosexuality but between "Catholics" and "Protestants", the key historic tension within Anglicanism. The fissures do not run cleanly between provinces and churches, as the Anaheim rebels show. But this crisis is forcing people to choose. This is the real division: between those who believe in a Catholic ecclesiology and those who do not.
The "Protestants" -- divided between liberals and conservative evangelicals, in radical disagreement over homosexuality, as over much else -- cannot, by definition, come together, and will continue to fragment, leaving the "Covenant" Anglicans to come together around a firmer, more Catholic ecclesiology. Within the "Catholic" camp there will remain strong disagreements over homosexuality, but those are less important than the shared conception of Church.
Rome, of course, is firmly behind Dr Williams and the Covenant process: they know that at the end of it there is the prospect of an Anglican Church they can seek unity with. It'll be a lot smaller, necessarily, than the current Anglican Communion. But the prospects of unity will at last be real. It'll take years; maybe none of us will see it in our lifetimes. But my bet is that the before the end of Dr Williams' term the foundations for Catholic-Anglican unity will have been laid -- even as he is depicted as having helplessly overseen the disintegration of the Anglican Communion.