Through many dangers,toils and snares …

 — Feb. 24, 200724 févr. 2007

Stephen Bates is religious affairs correspondent of The Guardian.

When Catholic cardinals meet in conclave they tend to do so under the stern eye of God in the Sistine Chapel. Anglican primates are different; this past week they have been meeting privately in the agreeable surroundings of a beach-front hotel overlooking the shimmering Indian Ocean just outside Dar es Salaam. Where the cardinals have Swiss Guards to protect them, the Anglicans have enjoyed what we journalists took to calling satirically the ring of steel: a group of young askari cadets, dressed in white shirts and black berets, who nervously fingered their truncheons when anyone approached.

As is the way of these things in recent years, the latest biannual meeting of the leaders of the Anglican Communion’s 38 provinces has been dominated by one issue: the place of homosexuals in its Churches and the power struggle for control within the American Episcopal Church between conservatives and liberals.

It is a cause of frustration to several of them, especially meeting in one of the poorest countries on earth, that the world leaders of Anglicanism should spend their time discussing what middle-aged American Christians get up to in bed rather than issues of poverty, disease and hunger, but that is what a number of the African primates themselves wanted, spurred on by American and English conservative evangelicals dancing attendance upon them from the fringes of the meeting.

In the old days – say a decade ago – the archbishops and presiding bishops of worldwide Anglicanism would meet in genteel seclusion, unbothered by the outside world, for prayer, Bible study, tentative theological discussion and a chance to get to know each other. Not any more: this week’s meeting featured raw politics, power plays, tactics and boycotts.

When Nigeria’s Archbishop Peter Akinola, the leader of the conservative faction of developing world primates, emerged from the ring of steel, in full tribal costume complete with headdress, to consult his American advisers, he found himself pursued by journalists with microphones and at least one elderly reporter in swimming trunks trying desperately to cover himself with a towel as he trotted after His Grace shouting questions. Dignified, it was not.

The primates themselves range from the impressive – men of intellectual substance such as Canterbury’s Rowan Williams – to leaders such as Peter Akinola, who reign as sovereign princes in their provinces, unquestioned and unconsulting, and to some archbishops of deep obscurity and tiny, far-flung flocks, spread thinly across the pampas or the archipelagos of the Indian Ocean.

At the Dromantine Catholic seminary in Northern Ireland, at their last meeting two years ago, the lobbying was surreptitious: one American conservative bishop turned up complete with diamond-patterned jersey claiming to be on a golfing holiday in nearby Newry, in February. This time, all pretence was dropped. The conservative faction moved en masse into the next-door hotel for two days in advance to discuss their demands and the strategies they needed to achieve them.

Their target was the American Episcopal Church, which stirred the row originally more than three years ago by electing an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, a divorced cleric living with his long-term male partner, in the Diocese of New Hampshire. This has been a uniting issue for conservative Episcopalians, to try and overthrow their traditionally liberal leadership, and they have used the weight of the Africans, particularly Akinola – a man with ambitions of his own and a powerful cultural and religious, oft-stated disdain for homosexuals – as a lever to get their way.

At first it seemed Akinola’s faction, largely consisting of other equatorial African primates, would object to the admission to the meeting of the new American Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman ever to lead a Christian denomination. There was even some consideration of giving her the cold shoulder. This was abandoned as a tactic, with the evangelicals fearing it would not play well even with their own supporters.

Instead they settled for attempting the disciplining of the American Church: setting its rules and timescales for meeting the rest of the Communion’s demands that it should row back on the consecration of any more gay bishops or the adoption of blessing services for gay couples – something the Americans had already basically accepted to do.

The tactic was thrown into some disarray when a working party, led by Dr Williams, produced an unexpectedly favourable report on the Episcopal Church’s attempt to fall into line. This scarcely gave the conservatives the ammunition they had been anticipating. Hence Akinola’s hurried consultations in the hotel. His lobbyists eventually produced their own draft communiqué of demands, which in itself did not go down terribly well with the other African archbishops who had expected to be consulted before being asked to support it.

The conservatives wanted indefinite moratoriums on gay blessings and bishops, and sanctions against the Episcopalians. They did not get them. The drafting of a communiqué went on late into Sunday night, the church officials well aware of the need to provide a united document, for fear that otherwise the Communion would be depicted as falling apart.

At the last gasp, there was a settlement. It places unprecedented strictures on the Episcopalians, who essentially have seven months to comply if they are to be invited to next year’s Lambeth Conference of all the world’s Anglican bishops. So hurried was the cobbling together that it is by no means clear whether such mechanisms as a primatial vicar to oversee conservative dioceses in parallel to Jefferts Schori’s oversight of liberal ones can be made to work. “It’s an experiment,” said Rowan Williams afterwards. “Pray for it.”

On Sunday, the primates (all except Akinola who cried off claiming a bad back) visited the crumbling Victorian cathedral in Zanzibar, built over the site of a former slave market. It was a rare break and one that the harried Dr Williams clearly appreciated. The black congregation lustily and movingly sang the old anti-slavery anthem Amazing Grace on the site where their ancestors were bought and sold. If the Archbishop of Canterbury found one of the verses: “Through many dangers, toils and snares,/ I have already come,/ ’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,/ And grace will lead me home”, peculiarly apposite, he did not mention it.

Posted: Feb. 24, 2007 • Permanent link:
Categories: TabletIn this article: Anglican Communion, Christian unity, human sexuality, Rowan Williams
Transmis : 24 févr. 2007 • Lien permanente :
Catégorie : TabletDans cet article : Anglican Communion, Christian unity, human sexuality, Rowan Williams

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