ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT: Primates Gather in Picture-Book Setting to Engage Issues
Williams Dedicates St. Mark's Pro-Cathedral. Sermon Anticipates Coming Tensions
By David W. Virtue in Alexandria
February 1, 2009
Archbishops of the Anglican Communion have assembled at the pristine (Helnan) Palestine Hotel on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, nervously eager and expectant as the life of the communion roils in crisis, eerily reminiscent perhaps of a theological crisis that rocked the Christian world 18 centuries ago and which almost tore the church apart.
This morning, the Primates met for Eucharist with no apparent absentees or rancorousness over who takes Communion with whom. All is sweetness and light, at least in the early stages, as the Primates gather. Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has not yet arrived, but is expected tomorrow (Monday).
There is an agenda, but it is thought to be fluid. Hot button issues are going to be played down, and there will be an attempt to keep them off the official agenda. But VOL has been told that that won't happen.
The aim of Archbishop Rowan Williams (who is here) is to keep the communion together by focusing on things like global warming, and the world economic crisis, making the primates here a sort of Anglican version of Davos. Focusing on greed instead of pansexual lust might be good strategy, but it is highly doubtful that it will succeed for long.
Alexandria was, after all, the ecclesiastical see of Athanasius and the city where the battle was fought for the faith against the heretic Arius. The theologian, Church Father, and noted Egyptian leader of the fourth century, Athanasius is best remembered for his role in the conflict with Arius and Arianism. At the first Council of Nicaea (325), Athanasius argued against Arius and his doctrine that Christ is of a distinct substance from the Father. The Council condemned Arius declaring that the son was homoosusios "begotten, not made".
Athanasius is chronologically the first Doctor of the Church, as designated by the Roman Catholic Church, and is counted as one of the four Great Doctors of the Eastern Church. Rowan Williams, by contrast, is brilliant, but is considered by many as far less orthodox in faith and morals.
We are still fighting heresies nearly 1,800 years later, but of a different sort, more testy and testicular, less Docetic and Arian. The belief that Jesus' physical body was an illusion (Docetism) would be outlawed by the likes of a Gene Robinson who sees the body beautiful as having godlike homoerotic status to be worshipped above all things. Mercifully, he is not here, but his representative thinking is here in the person of (The Rev.) Colin Coward of Changing Attitude, a British-based pansexual Anglican organization moving to have its abominable behavior brokered into the church.
Also missing from this gathering are the American franchise bishops of AMIA, CANA, Uganda, Kenya and Bishop Robert Duncan Moderator of the Anglican Communion Network, and ACNA leader. They were at the last Primates' meeting, but were told to stay away this time. Basically, it is Primates and Press.
I have had the privilege of meeting and briefly talking with a number of Primates here including Archbishops Emmanuel Kolini, Gregory Venables, Benjamin Nzimbi, Peter Akinola, Ian Ernest, as well as the Archbishop of Central America and Bishop Errol Brooks of the Anglican Diocese of the North Eastern Caribbean and Aruba--the likely successor to Drexel Gomez.
The whole atmosphere here is conducive to compromise. This hotel was built for mostly Arab heads of state seeking to resolve major political crises. This week it will engage the minds of ecclesiastical leaders of 38 Anglican provinces in order to resolve a crisis of another sort.
As a monument to past kings and state leaders, there is a grandeur and beauty about the hotel which is complete with a walled palace on the grounds along with a casino. The waters of the Mediterranean sparkle in the sunlight. The grounds are immaculate.
But it will be hard to avoid sexuality issues, even if Dr. Williams wished he could. The Windsor Continuation Group is set to address the recommendations of the Windsor Report. Williams and the Primates will not be able to avoid news today that the Diocese of Toronto will proceed with same sex blessings, a position that Canadian Primate Fred Hiltz will have to answer for. Mrs. Jefferts Schori will have to answer for the Bishop of Colorado, Robert O'Neill, who recently ordained a partnered lesbian to the priesthood. These are Windsor violating actions.
The elephant in the room will be, of course, the new North American Anglican Province, (ACNA) where tempers are expected to flare from western pan-Anglican liberals like Jefferts Schori, (US) Fred Hiltz (Canada) and Barry Morgan (Wales) who oppose any such innovation.
The GAFCON primates, lead by the unflinching Nigerian Primate Peter Akinola, will have something to say about this. Akinola will take the contra position along with other solidly evangelical archbishops like Gregory Venables, Henry Luke Orombi, Benjamin Nzimbi and Emmanuel Kolini to name but a few. A row can be expected.
Late in the afternoon, we all set off in two buses for a dedication of St. Mark's Pro-Cathedral in the heart of downtown Alexandria. The church service was lead by the orthodox Anglican Primate of the Middle East, The Most Rev. Mouneer Anis. Primates and press mingled with Arab Anglican Christians as well as the Papal Nuncio to Egypt. Two Coptic bishops were also in attendance.
It was not without its significance that the hymn chosen for the occasion was "The Church's One Foundation." One wonders what was going through the mind of Dr. Rowan Williams as he sang the words of this glorious hymn, "Though with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed; yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up "How long?" and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song."
In his sermon, Williams said the idea of the church is not about human beings doing things. Citing an example of an experience he had in a church which had a large sign with lots of church activities on it, Williams asked, "But does God do things here? There is a slight risk that God might not find his way in with all these activities." Was he hinting at what might take place this week at the Helnan?
Citing St. Paul's words, "Do you know that you are God's chosen, what is happening in the life of the Christian is the Holy Spirit." Williams quoted Origen, the great Alexandrian theologian of the Third Century, saying that the Holy Spirit makes us call Jesus, Lord and God, Father. The bread and wine is a sign of Jesus living in us."
"The church should be known as a place where Jesus is alive, where people call Jesus, Lord and call God, Father." Perhaps anticipating the coming week's tense theological discussions among the Primates, Williams said that some of what we build won't be worth saving. "Some of it will be gold and silver, some of it is straw, and yet God's work and God's salvation is never destroyed."
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