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THE WINDSOR REPORT IS BOUND TO FAIL - by Peter Jensen

THE WINDSOR REPORT IS BOUND TO FAIL - by Peter Jensen

The Windsor Report is a document that stands for peace in times that are filled with turbulence. I admire the way in which it has resisted all calls for expulsion, disciplines and head-banging. Instead it offers a calm tone, a long term view, an endeavor to create space, a reconciling spirit and practical suggestions arising from a desire to hear and apply God’s word.

With regret, however, I think that it is bound to fail. Why is this so? Given the length and nuances of the Report, my response is provisional. I advance three reasons for further discussion.

In the first place, in my view the Report over-theologises the Anglican Communion.

The opening passages of the Report, with its use of Ephesians is impressive. It lays on us a moral obligation to the exercise of communion. But, as the Report also acknowledges, part of what draws Anglicans together is an identity that arises from a particular history.

Nowadays, of course this is shared with a number of groups that are no longer ‘in the Communion’. Strangely, such groups may well be ‘in communion’ with some other parts of the Communion. The Communion is already more like a web of interconnected pieces than a unitary whole. The present crisis has dramatically increased this network appearance.

The other chief element of our communion, that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, is not ours alone. We share it with all Christians and our spiritual communion is far wider than merely with fellow-Anglicans. Can we truly refer to the Anglican Communion as ‘part of the Body of Christ’ with anything like theological precision?

In short, why not accept that we are a federation (or ‘commonwealth’) of largely autonomous churches? Why not exercise Christian love in that context? There are all sorts of Anglicans and all sorts of Anglican churches around the world. Parallel jurisdictions are always going to exist and topography is not an essential of church order. I am not convinced that the canons of Nicea are quite as relevant as some think.

The Report itself readily agrees that parts of the Communion are existing in a state of impairment after the consecration of women bishops. If the advent of women bishops is an impairment with which the Communion is prepared to live, it seems implausible to suppose that we will insist on uniformity around the globe in other matters, even highly significant ones.

Secondly, the mandate for the Commission apparently underestimated the importance of the presenting issue. The problem of the practice of homosexuality has created such turbulence because of what it represents about authority.

Professor MacCulloch of Oxford has put the matter very neatly indeed in his book Reformation. ‘This is an issue of biblical authority. Despite much well-intentioned theological fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity. The only alternatives are to try to cleave to patterns of life and assumptions set out in the Bible, or to say that in this, as in much else the Bible is simply wrong.’ (Reformation, Allen Lane, London, 2003, 705).

The chairman says that the task of the Commission was to ask ‘what is the will of God for the Anglican Communion?’ Thankfully, the Report makes it abundantly plain that the study of Scripture is the pre-eminent way in which we may determine the will of God. On this basis the vast majority of Christians in time and space have regarded homosexual practice as sinful. The Commission makes no bones that this is also the opinion of the Communion as a whole.

The Commission was perfectly prepared to apply the word of God to the Communion in matters to do with how we treat each other. But the Commission was not itself able to use the word of God to give a lead to the Communion about the will of God on this key matter. The mandate for the Commission was fatally flawed in not giving the Commission the task of determining what the Bible says on this subject, or at least starting with what the Bible says. Given the hopes that were riding on the Commission, it needed to speak with more authority on this issue. Failure to do so imperils the view that the Communion can be held together by the ‘instruments of unity’, no matter how they may further develop.

Thirdly, the emphasis on the Communion as a whole diverted the attention of the Commission from the real needs of the many Christians within provinces who are in urgent need of help. The chief problem is not so much between dioceses and provinces, as within them. What is God saying to the churches as we study Ephesians seeking his will? As the Report itself makes plain, holiness of life is a key matter; it is not adiaphora. So, too, is biblical authority.

Anglicans have made it a good habit to stay together through all sorts of changes and disagreements. This habit has kept criticism and discontent muted over years of growing liberalization. What the Report does not seem to grasp (owing to its restricted mandate) is that even for those who find women bishops so problematic that they cannot be in full communion, the issue of sexual ethics is far more explosive. The two issues cannot be compared: the outcome is going to be quite different.

The dissenting Christians of ECUSA and New Westminster are saying: we have reached the limit. We have accepted many things over the years, but here is something we cannot accept even for a moment. It puts us at risk to stay in association with this church while it officially defies the authority of God. Furthermore, many Anglicans from elsewhere agree with them and say that unless they take a stand, they will find themselves out of the will of God.

The protesting parishes in New Westminster have not changed their doctrine or moral teaching. They have not innovated. But now they are to be associated in a diocesan fellowship with those whose teaching is novel, and which virtually all Christians have believed to be contrary to scripture. If God does express his authority through scripture, what would the members of the Commission have done in order to obey God? What was the will of God for a parish, for a person?

For the protesters, to stay in unfettered fellowship with their Diocese is to tarnish their reputation and also to expose their ministry to interference. The next time a parish is vacant the diocese is likely to insist on someone who will support the Diocesan policy. On the other hand, to leave the Diocese is to cast doubt upon their standing as Anglicans, although they have not changed at all. From now on, they are schismatic outcasts of the Communion. Perhaps they will have to join a parallel jurisdiction such as the Anglican Mission in America, which the Report specifically criticizes.

Does the Report help? With its legitimate interest in the Communion’s bonds of affection, it offers rebuke to the Diocese of New Westminster. The rebuke concerns the way in which the diocese has gone ahead without the support of the Anglican Communion. It seeks an apology. It also rebukes those bishops and others who have attempted to support the dissident parishes of New Westminster for interfering. These, too, are to express regret. It seeks to create time for reconciliation and growth in understanding. It suggests as a temporary expedient a mild form of alternative episcopal oversight, with reconciliation in view.

Perhaps the authors of the Report have not had to live in a parish under threat. Perhaps we lawyers and theologians and bishops live away from the practical problems. What are you to teach your children when your denominational structure is endorsing as good, what you believe to be fatally bad? The whole business of being at loggerheads with the Diocese on this matter is exhausting and dispiriting.

Some love the sense of conflict and embattlement, but ordinary people do not like living in a state of siege. They leave and find a non-Anglican church to go to. One of the key factors in being able to continue is the support they receive from outside the Diocese. It reminds them that they are not alone and that their position is perfectly valid and biblical. But this activity has been criticised by the Windsor Report.

So, in short: I do not think that we have a proper account of what the Anglican Communion is as yet. I do not think that expulsion is the way ahead. I favour the acknowledgement that we are living in a looser relationship, and the development of recognised bilateral relationships to hold as many as possible in communion. I am not persuaded that the proposed strengthening of the so-called ‘instruments of unity’ is either prudent or useful. To take one problem: how does it come about that the primates are regarded as representative? Primates come in all shapes and sizes, and their relationship with their home churches may differ considerably. While we were in calmer waters, this hardly mattered. Now it does matter.

Whatever happens, however, I would hope for a powerful world-wide recognition of the bona fides of such groups as the Anglican Network in ECUSA and the dissenting parishes of New Westminster.

We will need to acknowledge that we are not going to live as closely together as once we did. There is no shame in this. But there will be shame if we simply abandon those in ECUSA or in Canada who have come to the conclusion that God’s authority is at stake here and that they can no longer be Anglicans in fellowship with other local Anglicans.

Their desire to remain in fellowship with the rest of the Communion is laudable and we should do all we can to make sure that their conscientious stand for truth does not cost them their identity and their ministries. What they should have had authoritatively, and at once, was the assurance that they were legitimately obeying the Bible and remained authentically Anglican. Now, at the very least they are going to need genuine alternative episcopal oversight and perhaps parallel jurisdictions.

The Windsor Report offers neither. What it does offer is going to take so long to work out that the problem will have been resolved long before they come into place. We have already received more than a hint of the way in which the American church is likely to respond, and likewise the Diocese of New Westminster. My own fear is that the version of peace offered in such turbulence is not going to be enough.

Peter Jensen is the Archbishop of Sydney, Australia
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