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ALEXANDRIA 2009: Unenforceable Covenant Grabs Center Stage as Primates Talk

ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT: Unenforceable Covenant Grabs Center Stage as Anglican Primates Talk

By David W. Virtue in Alexandria

There will be no more "stick-over-the-head sanctions" in dealing with Anglican provinces that do not toe the line over homosexual practice, said Australian Archbishop Philip Aspinall, spokesman for the 34 assembled Primates of the Anglican Communion.

At the first press conference on what 38 archbishops of 55 million Anglicans are engaged in, Aspinall said there was a "pulling back" from language that talked about sanctions, enforcement and teeth as they are inappropriate for the Body of Christ. Instead, a framework for koinonia, relationship and fellowship will prevail, with increasing realism about what a Covenant can and cannot do. Legislation is not the way forward, he said.

When questioned by VOL about how discipline will be exercised when things are now going to be based on "koinonia", "relationships" and "bonds of affection", rather than Scripture and the creeds, Aspinall replied that if there is a failure of koinonia, then we need to be investing further in communion. He said the provinces need to be committed to covenant, but not committed to a particular covenant.

"It is an issue of moral obligation, not legal enforcement. Each participating church that makes the gift of participating agrees to self limit its autonomy. We will not proceed on dividing issues. If a church willingly enters into this covenant, it must observe obligations. If there is a failure, the remedy required is to invest in mutual relationships. The only sanction we have is non invitation to meetings. There will be no more stick-over- the-head sanctions."

Aspinall said Lambeth pulled back from that kind of (enforcement) language. He said the Province of Australia has a three-fold method where sanctions could be applied. He said the first is adding to the constitution, "but that is unlikely to happen." Second is to pass a canon through the General Synod, "but that is also unlikely." Thirdly, pass sanctions through a resolution of General Convention, but it would have no legal force. There is only moral obligation, he said.

Asked if the Primates had revisited the Dar es Salaam communiqué which called for serious discipline of provinces that ordained homosexuals to the priesthood or blessed same-sex unions, Aspinall said that was off the table. "It is in the background. It certainly prompted the primates to see what kind of communication was coming out of the meeting."

Asked how effective the three-fold moratoria has been, Aspinall said it is all in a melting pot. Parts of the communion are very conscious and sensitive to it. He also said that making the primates ex officio members of the Anglican Consultative Council was off the table and had "lapsed."

Asked by "Guardian" reporter Riazat Butt if by moving away from sanctions, would you have a Covenant without teeth, Aspinall replied that they were issues of "desirability and workability."

"We need a theological understanding of the character of communion and relationships. We need to build trust. Technically sanctions and punishment are not workable or useful."

Aspinall said the Primates are awaiting the next draft from the Covenant Design Group who is still waiting for responses to the St. Andrews Draft. The draft needs to be received by the ACC. "All primates are aware of the situation and there is a general warming to the possibilities that might be afforded by a covenant, at same time realizing what a Covenant can and cannot do."

Aspinall said the meeting had started well. "There is a good atmosphere. The Primates are pretty relaxed, but people are aware of the tensions. "There are not the levels of anxiety that have accompanied other Primates meetings."

Questioned if all the Primates were taking Holy Communion together, Aspinall replied that communion was celebrated by all the primates and no one has absented themselves. "No one has made any statement that they are not participating in Holy Communion."

However, VOL was told by a source that now that Katharine Jefferts Schori has shown up, things will be different tomorrow (Tuesday). A number of primates have said they will not take communion if she does.

Asked by VOL if GAFCON would in time replace LAMBETH and ACNA, the liberal North American provinces, Aspinall said he could not speculate on the future and a possible split in the communion, but the hope is always for the possibility of moving towards reconciliation. "My hope is for the latter."

Aspinall noted 34 Primates were present except for the Sudan whose primate has a visa problem. The Primate of the Philippines was refused a visa and three Primates from North and South India and Pakistan apologized because they could not attend because of other commitments. Eight Primates are here for the first time. The Archbishop of York John Sentamu is also here.

Five Primates made presentations on the degree to which the pressing sexuality issues influenced mission priorities. Aspinall said that where the bishops had been in discussion about the issues, they were cast in the particular. "Some are very traditional and there is no variation of that view. Others said the issues had not percolated down and many were concerned that if they did, it would be unsettling church life."

Aspinall indicated that there was a huge variety of responses from one culture to another. In one culture, matters of human sexuality are a very real live issue. In some cases, it is alive in the culture, but it is not driving the churches. The church has not provoked or enlivened these issues, he said.

"In all of the presentations, there was a clear presenting of mission in the light of local issues. Human sexuality is not just a challenge for Anglicans only."

"It became clear to the extent in the way in which Scripture is interpreted and affected by local circumstances. It is the spectacles we wear." Aspinall cited what he called the powerful analogy offered by Archbishop Thabo that in South Africa there is a divisive debate around the ethics of armed struggle to overthrow apartheid. The church managed to stay together and serve the needs of the people."

The five presenters were Archbishop Stephen of Myanmar, (formerly Burma), Archbishops Thabo Makgoba of South Africa, Katharine Jefferts Schori of the TEC, Archbishop Fred Hiltz of Canada and Henry Luke Orombi of Uganda.

Questioned about the emerging new North American Anglican Province (ACNA), Aspinall said it had not been added to the agenda, but it was referred to in passing. There was no plenary discussion. People are aware of it but it is not in focus. Nobody has declared such an expectation for a new province to be declared.

Questioned on cross border interventions and the three moratoria, Aspinall said they were part of the discussion. They have all called for the moratoria to be observed.

Questioned by the homogenital leader, Colin Coward of the British-based Changing Attitude organization if the "Listening Process" was on the agenda, Aspinall said there was not an identifiable slot on the agenda for such a discussion.

Of the Windsor Continuation Group's recommendations, Aspinall said the Archbishop of Canterbury has asked that it be kept confidential so the primates have a chance to work through it. He said he hoped to make a report at end of the week to the media.

The covenant was proposed to set out sanctions for provinces that breached accepted Anglican norms on issues such as gay consecrations, but Mrs. Jefferts Schori has nixed any discussion about a covenant at the upcoming General Convention in July. We are now told that it will be 2015 before a Covenant would likely be voted on by The Episcopal Church.


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