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A church that seems beyond healing - by Muriel Porter

A church that seems beyond healing

By Muriel Porter

(A Liberal perspective on what happened at the ACC meeting in Nottingham)

June 29, 2005

Conservative Anglicans around the world must be jubilant. Their long-term strategy of isolating the liberal North American Anglican churches from the mainstream Anglican communion has paid off.

And all because they refuse to accept that the conservative, even fundamentalist, viewpoint on homosexuality is the only respectable Christian position.

By the barest of majorities, the triennial meeting of the international Anglican Consultative Council, which ended yesterday in Nottingham, England, has effectively banished the Americans and Canadians over their support of same-sex unions and gay clergy. Ironically, the harsh decision was only possible because the North Americans had voluntarily removed themselves from the vote.

At a special meeting in February, the Anglican primates - the heads of the 38 autonomous Anglican churches - had asked the North American churches to withdraw from all major international church bodies until at least 2008 because of their support for homosexuality. Graciously, they agreed.

In a 30-28 vote, the Anglican Consultative Council endorsed the primates' stance, symbolically shunning the North American churches. So their generosity in the face of the conservatives' demands has blown up in their faces. As the primate of the Episcopal Church of the United States, Bishop Frank Griswold, has noted, this decision was only possible because the Canadians and Americans were not part of the vote. AdvertisementAdvertisement

If their delegates to the council - a total of six people - had been included in the ballot, the vote would have gone clearly in the opposite direction.

The primates' initial request for the American withdrawal was ostensibly to allow some breathing space in the Anglican Communion, which has come close to splitting over the Canadian church's endorsement of same-sex unions, and the American church's consecration of a bishop with a publicly acknowledged same-sex partner.

It seems likely that the requested withdrawal had a much more sinister motive. Instead of giving breathing space, it ruthlessly cut off the oxygen supply to an important segment of the international church. And it cleared the way for conservatives to dominate and polarise the Anglican decision-making body, which until now had been both moderate and irenic.

The Anglican Consultative Council is made up of bishops, clergy and lay people from the 38 provinces of the Anglican Church worldwide. It is the legal entity for the international church and the only forum in which Anglican lay people can participate in decision-making.

It has also been the place where the voice of women, and particularly women clergy, could be heard. The North Americans, with their long-standing commitment to women clergy, regularly include female priests in their council delegations.

Had their delegations been included in this meeting, they would have provided two women bishops - one from Canada and one from the US. Likewise, they would have added two more laywomen to the mix.

Without them, the number of women attending has been sadly depleted. Of 78 participants, there are just two women priests (no women bishops) and only 11 laywomen. Significantly, Australia's three-person delegation includes one of the two women priests - a former Melbourne priest, the Reverend Kay Goldsworthy, now a vicar in Perth.

The close vote did not just endorse the banishment of the North Americans. It also explicitly endorsed the hardline stance against homosexuality that has been the cause of all the trouble.

The loss of the North Americans in the council's deliberations is significant not just because of their potential votes. They have always brought an important cultural perspective to the international church, as well as a level of energy and confidence not readily found among other first-world Anglicans.

In particular, their absence has allowed the ultra-conservative African churches to dominate the council. Nigeria's outspoken primate, Archbishop Peter Akinola, appears to have been a driving force behind the council's polarising decision. Akinola has equated homosexuality with bestiality, called it a "self-centred perversion", and described homosexuals as "strange two-in-one humans".

Without support from the Anglican Consultative Council - and ironically, without their own voting power - the North Americans will find it hard to be accepted back into the Anglican fold. Their permanent exclusion is now a real possibility, and with it, the dismantling of the Anglican communion.

Make no mistake, their sidelining has significant implications for other important matters in what might be termed "cultural Christianity". Watch for the same determined undermining of women clergy as the conservatives become more bold. And even the reduction of the lay voice.

Conservative churches are inevitably hierarchical, clerical and male-dominated. Not just gay people will be the victims of the ingenious repositioning of the Anglican communion that has happened this week.

--Dr Muriel Porter was Australia's lay representative to the Anglican Consultative Council in the 1990s.

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