Jonathan Petre is the Religious Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. View from Fleet Street in the CEN
THE Anglican Communion is heading for an almighty pile-up. Sometime in November, a conservative archbishop is planning to announce radical plans to adopt a breakaway group of conservative American dioceses,and the resulting collision could prove very messy indeed. Under the plans, between three and five dioceses will – over a period of time – opt out of The Episcopal Church and affiliate with the conservative province thousands of miles away. The proposals, which I have seen, have been drawn up over a number of months and follow extensive consultations between the bishops of the American dioceses and their counterparts in the province concerned. Lawyers have advised the American dioceses that they should enjoy greater protection than parishes when it comes to the inevitable tug-of-war with the litigious leadership of the Episcopal Church over property because they are deemed to be legal entities in their own right. The dioceses will, however, have to respect all the legal niceties before opting out – most have to confirm fundamental constitutional changes at two subsequent meetings of their diocesan synods – so the realignment is expected to be staggered.
San Joaquin in California, which is due to take its second vote in December, is due to leap first, while Pittsburgh, headed by the leader of the conservative dioceses, Bishop Bob Duncan (pictured), will have to wait until the middle of next year. While this could appear, at least at first, to be more of a whimper than a bang, its cumulative effect could be momentous. Bishop Duncan may be guilty of hyperbole when he claims it is part of a new â€˜Reformation’, but at the very least it will create a dangerously unstable anomaly at the heart of the Communion.
Once the precedent is established, who knows what floodgates it may open across the rest of the Communion. The liberal leadership of the Episcopal Church is certain to claim that any diocese that opts out, presumably taking senior clergy as well as property with it, is now vacant and appoint new bishops and staff. For the first time, there will be rival dioceses, each claiming to be Anglican, operating in parallel within the same geographical boundaries. Conceivably, there will also be neighbouring parishes belonging to the rival dioceses, competing for worshippers. Along with the other Common Cause partners, the realigned conservative dioceses will no doubt develop into a de facto parallel province within the Episcopal Church, creating an open wound. The new â€˜ecclesial body’ will be recognized by a number of conservative Primates, and disowned by a number of liberal ones, further intensifying strains across the whole Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has been told about these plans, but just at the moment he must feel like a rabbit caught in the headlights. At the time of writing, he was ensconced in a no doubt uncomfortable meeting with the increasingly quarrelsome Church of England bishops in London. He has said that he will somehow consult all this fellow Primates about the next steps, possibly by writing or via personal telephone calls, but he cannot delay some sort of statement for long. In advance of the Episcopal House of Bishops’ meeting in New Orleans, he had all but ruled out calling an emergency Primates meeting after a number of liberals, anxious that they may be strongarmed into taking punitive action against the Americans, threatened to boycott it. But, amid growing evidence that he and his advisors are making up the rules of the game as they go along, he may rethink that option as at least it offers the tempting prospect of buying more time.
While Dr Williams was in New Orleans, he gave every indication that he was prepared to do almost anything to keep the Americans within the fold as long as they produced a “defensible” compromise. But whether he can plausibly defend the statement produced by the Americans remains to be seen, and much will now depend on the reaction of moderate conservatives such as the Primate of the West Indies, Archbishop Drexel Gomez. In a newspaper interview a year ago, he revealed that he had a “nightmare” that the Communion would disintegrate into warring factions, bankrupting themselves in protracted legal battles over property. He painted a bleak picture of rival Anglican churches competing with each other on the same street. His nightmare is fast becoming reality.