In the January issue of Christianity Today, renowned Anglican theologian (and CT executive editor) J.I. Packer wrote about why he walked out of the synod of the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster as it authorized a service for same sex-unions. In a long-awaited statement, the world's Anglican leaders (called primates) yesterday criticized that diocese's action—along with the Episcopal Church USA's confirmation of a gay bishop—as threatening "the unity of our own Communion as well as our relationships with other parts of Christ's Church, our mission and witness, and our relations with other faiths." In the hours that followed its release, Christianity Today managing editor Mark Galli discussed the primates' statement with Packer.
Where do you think the statement got it right?
I think the statement is a brilliancy of its own kind. First, it's realistic about the seriousness of the relational situation between the different parts of the Anglican Communion. That realism goes beyond what has been representatively acknowledged hitherto, and the facts of threatening division are faced.
And the brilliancy was to formulate the statement in such a way that the frank facing of the facts and the open-endedness of what was said about the future made it possible for that majority to accept the statement as an interim statement, acknowledging their concerns—just as liberal primates who basically remain in sympathy with the move to accept the gay lifestyle in some Anglican provinces were able to accept the statement. Although for one or two of them the words—"as a body we deeply regret the actions of the Diocese of the Westminster and of the Episcopal Church"—implicitly involves a different stance for these liberals from that which they've taken thus far. "As a body we deeply regret"—I'm thankful they say that, and presumably they say it with full honesty.
Where do you think it fell short?
Two things about it seem to me to be less than what really was needed. I think that the issue of the authority of Scripture is fudged. They say that the dispute over the gay issue is only a matter of the interpreting of Scripture, not the authority of Scripture. The truth of the matter is that if you interpret Holy Scripture in an arbitrary way, a way which the writers of the Bible books themselves would not have accepted as correct or valid, if you make Scripture mean something other than what it meant in the minds of those who wrote the words to express their meaning—well, you are actually undermining the authority of Scripture, you are indeed negating it, and it would be a lot clearer to say that straight out.
Or to say something like this: "We accept the authority of Scripture as relative, though not all of us can accept it as absolute." Relative means that we respect the wisdom, the insight of the chaps who wrote it, but we don't see them as having spoken the last word.
Some think of the inspiration of Scripture as a matter of divine origin, God speaking through men, as he spoke through the prophets. Some think of the inspiration of Scripture as simply the quality of the testimony of men who had a lot of spiritual insight, wisdom, and power to inspire readers, but whose testimony, thoughts, experience is in no way decisive. I wish that distinction had been more clearly articulated.
Second, they don't say what needs to be said explicitly in order to express the reality of the situation. Those who have conscientiously separated themselves from the gay lifestyle do so because they see the gospel—quite specifically, the gospel—as bound up in the issue. And they cannot get it out of their minds that in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, the Apostle Paul says to the Corinthians (who had the gay lifestyle as a going concern among them), "Don't be deceived"—because this is a matter on which it was obviously easy to be deceived in Corinth, and on which perhaps it's easy to be deceived today as well. Then comes a vice list—those who do, present tense verbs, those who commit themselves habitually, or as a way of life, to these particular vices like adultery and theft, and homosexual activity. This idea is expressed very clearly by the use of two words that point to the involvement of two men in any homosexual connection. Those who do these things, in the sense of making this their lifestyle, will not inherit the kingdom of God, says Paul.
The gospel is about the way into the kingdom of God. The burden of Paul's statement is that you are negating the gospel, and so jeopardizing your own soul, if you continue to engage in any of these vicious lifestyles. And I say "continue to" because Paul then goes on to say, "and that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."
So for those who have dissociated themselves from the acceptance of the gay lifestyle, they do so because it involves a denial of the gospel. As one who believes in the diving authority of the Scriptures, I am 100 percent with them.
Does this statement, in your mind, make schism less inevitable or simply delay it?
First of all the word schism seems to me to be prejudicial here. Schism is a technical term meaning causeless division, blameworthy division. What's envisaged and being feared is the separation of some parts of the Anglican Communion from other parts of the Anglican Communion, separation for conscientious reasons.
The statement is an interim statement; it asks for certain things to be done within 12 months. After which, presumably, the whole matter will be reviewed, I suppose by the primates. But this interim statement acknowledges, and I read the words, "If the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson proceeds, we recognize that we have reached a crucial and critical point of the life of the Anglican Communion and we have had to conclude that the future of the Communion itself will be put in jeopardy." It's in jeopardy now, and I don't think that the present statement, in light of the expectation that two weeks from now Bishop Gene Robinson will be consecrated, diminishes the likelihood of eventual separation in the least. The most you can say is that it postpones it. The primates have agreed to postpone the matter. I think that's what the statement announced: they agreed to postpone the matter for 12 months.
I infer that from the fact that "we," meaning all the primates consenting to the statement, "urge our provinces not to act precipitately on these wider questions." I don't think that means that specific groups of dissenting churches won't separate themselves from those in authority who embrace the gay lifestyle. It has happened in the diocese of New Westminster; a group of 11 churches has already done that. It may happen again. If it didn't happen in New Hampshire, I would be surprised.
But be that as it may, the primates, as primates, are agreeing to urge their provinces not to act precipitately as provinces. In other words, they won't themselves bring up the question of separation or declaring themselves out of communion or anything like that for 12 months until the commission that they've asked to be established has reported. That's the natural reading of the document. Who's to say whether an individual primate will cut loose? And under pressure you never quite know what's going to happen, even in the Anglican Communion.
There is a real likelihood of permanent separation. It hasn't been either increased or diminished by this statement, only postponed.
What does this portend for individual parishes and individual dioceses? The statement seems to give some wiggle room for conservative parishes and dioceses.
Yes, I think it does. And this links up with what I was saying a moment ago about my expectation that in some dioceses, the kind of action that we took for conscientious reasons in the diocese of New Westminster will be matched.
And of course, at the moment in the U.S. there is a great deal of talk, you could say almost agitation, about forming a new conservative, explicitly Bible-based Anglican province of a nongeographical sort, consisting of parishes that have explicitly rejected the gay lifestyle. And such a diocese could be a North American diocese, which includes Canadian as well as American Episcopal church parishes.
I don't know; we wait to see. I don't think the document rules that out.
Is it significant that the document says that minorities within dioceses and parishes would have the right to seek alternate oversight under the guidance of the archbishop?
I hope it's significant. I hope it is seriously met. I hope the words won't be treated as a kind of dead letter in the life of real dioceses over this next 12 months.
I would hope that this is so not because if words are not to be taken seriously, it's better that they be not used at all. Smokescreen wording doesn't honor God any more than it benefits people.
Furthermore, if nothing is done to acknowledge the legitimacy of dissent, 12 months down the road, the dissenters will be more angry than ever.
And what to you is the next key meeting or event or circumstance that we should be watching for?
First, the continuing process of interchange between the dissenting parishes and dioceses—especially the situation in New Westminster—and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Second, what is done in the way of continuing planning, organizing, talking, discussing, and exploring possibilities by those of the Episcopal Church, especially those many assembled at Plano, Texas, one week ago, who have declared themselves totally opposed to official sanctioning of the gay lifestyle.
And third, the production, the production of this report within a 12-month period, and the next meeting of primates after that.
It's a moving situation and a complex one.
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See also Packer's January article, "Why I Walked | Sometimes loving a denomination requires you to fight."
Christianity Today's other recent articles on the Anglican primates' meeting includes:
Dispatch: Conservatives Just Got Clobbered | Last week's American Anglican Council meeting in Texas announced victory prematurely (Oct. 17, 2003)
Anglican Leaders Criticize Episcopal Church, Canada's New Westminster Diocese on Homosexual Actions | Future of the Anglican unity "in jeopardy," they say, but don't break communion—yet (Oct. 16, 2003)
Anglicanism's Communion of Saints | Under the somber portraits of their predecessors, Anglican archbishops will discuss the fractious issues of the church and homosexuality (Oct. 15, 2003)
Weblog: Where Else to Go for News and Analysis of the Anglican Primates' Meeting | The best (and worst) articles and sites monitoring the breakup of the world's third-largest Christian body (Oct. 15, 2003)
For more on the Anglican crisis, see our Church Life area.