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Comparing the conflict over homosexuality
with past crises in the Communion

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Concerning the Anglican Communion itself:

The total membership of the worldwide Anglican Communion is approximately 76 million. Each diocese has considerable power of self-government. Each national or regional church, called a "province," has even wider powers. The leader of each province -- the Primate -- and the bishops meet every ten years at the Lambeth Conference, usually held in England. Here, they attempt to reach general agreement on basic matters of faith and social policy. The next meeting is scheduled for 2008.

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Why change within the Anglican Communion is particularly difficult:

As a general rule, large religious institutions have difficulty changing their beliefs and practices. Their beliefs and practices are largely founded on church traditions and the teachings of a holy text -- the Hebrew Scriptures, Apocrypha, and Christian Scriptures in this case. Significant change often means that believers must acknowledge that the church's past traditions are wrong and/or that their holy text is either wrong or has been misinterpreted for centuries. These are often gut-wrenching decisions. They can only be arrived at with a lot of pain on the part of the members, priests, bishops, and primates. Sometimes the strain on the group has been so great that schisms have occurred or been threatened.

Change is particularly difficult for the Anglican Communion for many reasons, including:

bulletOrganization: Its structure is basically democratic and largely decentralized. Change across the Anglican Communion is only implemented after years -- sometimes decades -- of painful debate. This contrasts with religious organizations like the Roman Catholic Church, where the pope can make statements of belief which are binding on the membership, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which teaches that the prophet receives revelations directly from God which are also binding on all believers.
bulletDecentralization: Some Anglicans have jokingly referred to a T-shirt which may or may not have existed in reality. It says: "I am not the member of an organized church. I'm an Anglican."  The spiritual head of the Anglican Communion is the Archbishop of Canterbury. But he has little administrative authority over the Communion. Major policy decisions are left up to the primates and bishops at the Lambeth Conference which meets every decade. Still, the Conferences have little direct authority over the provinces. Provinces meet regularly to discuss policy; decisions generally require the agreement of three groups: the bishops, priests, and representative from the laity. Considerable power is also wielded by the bishop, clergy and laity of each diocese. An individual diocese or province which is out of step with the rest of the communion can implement change independently of the rest of the Communion. This can inflame passions elsewhere, particularly when it involves human sexuality. For example:
bulletIn the Anglican Church of Canada, the 1998 decision by Michael Ingham, bishop of New Westminster diocese in Vancouver, British Columbia Canada to allow the blessing of committed same-sex relationships within his synod. He had previously vetoed repeated requests by a majority in his synod.
bulletIn the The Episcopal Church, USA, Rev. Gene Robinson, a gay male in a committed relationship, was elected bishop by the clergy and laity in New Hampshire during 2003-JUN. The Church's General Convention confirmed the election in 2003-AUG.
bulletInfluence of culture: The 38 Anglican provinces cover the entire world, including many diverse societies which have very different cultural traditions concerning gender and sexual orientation. The position of the various provinces towards the role of women and the nature of homosexual orientation and behavior depends primarily on the local culture. For example, in 1974, the "Philadelphia Eleven" -- eleven female candidates for the priesthood -- were irregularly ordained in Philadelphia, PA. But it took 24 years before the General Assembly of the Nippon Sei Ko Kai (the Anglican Church in Japan) voted to accept female priests; that decision meant that the majority of provinces accepted women for ordination. There are still many provinces who continue a sexist attitude by refusing to consider female ordination.

It is impossible to have the entire Communion change in a lock-step fashion. If past transitions over human slavery and female ordination are any guide, many decades will pass before the more traditional Anglican provinces will catch up to where the Episcopal Church, USA and the Anglican Church of Canada are now on matters of equal rights and treatment of gays and lesbians.
bulletBroad range of beliefs: The Anglican Communion is proud of its heritage of offering a "broad tent" to believers. Within the Communion are such diverse groups as Evangelicals, religious liberals, Charismatics, Anglo-Catholics, etc. If Anglicans were more homogenous, they would experience less internal conflict.
bulletIf they were as uniformly conservative as the Southern Baptist Convention, then same-sex behavior would be almost universally considered an abomination; agitation for equal rights for sexual minorities would probably be almost nonexistent.
bulletIf they were as liberal as the United Church of Christ or the United Church of Canada, the questions would have been settled years ago in favor of equal rights.
bulletConflict over criteria for truth: The Virginia Report of the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission of 1997 noted that Christian beliefs are dynamic. 5 Anglicans must discern "afresh the mind of Christ for the Church in each generation." They recognize three main criteria for truth:
bulletTheir current interpretations of the Bible. Unfortunately, some Anglicans interpret the famous six "clobber passages" of the Bible as condemning all homosexual behavior, no matter what the nature of the relationship. Others concentrate on the Bible's themes of love and justice which they feel support equal rights for, and acceptance of, sexual minorities;
bulletThe historical traditions of the Church. Traditions towards sexual minorities have been fairly consistently negative.
bulletHuman reason. One input to human reason are the findings of science. Human sexuality researchers only started to study homosexuality seriously in the 1950s. With few exceptions, they have determined that homosexuality is an unchosen, fixed, normal, and natural sexual orientation for a minority of adults. Homosexuality then becomes a trait, like left-handedness.

These three criteria can be used to support either a condemnation or acceptance of homosexuality. The culture in which a person is raised appears to be the most important factor in determining their conclusions about homosexuality.

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Previous crises in the Anglican Communion:

The 19th century saw a major crisis within the Anglican Communion over the morality of human slavery. This was particularly acute in the U.S., Canada and England. The practice had been supported by many Anglicans and Christians of other denominations for centuries. It was justified by the common interpretation of the "Curse of Ham" from the book of Genesis. Additional support came from the Bible itself -- there are no passages which specifically condemned slavery; there are many verses that regulated the institution. Unlike the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, the Anglican Communion was able to survive the slavery debate without a schism over slavery.

Other crises during the late 19th and early 20th century were relatively minor and involved disagreements over whether women had souls, whether married couples could morally use birth control, etc. However, in the 1960s, the evolving feminist movement began to have a major impact on the Anglican Communion, particularly in the west provinces.

There has historically been a threefold ministry in the church: deacons, priests and bishops. Some provinces wanted to change the traditional practice of reserving ordination to the priesthood as a special privilege for males. 

The important stages of this controversy are worth considering, because they could form a model for the Communion's consideration of the role of homosexuals in church life:

bulletPrior to 1960: The Anglican Communion and many other Christian faith groups had always rejected female ordination. No woman, regardless of her abilities and talents could be considered for ordination.
bulletDuring the 1960s: There was a growing acceptance in western cultures of the need to give women equal opportunity as a moral imperative. This was largely driven by secular groups, very liberal religious groups, and individuals. Debate intensified within the Anglican Communion concerning female ordination as priests and even their consecration as bishops.
bullet1968 Lambeth Conference: Five resolutions were passed concerning the ordination of women:
bulletResolution 34 stated that the theological arguments for and against female ordination are both inconclusive.
bulletResolution 35 and 36 asked the provinces and the Anglican Consultative Council to exchange their findings on female ordination.
bulletResolution 37 asked any province that was seriously considering female ordination to first obtain the advice of the Anglican Consultative Council.
bulletResolution 38 was initiated by Women in the Anglican Communion. It recommended that provinces involve women as much as possible in worship services pending resolution of the female ordination question. 1
bullet1974: Three bishops of the Episcopal Church, USA irregularly ordained eleven women. Massive outrage surfaced in the Church and throughout the rest of the Communion.
bullet1975: The Anglican Church of Canada authorized female ordination.
bullet1976: The Episcopal Church, USA passed a resolution declaring that "no one shall be denied access" to ordination into the three orders of ministry: as deacons, priests or bishops, on the basis of their sex.
bullet1978 Lambeth Conference:
bulletResolution 20 recommended that all provinces open the Diaconate to women.
bulletResolution 21 noted that:
bulletSince the previous Lambeth Conference in 1868, the provinces of Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand and USA had ordained women as priests.
bulletThe debate had "...caused distress and pain to many on both sides. To heal these and to maintain and strengthen fellowship is a primary pastoral responsibility of all, and especially of the bishops."
bulletThe Conference recognized "the autonomy of each of its member Churches, acknowledging the legal right of each Church to make its own decision about the appropriateness of admitting women to Holy Orders."
bulletThe Conference accepted both those provinces and dioceses which ordain women and those who don't, and urged that each respect the convictions of the other side.
bullet"...the holding together of diversity within a unity of faith and worship is part of the Anglican heritage." 2
bulletResolution 22 recommended against the consecration of women as bishops unless "overwhelming support" existed in the province and diocese concerned and then only after consultation with the other primates.
bullet1980s: Debate intensified within some provinces over the consecration of female priests as bishops.
bullet1988 Lambeth Conference: This was a critical time for the Anglican Communion as there was a strong possibility that one of the provinces would consecrate a woman as bishop. 
bulletResolution 1 was adopted by a vote of 423 to 28, with 19 abstentions. It begins: "1 That each province respect the decision and attitudes of other provinces in the ordination or consecration of women to the episcopate, without such respect necessarily indicating acceptance of the principles involved, maintaining the highest possible degree of communion with the provinces which differ." This resolution recognizes that each province has the authority to decide for itself whether to consecrate female priests as bishops. 3
bulletPart "c" of the resolution also recommended that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, appoint a commission, to monitor those provinces who had decided to ordain women to make certain that their action does not threaten the unity of the church. Its formal name was the "Archbishop of Canterbury's Commission on Communion and Women in the Episcopate" It became generally known as the Eames Commission because it was chaired by the Most Rev'd Robin Eames, Archbishop of Armagh of Ireland.
bullet1989: The fear of the first female Anglican bishop materialized when the Episcopal Church, USA consecrated a woman as bishop.
bullet1997: Eames commission report: The group issued a report which discussed how the Communion wanted to "...uphold legitimate provincial autonomy while at the same time fostering a care and consideration for those ...." who opposed female ordination. They felt that the "...guidelines developed by the Eames Commission and supported by resolution of the Primates' Meeting have helped Anglicans maintain the highest degree of communion with those who, with integrity, hold quite opposite views about the ordination of women." They estimated that there were "well over 4,000" female priests, "10 women bishops of which 6 are diocesan bishops." Australia, Burundi, England, Kenya, Philippines, Scotland, Uganda, Wales, West Africa, and West Indies accepted women into the Diaconate and Presbyterate (priesthood). Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, and Southern Africa had accepted, in principle, women to all three ministries of the church: as deacons, priests and bishops.. The province of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia had joined Canada and the US to actually have women in all three levels. They reported in England that: "Some groups opposed to women's ordination continue to feel marginalised. Others believe the Church of England went too far in accommodating conscientious dissent....The reports from the Provinces indicate occasional or even more general attitudes of contempt for opponents on both sides of the continuing debate. Communion in diversity requires charity and respect." The Province of the Anglican Church in South East Asia continued its opposition to ordaining women. They said, "It is wrong to consider the open process of reception where the principle is wrong and not accepted...there is no debate where scripture, tradition and common sense are clear."
bullet1998: By this date, a slim majority of the provinces had decided to ordain women. There was little controversy at the Lambeth Commission concerning females throughout the threefold ministry. Female ordination had become almost a non-issue.

By 2006, there still remain many provinces in the world, and a few dioceses in the U.S., which do not permit the ordination of female priests. All but three refuse to consecrate women as bishops. The Church of England only started ordaining women in the early 1990s. They are not expect to allow female bishops until the 2010s at the earliest. The Communion will probably not reach full agreement for decades into the future. It may well take generations -- conceivable even a century -- before sexism is totally abolished in the Anglican Communion, and women are allowed to fully serve the church at all levels.

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Current status of "the issue:"

As of early 2005, gays and lesbians may be ordained throughout most of the the Anglican Communion, but they normally have to agree to remain celibate. The Anglican communion does not generally recognize or bless gay and lesbian union ceremonies. Exceptions exist in some dioceses in the U.S. and Canada.

Among many Anglican leaders, stability and homogeneity of belief and practice is of primary importance. Other leaders see justice in the form of equal rights for all persons, including those of sexual minorities, as paramount. There are no good solutions to the conflict.

Equal rights for gays and lesbians was the main topic of conflict at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. A serious division surfaced among the various Provinces, with many Western churches taking a more liberal view. The Archbishop of Canterbury created a commission to study the matter. Their Windsor Report was issued in late 2004. The Primates split the Anglican Communion in 2005-FEB by asking the U.S. and Canadian provinces to withdraw from the Anglican Consultative Council .

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  1. "Archive of Resolutions from 1968 Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops," The Anglican Communion Official Website, at: http://www.anglicancommunion.org/
  2. "Archive of Resolutions from 1978 Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops," The Anglican Communion Official Website, at: http://www.anglicancommunion.org/
  3. "1988 Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops: Resolution 1: The ordination or consecration of women to the episcopate," The Anglican Communion Official Website, at: http://www.anglicancommunion.org/
  4. "The Eames Monitoring Group Report," The Anglican Communion Official Website, 1997-AUG, at: http://www.anglicancommunion.org/
  5. "The Anglican Way: Scripture, Tradition and Reason," Chapter 3 I of the Virginia Report, at: http://www.anglicancommunion.org/

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