In a plea for unity, the Archbishop of Canterbury has told conservative Anglicans establishing a separate fellowship within the Anglican Communion to "think very carefully about the risks entailed."
Conservative Anglicans wrapped up the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem on Sunday with a statement affirming their desire to remain within the Anglican Communion but within the structure of a new fellowship headed by a council of bishops. Anglicanism was not, the statement added, "determined necessarily through recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury."
In a statement issued in response on Monday, Dr. Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, said that the final statement from GAFCON leaders contained "much that is positive and encouraging" about their priorities and that the vast majority of Anglicans shared their "tenets of orthodoxy."
He also addressed concerns over the uniqueness of Christ and the "absolute imperative" of evangelism, stating they were "not in dispute in the common life of the Communion."
Williams warned, however, that GAFCON's proposals were "problematic in all sorts of ways."
"A 'Primates' Council' which consists only of a self-selected group from among the Primates of the Communion will not pass the test of legitimacy for all in the Communion," he stated. "And any claim to be free to operate across provincial boundaries is fraught with difficulties, both theological and practical."
U.S. Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori lamented the GAFCON statement. "Anglicanism has always been broader than some find comfortable. This statement does not represent the end of Anglicanism, merely another chapter in a centuries-old struggle for dominance by those who consider themselves the only true believers."
In recent years, bishops from the Global South have provided leadership to parishes in North America that have split from The Episcopal Church – the U.S. branch of Anglicanism – over the U.S. denomination's liberal drift from Scripture and Anglican tradition. GAFCON leaders said on Sunday that they would continue to offer alternative pastoral oversight to breakaway congregations within the Communion's liberal member churches.
Williams warned that exercising episcopal or primatial authority over huge geographical and cultural divides would result in an "obvious strain."
He added, "[H]ow is effective discipline to be maintained in a situation of overlapping and competing jurisdictions?"
While Williams urged fellow Anglicans not to "impute selfish or malicious motives" to those seeking alternative oversight, he said that the issue of discerning genuine theological grievances was "becoming very serious."
"How is a bishop or primate in another continent able to discriminate effectively between a genuine crisis of pastoral relationship and theological integrity, and a situation where there are underlying non-theological motivations at work?" he asked. He pointed to interventions in dioceses with "unquestionably orthodox" leadership not because of theological differences but personal or administrative disagreements.
The Archbishop of Canterbury said the solution to the challenges was "not to dismiss the existing structures of the Communion."
"If they are not working effectively, the challenge is to renew them rather than to improvise solutions that may seem to be effective for some in the short term but will continue to create more problems than they solve," he said.
Just weeks away from the Communion's once-a-decade global gathering, Williams said one of the most significant focuses at the Lambeth Conference will be structural renewal and restoring confidence in Anglican identity. Lambeth is scheduled to take place in Kent, England, from July 16 to August 3.
Many conservative bishops, who attended GAFCON, said they will not attend Lambeth, partly due to their opposition to the invitation of bishops, mainly from the U.S. Episcopal Church, who supported the consecration of openly gay bishop V. Gene Robinson in 2003. The task of structural renewal, however, requires all "to play their part," the Archbishop of Canterbury.
He invited GAFCON leaders to take part in the drawing up of the Anglican Covenant, a document seeking to uphold the autonomy of the Communion's 38 provinces while asking for their voluntary commitment to a process of joined-up deliberation to solve disputes over contentious issues. The draft document is scheduled for discussion at Lambeth.
Also on Monday, Williams rejected the accusation from GAFCON leaders that some liberal member churches are preaching the "false gospel" of sexual immorality.
"It is wrong," the Archbishop said, "to assume we are now so far apart that all those outside the GAFCON network are simply proclaiming another gospel."
"This is not the case; it is not the experience of millions of faithful and biblically focused Anglicans in every province," he stated.
"What is true is that, on all sides of our controversies, slogans, misrepresentations and caricatures abound. And they need to be challenged in the name of the respect and patience we owe to each other in Jesus Christ."
He appealed for patience from GAFCON leaders. "An impatience at all costs to clear the Lord's field of the weeds that may appear among the shoots of true life (Matt.13.29) will put at risk our clarity and effectiveness in communicating just those evangelical and catholic truths which the GAFCON statement presents."