Senior Anglican Official Suggests Authority Issue Lies Behind Gay Split

A senior Anglican archbishop suggested Wednesday that the division within the worldwide communion has more to do with politics and issues of authority than gay rights and homosexuality.

During his two-part lecture series titled “Anglican Communion: A Growing Reality," at the Virginia Theological Seminary this week, Archbishop Robin Eames of Ireland suggested that the 77-million-member Anglican Communion had to create a stronger central authority to mediate disputes between the liberal North and conservative South.

"There needs to be much greater understanding of the long-term consequences of developments which could turn the diverse voice of the Anglican Communion into a divided family that other traditions of the Christian Church would find it hard to take seriously," Eames said.

Since the Episcopal Church USA elected an openly gay bishop to lead its New Hampshire diocese and the Canadian Anglican Church allowed the blessing of same-sex unions, the global communion has teetered on the verge of a worldwide split.

Just last month, the Nigerian church – whose 17 million members constitute a quarter of the world’s Anglicans – suggested that a new order of Anglicanism centered on its more conservative constituents could arise if the Church of England, which has historically led the Communion, follows its North American counterpart in condoning homosexuality. The Nigerian church and many other provinces in Africa have already cut off ties with the ECUSA and the Canadian Church.

Eames, who led the Windsor Report task force that tried to bridge this gap between the conservatives and liberals, said he understands “the frustration which has produced much of this reaction,” but that the conservative churches must see beyond the immediate schism and hold off from any more divisions.

He also questioned the “real” issues that lie behind the sexuality debate. “Has the Anglican obsession with sexuality been merely the tip of an iceberg hiding other deeper issues which will ultimately dictate the future of the Anglican Communion?” he asked.

“This is not a struggle between two North American provinces and other provinces. It is not a struggle between 36 provinces and 2 on how to 'discipline' the 'wayward,’” he answered. “Rather it is a struggle to discern how to meet conservative concerns for proper biblical interpretation and liberal consensus for justice and inclusion for minorities who claim they face prejudice and discrimination.”

Eames explained that this struggle brings to question a deeper issue that strikes at the heart of what it means to “be in communion” for the Anglican Church. Describing the inter-Anglican relationship that holds the communion as “bonds of affection,” the archbishop said these bonds were adequate forces of unity when the communion was smaller, but not in the current-day.

“They were adequate when agreement existed simply because there was no division. But they proved inadequate when pressures built up,” he said. “As divisive issues surfaced they became what bound together only those Provinces which agreed with each other.”

These strains were amplified by the newfound “autonomy” of the churches that had once been under colonial rule, he said. This further brought to question whether the real issue behind the Anglican schism is about “authority rather than sexuality.”

“Not just authority in terms of the authority of interpretation of Holy Scripture, but authority to be 'in communion' among diverse and autonomous Provinces while we're growing not only in numerical strength but growing in the confidence,” he said.

According to Erik Nelson, a researcher at the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Episcopal Action, the issue is not about the political authority or jealous ambition within the church.

“This is an authority issue, yes. But this is an issue about the authority of scripture, not about temporal authority,” said Nelson. “This is not about power within the church but about being authentically Christian by not denying the Scripture and changing it to the whims of culture.”

Ultimately, Nelson said, “there will be a worldwide Anglican body whatever happens.” The real question at hand is whether the Anglican Church in Canada and the Episcopal Church USA “choose to be a part of this communion.”

“You will see several churches leave and the rest staying together,” he said. “There is solidarity among orthodox Anglicans, and I don’t see that relationship changing. I see it becoming stronger.”

Eames agreed that the Anglican Communion will stay together. However, he said, the means of that unity will have to be deeply analyzed.

“I remain a firm believer that God has a purpose for the Anglican Communion,” he said. “But I also remain convinced that the Anglican attitude to the nature of the Church needs fresh recognition, that Anglicanism needs a theology of relationships and that a new feeling of trust across our Communion cries out for new means of cementing what we all most long for – unity in the life of Christ.”