Dr. Rowan Williams, formally installed in the Canterbury archbishopric only last February, has ordered the church's 38 primates into an emergency session in London to deal with what he described as a "messy" future that could see the 2.3-million-strong U.S. Episcopal Church expelled from the Communion's mainstream.
Archbishop Williams's extraordinary move was triggered by the U.S. church's ratification of the appointment of Canon Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, to the fury of Anglican bishops in Asia, Africa, Australia and the Caribbean as well as conservative Episcopalian bishops in the United States.
It was in an interview with the Church of England's newspaper that Archbishop Williams said that "I don't expect the next few years to be anything other than messy as far as all this is concerned."
The crisis also confronts Williams himself with the most serious test since he assumed the archbishopric of Canterbury. His own liberal credentials have earned him solid opposition and criticism from the Church's evangelical wing even before he took over the primacy.
In blunt terms, the issue this week is whether the Church of England can survive intact, and that question sets the theme for the Lambeth Palace meeting in London that shapes up as a contentious one for the 38 largely conservative Anglican primates, split as they are among themselves over the issue of openly homosexual bishops and priests.
Archbishop of the West Indies Drexel Gomez, a leader of the conservative faction, has insisted to the respected Church Times that he has the confirmed backing of 14 of the primates and that he expects more than 20 of the assembled 38 to support his stand against the U.S. Church.
He and his fellow conservatives "are not looking for a row (argument)," Archbishop Gomez said, but they intend to go to Lambeth Palace "to remind Dr. Williams of the facts."
According to the Church of England newspaper, the conservative primates will demand that the U.S. Church reverse its decisions on same-sex blessings and the appointment of Gene Robinson, who has lived in an open relationship with his male lover for more than a decade.
If it refuses, the newspaper reported, "they plan to reduce the American Church to observer status ... They will then expel the erring Province and form a new American Province in its place."
The position adopted by Anglican evangelicals and conservatives is based on traditional interpretations of passages in the Old and New Testament declaring sex between men to be an "abomination."
Archbishop Gomez insists the Bible is on the church conservatives' side. "We believe in the primacy of scripture," he said, "and the Americans have yet to justify their actions through the scriptures."
"We will, of course, listen both to what the Americans have to say, and Dr. Williams. We would not second-guess him," said the West Indian primate. He did not sound hopeful.
But the man at the center of the religious hurricane, New Hampshire Bishop Robinson, told the Vermont gay publication "Out In the Mountains" that "most young people I've talked to have resolved the issue of homosexuality and think the church is hopelessly irrelevant fighting about it."
The archbishop of Canterbury, somewhat trapped by his liberal history which included his own ordination of a gay priest, has sought to steer a middle course ahead of the Lambeth meeting.
"I hope," Archbishop Williams said, "that in our deliberations we will find that there are ways forward in this situation which can preserve our respect for one another and for the bonds that unite us."
The ways forward may be a bit more winding and tricky than the archbishop lets on -- but that doesn't mean he lacks the power to direct the course. While Williams has "little more than moral authority," says British religion expert Jonathan Petre, "he can expel an individual province (such as the U.S. Episcopal Church) from the Communion by declaring that he is no longer 'in communion' with it."
A somewhat less drastic option would be to allow the creation of a "parallel, non-geographical jurisdiction for conservatives, into which individual parishes or dioceses could opt." But Petre conceded this would "create massive practical problems about how to divide up church property."
But the Rev. David Philips, general secretary of Britain's ultra-conservative Church Society, said the time for talking was over. "The assumption seems to be that we can somehow keep the Communion together and preserve unity just by getting together and talking about it."
"It is just nonsense," said Philips.
Another critic, the Most Rev. Bernard Malango, the archbishop of Central Africa, described the Church's dilemma in even more blunt words: "We are becoming a laughing stock." He also argued that Muslims see the issue of same-sex unions as a weakness in the Anglican Church.
Archbishop of Canterbury Williams himself hints at a dire future that could see the fragmentation of the Church of England:
"I suspect," he says in an article for the New Directions religious publication, "that those who speak of new alignments and new patterns, of the weakening of territorial jurisdiction and the like, are seeing the situation pretty accurately."
As the invitations to the London conference went out, Williams was in no doubt that something had to be done -- and quick -- lest the Anglican Communion fragment. "I am clear," he said, "that the anxieties caused by recent developments have reached the point where we need to sit down and discuss their consequences."
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