Neither Side Happy With Archbishop of Canterbury's Latest Bid to Prevent Schism

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 1, 2009

T he archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, is not a popular man these days. Beset from both sides of his fractured flock, it seems that he can't do anything right.

His latest proposal to hold together the warring factions, a two-track system that could give his rebellious U.S. Episcopal Church a secondary role in the Communion, has disappointed just about everyone.

"It's well meaning but, I think, a futile attempt to paper over two irreconcilable truth claims," said Bishop Martyn Minns, former rector of Truro Church in Fairfax City, who heads a group of congregations that has broken from the Episcopal Church because its members think that the church does not follow the Bible closely enough.

Those on the other side aren't happy either.

"It doesn't contribute to holding people together," said Bishop Peter James Lee of the Virginia Diocese. "Even though he explicitly says this is not a first-class, second-class division, it feels that way."

Rowan Williams, 59, an acclaimed theologian who spent much of his career as an academic before becoming archbishop of Canterbury in 2003, has found himself at the head of a church torn by disputes that are ostensibly over homosexuality. The division became pronounced when the Episcopal Church elected its first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

But the dispute goes much deeper, church leaders and analysts say. It has brought to the fore simmering racial and class tensions between the Anglican Communion's wealthy -- but shrinking -- Western arm and its rapidly growing membership in the developing world, particularly Africa.

The worldwide Communion is a fellowship of churches in more than 160 countries and includes the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church as its U.S. constituent.

Of the Anglican Communion's 80 million members, about 40 percent live in Uganda, Nigeria and South Africa. In Africa, leaders teach a relatively strict interpretation of the Bible -- on the story of Jesus's resurrection, on salvation and on what they view as the biblical condemnation of homosexuality. Their opposition to full acceptance of gay men and lesbians is shared by conservative Episcopal parishes and dioceses, which in growing numbers have aligned themselves with African provinces.

Most Episcopal Church leaders embrace the idea that there can be more than one way to interpret Scripture, and they see inclusion of gay men and lesbians as a Christian imperative. This month, delegates voted overwhelmingly to welcome the election of gay and lesbian bishops and authorized the church to start drafting an official prayer for same-sex couples.

Divisions over Scripture, homosexuality and other issues are not uncommon among faith groups, and the conflict within Anglicanism is being watched closely by other denominations, including the Presbyterian and United Methodist churches, which also have rapidly growing, restive African memberships.

The situation is most pressing in the Anglican Communion, and it has fallen to Williams to broker a solution.

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