Cracks in the Anglican Communion

It's a long way from Archbishop Moses Tay's Singapore cathedral to the Philadelphia Convention Center and the Episcopal Church's latest debates about sin, sacraments and sex.

The soft-spoken Asian primate isn't planning to make the trip. Nevertheless, his voice is being heard at the 72nd General Convention of Anglicanism's bitterly divided American flock, which ends July 25. Many Episcopalians want to know: What did Tay say and when did he say it?

The archbishop has declined, via fax, to confirm or deny published reports that, during a March meeting of archbishops in Jerusalem, he proposed that the Episcopal Church be expelled from the Anglican Communion. Meanwhile, the U.S. hierarchy denies the primates discussed excommunication - at least during on-the-record sessions.

What is clear is that most bishops in Asia, Africa and other Southern Hemisphere churches believe trends among America's 2 million Episcopalians could shatter the Anglican Communion. At least 75 percent of the world's 70 million Anglicans live in the Third World.

"We are deeply concerned that the setting aside of biblical teaching in such actions as the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions calls into question the authority of the Holy Scriptures. This is totally unacceptable," wrote 80 bishops from 20 of Anglicanism's 35 provinces, meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. "We need to learn how to seek each other's counsel ... and to reach a common mind, before embarking on radical changes to Church discipline and moral teaching. We live in a global village and ... the way we act in one part of the world can radically affect the mission and witness of the Church in another."

Tay's province immediately raised the stakes, endorsing the Kuala Lumpur statement and saying it will "be in communion with that part of the Anglican Communion which accepts and endorses the principles aforesaid and not otherwise."

"One reason Archbishop Tay isn't talking to the press ... is that he believes the southeast Asia resolution says everything that he needs to say," said Father Bill Atwood of Dallas, a traditionalist who has spent a year crisscrossing the globe visiting traditionalist bishops.

Those final words - "and not otherwise" - signal that Singapore may back efforts to break communion with those who support the Episcopal Church's de-facto policy of blessing same-sex unions and ordaining those sexually outside of marriage. An Episcopal court already has ruled that Episcopalians have no "core doctrine" on marriage. Bishops and delegates gathered in Philadelphia will consider several other progressive actions linked to sexuality.

However, Third World events have caused a strategic reversal. Right now, the Episcopal establishment is emphasizing unity and quiet change, while the right wants painful clarity, such as a yea-or-nay vote on the Kuala Lumpur statement. Why? A doctrinal earthquake in 1997 would rock 1998's Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, a once-a-decade conclave in which Third World bishops share the spotlight with richer and more powerful First World bishops. If the Episcopal left is patient, its leaders won't have to face overseas prelates until 2008. This also will be after the retirement of morally conservative Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey.

In his diocesan newspaper, Philadelphia Bishop Charles Bennison said clear action on same-sex unions might have to wait until 2000. "When this one goes over the top, I want it to go over in such a big way that everyone is swept along with it and it becomes a slam dunk," he said.

But it will be hard to keep peace in a communion that is stretching to include bishops with clashing views on everything from biblical authority to the acceptability of worshipping other gods at Christian altars. Also, some Episcopal progressives believe they have waited long enough.

"The matter of same-sex relationships and their blessing by the Church is extremely complicated and conflicted," wrote New Hampshire Bishop Douglas Theuner. "After nearly 2,000 years, there is not consensus in the Church Catholic about the nature and purpose of marriage or about the role of sexuality. ... If we were able to act only when the Church Catholic is of a common mind, we would not be able to act at all."