Vatican eggs on Anglican split in US

Cardinal praises conference planning break over gay bishop

Stephen Bates, religious affairs correspondent in Dallas
Friday October 10, 2003
The Guardian

The Vatican has publicly endorsed US Episcopalian hardliners gathered in Dallas to plan the breakup of their liberal national church. In a surprise letter from Rome on behalf of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Catholic enforcer of doctrinal purity, wrote to the organisers praising their stand. Support has also come from one of Britain's most respected evangelicals.

Some 2,600 Episcopalians from all over the US, including up to 10% of its clergy, gathered to consider ways of extricating all those opposed to the appointment of Canon Gene Robinson, who lives with a male partner, as bishop of New Hampshire.Yesterday they acclaimed a motion repudiating the canon's election and calling on church leaders to repent and reverse "unbiblical and schismatic actions".

It added: "We declare our commitment to the Lord's life-giving teaching about sexuality and marriage embraced by Christians throughout all ages ... we celebrate God's unconditional love for all people, and we proclaim God's transforming power for everyone seeking sexual purity and wholeness."

There were standing ovations when the cardinal's letter was read out, and also for a message from John Stott, the London-based octogenarian former chaplain to the Queen. Mr Stott is revered in evangelical circles around the world as one of their modern founders, so much so that he is occasionally called the evangelical pope.

The moves increase pressure on the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who has called an emergency meeting of the worldwide Anglican communion's 38 primates in London next week to discuss the threatened schism .

Yesterday's Dallas motion appealed to the primates to discipline the Episcopalian church (though in fact they have no power to do so), and guide the realignment of Anglicanism in north America. Observers in the mainstream Episcopalian church believe that, in practice, engineering a split in the US will be much more difficult than those at the conference have been led to believe. The church's canon law vests all its buildings in the national body, and it holds all the pension funds; any who left might find themselves out in the cold, or facing years of litigation.

Some African and developing world dioceses want to declare themselves out of communion with the more liberal US and Canadian churches - even though these provide large proportions of their funding. Yesterday the US Episcopalian church denied it was considering cutting its $106,000 (£70,000) grant to the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa (a third of its budget), following the election of the most outspoken critic of gays, Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, to the organisation's presidency.

The cardinal wrote to the conference: "I hasten to assure you of my heartfelt prayers for all those taking part in this convocation. The significance of your meeting is sensed far beyond [Dallas] and even in this city, from which St Augustine of Canterbury was sent to confirm and strengthen the preaching of Christ's gospel in England ... I pray God's will may be done by all those who seek that unity in the truth, the gift of Christ himself."

Such an intervention in another church is highly unusual, though less so by the standards of the ailing pontiff's highly conservative court. The Vatican takes an even harder line than the evangelicals, issuing a document this year condemning homosexuality as evil and disordered. When Dr Williams made a visit to Rome last weekend, even though the Pope could hardly speak, he found breath to warn against any accommodation.

The letter will however also cause intakes of breath among some evangelical Anglicans still suspicious of Catholic good intentions, even though they may agree with the Vatican's sentiments.

At a session on Wednesday lawyers warned the conference not to take precipitate unilateral action: "This is no time for Lone-Rangerism," said one. Advice to dissident parishes in this land of litigation was, first, get a good lawyer and then only later to pray. The Rev Jan Nunley, spokeswoman for the national church, said: "I think people will go away from this conference feeling rather confused, expecting to see action for their money and not getting any for quite a while. You could say it was a case of the old Texas saying: All hat and no cattle."

Bishop Frank Griswold, primate of the church, who supported Gene Robinson and will attend next week's meeting in London, has thanked his bishops for their great grace in unsettling and uncertain days: "Whatever the outcome may be ... I hope all of us might move beyond a spirit of condemnation and reaction."