CANTERBURY, England (Christian Examiner)—As global leaders of the Anglican Communion gather this week in the historic Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury, England, the communion's leader says a likely split would be a failure but not a "disaster" for Anglicanism.
"It would not be good if the Church is unable to set an example to the world of showing how we can love one another and disagree profoundly, because we are brought together by Jesus Christ, not by our own choice," said Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury on a BBC Radio 4 earlier this week.
The words came before church leaders kicked off the historic summit on Monday. It's the first such meeting of leaders of the 80-million-member global Anglican Communion in more than a decade. The heads of 40 separate Anglican church bodies are meeting at the summit. An article in The Daily Telegraph suggested the divisions between the conservative and liberal wings of the communion run so deep that Welby is providing separate chapels because of fears the two groups won't pray together.
Though the division has brewed for at least two decades, the turmoil heated up in 2003 when the U.S. branch (called the Episcopal Church) ordained its first openly-gay bishop, Gene Robinson.
Conservative Anglicans, particularly those in Africa and Asia, have since broken ties with the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Canadian branch of Anglicanism. A more conservative Episcopal Church in the United States also broke away and formed its own body (the Anglican Church of North America). The ordination of women has also become a significant issue in the debate.
In 2008 conservative churches, including the new American church, formed the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) to provide support for the ministries of the conservative churches.
In a letter posted on the website for the Anglican Church in North America, Archbishop Foley Beach wrote that he was attending the summit in the hope of "restoring order to the structures of the Anglican Church."
"What is at stake?" Beach writes "It is really not about me or about the Anglican Church in North America. It is the reputation of Jesus Christ. It is the souls of millions of people who are being taught a false Gospel and are being led into spiritual and sexual bondage under the pretense of the Christian faith. It is about the third largest expression of the Christian faith being able to unite and bring Christian hope and godliness in the face of violent opposition all around the globe."
Welby hopes to avoid a full schism by providing increased autonomy for national churches. The new arrangement, according to The Blaze, would link these churches to Canterbury but not to one another. He hopes the new arrangement will allow the church to respond in a unified manner to issues like climate change and religious violence.
"God put us together and we have to work out how we live with that and how we serve God faithfully in a way that shows that you can disagree profoundly and still live and care for each other," Welby said, according to The Telegraph.
The Telegraph also reports that Ugandan Archbishop Stanley Ntagali has threatened to walk out if there is no discussion on restoring what he called "godly order" in the Anglian Communion. The Church of England anticipated a walkout by six African countries—Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to The Guardian, these leaders are asking Welby to impose sanctions on the U.S. Episcopal Church.
The Guardian also suggest that many liberal leaders within the communion would welcome a schism because they are "horrified by the homophobic stance of conservative churches in sub-Saharan Africa" and believe a separation is inevitable.
Though Welby says he hopes the Anglican Communion remains united throughout the week, he admits there is nothing he can do if conservative leaders walk out of the summit and trigger a schism.
"Certainly I want reconciliation, but reconciliation doesn't always mean agreement—in fact it very seldom does," Welby told the BBC. "It means finding ways to disagree well and that's what we've got to do this week. There's nothing I can do if people decide that they want to leave the room. It won't split the communion."
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