VATICAN CITY – This summer’s once-a-decade Lambeth Conference marks a potentially defining moment for the worldwide Anglican Communion and a time of reckoning for ecumenical dialogue.
The Vatican, which is sending representatives to the July 16-Aug. 4 gathering of the world’s Anglican leadership, will be closely following its deliberations to see what direction it takes on such crucial questions as internal unity, authority, the role of the bishop and Anglican identity.
What has pushed these questions to the forefront is the ordination of openly gay clerics, the blessing of gay unions and the ordination of women bishops in some Anglican provinces.
Those developments have threatened to split the Anglican Communion. For the Vatican, they have raised new questions about the future of the 40-year-old dialogue with the Anglican Church.
“It’s very important for Anglicans to understand the depth of the change in our relationship that, in a sense, is being forced on us by the positions they are taking,” said one Vatican official, who asked not to be named.
In the Vatican’s view, it’s not just a question of ethical and sexual issues. Above all, it is seen as a problem of ecclesiology, as the new tensions in the Anglican Communion have weakened the bonds among the provinces.
The tensions directly have involved the U.S. member of the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church, which ordained its first women priests in 1974 and its first woman bishop in 1989.
In 2003, the Episcopal Church ordained its first openly gay bishop, Bishop V. Gene Robinson. Bishop Robinson, who earlier this month married his longtime male partner in a civil union, was not invited to this year’s Lambeth Conference.
The depth of division over this question was experienced at the last Lambeth gathering in 1998. After much debate, the conference adopted a resolution rejecting discrimination against homosexuals but stating that homosexual practice was incompatible with Scripture.
The ordination of women priests and bishops has long represented to the Vatican a radical departure from Christian tradition and a threat to the sense of ecclesial communion.
Some local Anglican communities have made it clear they would not accept a woman bishop, which raises the possibility of a real, substantial break inside the Anglican Communion. If such a splintering occurs, the Vatican would face a new and problematic question: Who is their dialogue partner?
Catholic-Anglican relations have remained cordial and open, but talks on substantive issues are effectively in a holding pattern until the Anglican Church resolves these deeper issues.
In early May, Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Communion, met with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. At that time, the archbishop frankly acknowledged that the Anglican Church was going through an “unprecedentedly difficult time,” but said he hoped honest discussion with the Vatican would continue.
One key question is whether Anglican traditionalists upset by recent developments in their church might be welcomed as a group into the Catholic Church.
The Traditional Anglican Communion, which claims 400,000 members on six continents, has asked the Catholic Church to receive its members into full communion. Privately, Vatican sources say the request is being studied, but that such “corporate communion” for dissenting groups within a church community is not favored as a model.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s chief ecumenist and head of its delegation to the Lambeth Conference, said in May that the Vatican is praying for the unity of the Anglican Communion “because we are not interested in new factions, new divisions – this is not helpful.”
In general, the Vatican has endorsed Archbishop Williams’ efforts to strengthen the bonds of Anglican unity and was pleased with the proposal in 2004 of an “Anglican covenant,” which Anglican provinces would subscribe to as a shared profession of faith. The covenant is expected to be a major topic of discussion at the Lambeth Conference.
Vatican officials also have advocated strengthening the role of the Anglican primate, the archbishop of Canterbury. In essence, many of the Catholic-Anglican issues boil down to the question of authority and how it is used in ecclesial communion.
Whether the Lambeth Conference will decide any of these questions is not clear. Anglican officials have emphasized that the Lambeth process this year is a new one, designed to favor worship, reflection and teaching but without any specific provisions for voting on resolutions. Instead, the program features a number of “Ndaba” sessions – a Zulu term for group gathering and unstructured conversation.
Meanwhile, the Vatican is closely watching an alternative meeting of conservative Anglicans in Amman and Jerusalem in mid-June, called the Global Anglican Future Conference. What happens there could influence what happens at Lambeth, especially in terms of a further split in the Anglican world.
Ultimately, the Vatican hopes Lambeth 2008 will bring a willingness to address fundamental issues of Anglican identity, in the perspective of a closer alignment with the apostolic tradition of the first millennium.
As Monsignor Donald Bolen, who deals with Anglican issues at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said in an article earlier this year, “A strengthening of the interdependence of the Anglican provinces, especially if this brings about a stronger and more unified affirmation of the apostolic faith, would certainly have positive repercussions on our relationship.”
Forcing these issues to a head would be easier in the Catholic Church, where hierarchical authority is clear. But the Anglican Communion is much less centralized. Each of its 38 provinces has its own code of canon law, and there is no common, central legislative organism. Over the last 140 years, even without legislative authority, the Lambeth Conference has been the Anglicans’ most effective unifying instrument.