Rowan Celebrates 'Secret' Gay Communion Service

Nov 29, 2007 at 05:35 PM
Posted by Ruth Gledhill
Anglican Communion

[caption id="attachment_2796" align="alignright" width="250" caption="Dr Rowan Williams"]Rowan Williams[/caption]

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, today presided at a 'secret' eucharist for the Clergy Consultation, as we reported that he would back in September. As we report, he gave a talk on 'present realities and future possibilities for lesbians and gay men in the church.' The venue, originally at St Peter's Eaton Square, was switched to another location in London, All Hallows-by-the-Tower, to avoid media attention after new of the meeting emerged first on the Church Society website. In a speech on ecumenism in Rome last Friday, translated from German for me by Chris Gillibrand, Cardinal Walter Kasper spoke of the irrevocable divisions emerging from Anglicanism's present crisis.

The Cardinal said: 'While we in old matters of controversy we try to overcome old divisions, presently in ethical questions new divisions open up. This applies in particular to the protection of life, to marriage and the family, and issues of human sexuality. The joint public testimony is thereby weakened or impossible. The internal crisis for the churches is most evident in the Anglican community, but not only there.'

Nothing illustrates this better than this secret Eucharist. There can surely be no hope of joint public testimony between Anglicans and Catholics when the leader of the Anglicans cannot testify publicly himself.

Kasper also said: 'In Protestant theology, there is after the Luther Renaissance and the word of God theology Karl Barth from the early years of the theological dialogue, a return to the concerns of liberal theology. The result is often a softening of the Trinitarian and Christological foundation, previously held in common. What we describe as a common heritage, should be understood as the glaciers in the Alps which are here and there melting.'

The Clergy Consultation, which has between 250 and 450 members at any one time, was set up in 1976 by three Anglican priests, Malcolm Johnson, Peter Ellers and Douglas Rhymes. Changing Attitude has an interesting paper setting out a theology of sexual ethics around which members of the consultation work today. Many consultation members are married, one with six children, and are faithful to their partners. The organisation helps them cope with staying faithful to what they regard as a Christian lifestyle while dealing with a sexuality that sometimes does not emerge until later in life. Some members but by no means all are 'out' as openly gay but it is not difficult to understand why, in today's Church, most prefer to remain 'in'.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, views his taking part in the meeting and celebrating the eucharist as part of the 'listening process' outlined in Lambeth 1.10. A spokeswoman said: 'The Archbishop of Canterbury is committed to the listening process which was agreed at the Lambeth Conference as part of the discussions on human sexuality. That means listening to and engaging with gay and lesbian clergy in a pastorally sensitive setting. That is what he is doing.'

David Phillips, General Secretary of the Church Society, disagreed. He said: 'This is not something that should be happening. There is obviously serious doubt in our mind about some of the people present and their standing because of being in homosexual relationships. But we do not really have much regard for Rowan Williams anyway. We came to the conclusion a long time ago that he was not really fit to be Archbishop so today does not change anything.'

He wrote to Lambeth Palace after news of the meeting emerged. Chief of Staff Chris Smith replied: 'The Archbishop has asked me to say that unless he has clear evidence to the contrary, he would assume that members of the consultation, whether clergy, ordinands or religious, are in good standing with their diocesan bishops.' Mr Smith continued: 'The group, as described by its co-convenors in response to the Church Society website article and The Times newspaper, is in no sense a campaigning organisation, hence the confidentiality of its meetings. The purpose of the meeting was to listen to the concerns of individuals and to give the Archbishop the opportunity to engage with them from the position of the received mind of the Church.'

The letter went on: 'This engagement with different groups and individuals is constant and helps inform his deliberations on the course of action that he and his fellow primates will need to formulate for the resolution of the Anglican Communion's current divisions.'

The conservatives are also upset that the meeting went ahead. A statement signed jointly by Dr Richard Turnbull, chair of the Church of England Evangelical Council, Dr Philip Giddings, Convenor of Anglican Mainstream and Chris Sugden, Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream, reads: 'Every occasion for listening pastorally to people is to be welcomed. However, the Holy Communion is a fundamental symbol of fellowship and an expression of our unity in Christ. To offer this to those in gay partnered relationships, contrary to biblical teaching and contrary to the Bishops' teaching in Issues in Human Sexuality offers false hope rather than enabling transformation. The Bishop as upholder of the Apostolic Faith is held by all Anglicans to provide a focus of unity. Since the Archbishop has apparently proceeded with this service , this makes it more likely that he will become a focus of division. We endorse the importance of a proper listening process. We trust that the Archbishop will also listen to those who have moved through this stage to frame and fashion their own selves and their families according to the doctrine of Christ.'

As soon as I can get a comment from someone from the consultation, I'll post it here. I did manage to speak to Martin Reynolds, an openly gay clergyman who has successfully adopted a boy with his partner and was a former neighbour of Dr Williams when the Archbishop was in his previous job in Wales. Dr Reynolds was not at the meeting but said: 'The Clergy Consultation has been of great assistance to many many people over the years. Most gay clergy are married and have children. Most do not have partners. The consultation has given them great support and love in lives devoted to their families. It has performed a wide range of functions for a lot of people. It is hugely beneficial. The only clergyman I know who is in it is extremely grateful for the friendships he has built up through it, and so is his wife.'

I believe this all indicates that Rowan might at last be starting to reclaim his liberal roots. A source tells me that Gene Robinson is definitely coming to Lambeth, accompanied by his partner Mark. Gene will be doing a seminar. He and Mark will have been 'married' in a civil ceremony a few days earlier, on the symbolic 4 July. Lambeth will thus be their 'honeymoon'. Rowan wants to keep sexuality as much off the agenda as he can at Lambeth, to avoid a repetition of 1998. He is trying to make it as prayerful as possible. But I don't rate his chances much, given the joyful presence of the honeymooners. Lambeth is looking as if it will be wonderful for the media. Even in the unlikely event that we'll be invited to any seminars, we won't actually have to attend them. We will be free to make mischief on the highways and byways of Kent University, like we did last time. And the time before that.

I've not been looking forward to Lambeth. But it is looking up. I'm starting to get into the spirit of the thing. Thank you, Mark and Gene. And congratulations.

(Update Friday night: I've been doing something completely different today, stuck on Virgin trains with no wireless for most of it. But Ekklesia has some good and balanced comments from Colin Coward on the service that I really recommend.)

Ruth Gledhill is The Times Religion Correspondent. In this blog she offers her views on the issues of the day.