Anglican women, pledging communion with one another, seek to model reconciliation

UNCSW delegates proclaim a women’s way forward in broken times

As the Anglican women delegates to the 2007 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) conclude their work this week in New York City, they are pledging to take their commitment “to remaining always in ‘communion’ with and for one another” to the wider Anglican Communion, and especially the 38 Primates, as a model for reconciliation.

The Anglican delegation of more than 80 women, representing 34 countries in the worldwide Anglican Communion, issued a statement March 3 vowing “to remain resolute in our solidarity with one another and in our commitment, above all else, to pursue and fulfill God’s mission in all we say and do.”

Acknowledging the “global tensions so evident in our church today,” the women delegates “do not accept that there is any one issue of difference or contention which can, or indeed would, every cause us to break the unity as represented by our common baptism. Neither would we ever consider severing the deep and abiding bonds of affection which characterize our relationships as Anglican women.”

By their statement, the Anglican delegates believe they are offering a women’s way forward for reconciliation within the Anglican Communion at a time when theological differences regarding issues of human sexuality are causing tensions.

On February 19, at the conclusion of a meeting near Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the Primates issued a communiqué the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops to “make an unequivocal common covenant” by September 30 not to authorize same-gender blessings within their dioceses and to confirm that Resolution B033, passed at the 75th General Convention last summer, means that a candidate for bishop who is living in a same-gender relationship “shall not receive the necessary consent unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion.”

“If the reassurances … cannot in good conscience be given,” the communiqué says, “the relationship between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion as a whole remains damaged at best, and this has consequences for the full participation of the Church in the life of the Communion.”

In the view of the Anglican women, the Primates’ warning is inconsistent with the Christian mission of reconciliation and compassionate ministry, and a decidedly male approach to struggling with difference. All of the Primates are men of power, they note, except for Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

“The women of the Communion have, I believe, moved from bewilderment to outrage at the ways in which a small cabal of leaders have continued to insist that the issues exercising them alone over human sexuality are inevitably to preoccupy us as well,” said Jenny Te Paa, an Anglican UNCSW delegate and ahorangi, or dean, of Te Rau Kahikatea, the College of St. John the Evangelist in Auckland, New Zealand.

“The arguments are all a male ancient power play for territory and ownership of space, be it physical or theological,” agreed Phoebe Griswold, a UNCSW delegate from the United States. “The women’s ways forward have to do with working for the welfare of creation and the full flourishing of humankind.”

Griswold is a founding member of Anglican Women’s Empowerment (AWE), an international grassroots movement founded in 2003 to promote gender equality and to use the power of women to promote a humane agenda worldwide. The effort to bring Anglican women from all provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion to the UNCSW is that of AWE and the Office of Anglican Observer at the United Nations.

The Anglican delegation is the largest non-governmental representation at UNCSW, an annual gathering at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, at which member nations and thousands of women from around the world seek to create policies promoting gender equality. In 2007, the UNCSW is meeting from February 26 to March 9 with the purpose of “ending all forms of discrimination and violence against the girl child.” The delegates are addressing issues such as inadequate education for girls, early marriage, the greater effect of poverty on girls, and violence.

What the Primates have failed to realize, Te Paa said, is that “the priority focus for Anglican women always has been the pressing issues of life and death, which are daily facing too many of the women and children of God’s world. How can we compare the needless horrific suffering of women and girls being brutally raped when collecting firewood or water with the endless hysteria of male leaders wanting to debate whether gay men have full humanity or not?”

For the Anglican women, the mission to work together to heal God’s world takes precedent over their theological differences. In their statement, they pledge to live out reconciliation for the sake of a suffering world.

“This sisterhood of suffering is at the heart of our theology and our commitment to transforming the whole world through peace with justice,” the statement says. “Rebuilding and reconciling the world is central to our faith.”

Among the delegates signing the statement are women with different perspectives on the issues of the blessings of same-gender unions and the consecration of bishops who live in openly gay relationships.

Olajumoke Florence Akinkoye is a lawyer and a UNCSW delegate from Nigeria, whose Primate, Archbishop Peter J. Akinola, has been a leader of theological conservatives. Akinola advocates for a literal interpretation of Scripture with respect to homosexuality and has harshly criticized the Episcopal Church for consenting to the consecration of the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion.

“Everybody is aware of the Nigerian position,” Akinkoye said. “My understanding of the Bible is God made man and woman. The Bible also says to be compassionate to others around us.”

Akinkoye signed the Anglican women’s statement affirming the women delegates’ ongoing relationship, she explained, because “it does not draw a line of finality.” The Anglican Communion, she says, is a family. “Even in the family, sisters and brothers from the same womb, we disagree,” she said. “But that does not stop us from being sisters and brothers. I say this as a mother, as a woman, as a wife, it can never be over.”

From New York City, UNCSW delegate Constance Beavon, who supports the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the sacramental life of the Communion, agreed. “The women of the Communion are united in New York City right now and have no intention of dividing, no matter what the men decide to do.”

The women’s statement came after a “sacred space listening process,” according to Nomfundo Walaza, a UNCSW delegate from South Africa and a member of the Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council.

Walaza has sent the women’s statement to the Anglican Communion’s secretary general, the Rev. Cannon Kenneth Kearon. In an email to Kearon, Walaza explained that, as the Anglican UNCSW delegates continued their learning and advocacy at the United Nations on behalf of girls, they also created space for listening to one another. “Women were given the opportunity to share their concerns about the consequences of the current tensions within the Communion and the effect that these have on their work and ministries.”

From this “sacred space listening process” evolved the women’s commitment to remain in communion. According to Walaza, the statement was “passionately received” by all of the Anglican UNCSW delegates at a working session on March 3.

Going forward, the delegates wish to offer their model of listening, abiding communion, and common mission as an example for the Communion’s leaders. The statement “emerged with profound urgency for the work needing to be done and with deep love and respect for the Church to which we proudly belong — a Church which in spite of its occasional faltering still enables us to be prophetic witnesses to Christ’s love and compassion in and for the world,” Te Paa said.

Te Paa will publicly present the statement at “Towards Effective Anglican Mission” (TEAM), a March 7-14 conference in Boksburg, South Africa, that will focus on the church’s work to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

Meanwhile, Walaza has asked Kearon to relay the statement to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, with a request that it be sent to the 38 Anglican Primates.

The women delegates, themselves, will also endeavor to share the statement with the Primates. “Some of the delegates are asking, ‘Can I take it to my Primate?'” noted a smiling Ann Skamp, a UNCSW delegate from Australia and convener of the provincial delegates specifically chosen and sent by their Primates to UNCSW. “I said, ‘As long as you stand in front of him and read it.'”

To proclaim to the highest levels of power within the Communion, a women’s way forward will be a grace, said Margaret Rose, director of the Episcopal Church’s Office of Women’s Ministries. “Women have a different thing to offer, a new thing,” she said. “Women have a gift to offer the Church today that insists true unity comes in diversity.”

The Rev. K. Jeanne Person is associate rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in New York City. Matthew Davies is international correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.

Interested in keeping up-to-date on news, opinion, events and resources from the Anglican Church of Canada? Sign up for our email alerts .