The world’s third largest Christian denomination is in for trouble and could easily dissolve after this month’s make-or-break six-day meeting in Canterbury, where religious leaders from Asia and Africa will once again highlight the bitter divisions that exist among Anglicans on the subjects of women priests and human sexuality. Trevor Grundy reports.
The 80-million strong worldwide Anglican Communion is in crisis once again.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has called a meeting of leading bishops in Canterbury—seat of the Mother Church of Anglicanism—between January 11-16 to discuss loosening the church’s global structure due to growing differences over homosexuality and female bishops.
The Anglican Communion is the world’s third largest Christian body with over 80 million members—a sort of Commonwealth at prayer. But in recent years the seamless cloak of Anglican unity has been ripped apart by ‘liberals’ from churches in North America and Britain (where women are allowed to become bishops and same sex couples can marry) pulling at one end, and their much more ‘conservative’ counterparts in Asia and Africa tugging away at the other.
If its leaders fail to reconcile deep divisions, then it is almost certain to dissolve with the prospect of other kinds of communion being installed at a future date.
Roughly one third of the church leaders at this month’s meeting are members of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FCA), a seven-year-old organisation determined to adhere strictly to its members’ interpretation of biblical teachings on the role of women in churches and—especially in Asia and Africa—a time-bomb called same-sex marriage.
The meeting was called by Welby, who said as long ago as December 2014: ‘I think, realistically, we’ve got to say that despite all efforts there is a possibility that we will not hold together, or not hold together for a while. I could see circumstances in which there could be people moving apart and then coming back again, depending on what else happens.’
He is expected to propose to the 38 national church heads that the Anglican Communion be reorganised as a group of churches all formally linked to Canterbury but no longer necessarily to each other.
In a de-centralised Anglican church, different congregations from very separate cultural backgrounds from those in the so-called Western world would be able to hold different views without any overriding common Anglican doctrine.
In an interview with The Times, the oil executive turned priest spoke about whether and when to call another Lambeth Conference, the regular summoning to Canterbury of all the leaders of the 80 million-strong Anglican Communion. The Lambeth Conference is held every ten years. The last was in 2008, when Rowan Williams was archbishop, a man determined to keep the communion together, rather than to see its growing number of critics move away on the issue of human sexuality.
Church sources say that Welby, who is the symbolic spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, wants to see every primate maintain a direct link with the Mother Church— Canterbury—but not necessarily with each other.
A modern-day Tertullian (‘See how these Christians love one another’) might have a thing or two to say about all of this.
‘Our divisions may be too much to manage,’ Welby warned in November 2014. ‘In many parts of the communion, including here [the UK], there is a belief that opponents are either faithless to the tradition, or by contrast that they are cruel, judgmental, inhuman. I have to say that we are in a state so delicate that without prayer and repentance, it is hard to see how we can avoid some serious fractures.’
One Church of England source told The Guardian that a new arrangement between the advocates and the opponents of full Christian rights for gay men and women would be not quite a divorce but ‘more like sleeping in separate bedrooms’.
Until now, Welby has done his best to present the furious row about homosexuality as some sort of misunderstanding between members of a deep-down loving family, saying, like a clever lawyer summing up the pros and cons of a difficult copyright case, ‘A 21st century Anglican family must have space for deep disagreement, and even mutual criticism. We each live in a different context.’
His strategy of acknowledging serious theological differences about human sexuality is markedly different from that of his predecessor, the poet-philosopher-priest Rowan Williams.
Williams, at the Lambeth Conference in 2008, managed to paper over some of the looming differences between the two sides which left the Anglican Communion, like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, smiling and fading away, both at the same time.
Welby’s many friends in the Church of England say he is practical as well as spiritual. After all, say his supporters, he dealt with life in the ‘real world’ when he was an executive in the oil industry, before turning to the church.
In 2013, he came face to face with those who fiercely oppose gay priests and bishops, homosexual marriage and the ordination of women.
The archbishop’s tour around the Anglican world took him that November to South Korea, where he attended the tenth Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) at Busan. On his way into one meeting, he saw dozens of South Korean Christians holding placards accusing the WCC of not following the ‘real’ Jesus Christ by allowing gay men and women to have a stand at the 2013 gathering.
Earlier, the WCC made it clear it had no specific policy on the gay rights issue. Asked about that, Welby said at a press conference that he did not want to disagree with or question the attitude of the WCC leadership.
In other parts of the world, gay men and women face imprisonment—sometimes death—with 40 of the Commonwealth’s 53 countries having anti-gay legislation on their statute books.
‘The Ugandan and Nigerian governments’ decisions to treat their LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transvestite) like criminals cannot be accepted as business as usual by the American government,’ says Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. ‘We urge Secretary Kerry to recall both ambassadors for consultations in Washington to make clear the seriousness of the situation in both countries.’
But in terms of sheer numbers, Nigeria is the country that wags the Anglican Communion. It is the second largest province in the Anglican Communion, with 18 million of its 140 million total population deemed as Anglicans. Its religious leaders are some of the most vocal about giving any kind of rights to unrepentant gay men and women.
When it comes to trying to change centuries old Asian and African beliefs about the ‘crime’ of sodomy, Welby (to use Foreign Office jargon) uses ‘quiet diplomacy’. In Nigeria, who wouldn’t?
Sally Hitchiner, one of the Church of England’s most prominent lesbian vicars, welcomes the plan to ‘federalise’ the Anglican Communion. She believes it would be a positive move for all sorts of reasons. ‘We can’t hold together from a place like England—where an Archbishop of Canterbury could be in a gay marriage, possibly in my lifetime—to somewhere like Uganda, where they want to imprison people for gay sex.’
Welby sees the issue of human sexuality as one determined by culture. And he insists that all must be respected. God help the church leader—or politician—who makes claims about the West’s supposed cultural superiority to other parts of the world. In large sections of what was once called the Third World, they would be what militant student leaders in the UK call ‘unplatformed’.
In a September 2015 statement, Welby said: ‘The difference between our societies and cultures, as well as the speed of cultural change in much of the global north, tempts us to divide as Christians, when the command of scripture, the prayer of Jesus, the tradition of the church and our theological understanding urges unity. A 21st century Anglican family must have space for deep disagreement and even mutual criticism, so long as we are faithful to the revelation of Jesus Christ, together.’
He added: ‘We have no Anglican Pope, our authority as a church is dispersed and is ultimately found in Scripture, properly interpreted.’
And on the subject of homosexuality, even Pope Francis lacks words. ‘Who am I to judge?’ asked the infallible head of the Roman Catholic Church.
Few would deny that’s what is at the heart of the matter when the primates meet in Canterbury later this month. Interestingly, all of the Global South primates, who so strongly oppose gay rights, have responded positively to Welby’s call to be there.
The views of Asian and African leaders will determine the immediate future of the Anglican Communion. It isn’t hard to predict what their leaders will say when the doors are closed
The view of Asian Anglicans is little changed from 2003 when the Anglican Communion reeled and almost dissolved following the appointment of an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in the US.
Asian religious leaders condemned the US Episcopalian Church’s appointment of Robinson, warning that Anglican bishops might consider cutting ties with their American sister church. ‘Practising homosexuality is culturally and legally not acceptable here,’ said Bishop Dr Lim Cheng Ean, the leader of the Anglican Church in West Malaysia.
There are four Southeast Asian dioceses: Kuching, Singapore, West Malaysia and Sabah.
In Australia, the conservative Sydney Archbishop Peter Jensen said that the new American gay bishop would not be welcome in the diocese and urged opponents in the US to fight the decision by withholding contributions to church coffers.
It took a Roman Catholic to best articulate India’s official attitude towards gays. John Dayal, vice president of All India Catholics Union, slammed the decision to confirm Robinson’s election, saying: ‘The election of a gay bishop is a blatant aggravation of societal norms and in India it certainly will not be acceptable.’
Most Asian church leaders are of the opinion that homosexuality is a white, middle-class phenomenon, which rarely exists in their community. Sadly, many African leaders see homosexuality as a disease that must be cured if a man or a woman is to enjoy full rights within society.
Secularists in Britain and the US often forget how deeply religious most people are in Asia and Africa. And they have little understanding about the courage it takes for men and women in pulpits to defy the laws of the day and challenge the words of men like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who even now continues to describe gay men and women as ‘worse than dogs and pigs’.
Because of that, the end of the Anglican Communion as we know it is very likely.
Welby’s great hope is that millions of Anglicans in countries rejecting full equality for gay people will stay loyal to Canterbury, if not to the existing Anglican Communion. He desperately wants to maintain his role as a spiritual leader of a significant Christian voice on issues other than human sexuality: climate change, abuse of children by the clergy, international terrorism. Several Asian church leaders insist that these are the real issues facing Christians, though gay rights are important to the relatively small number of people involved.
And there’s a growing number of Asian and African Anglicans who strongly resent the way the white, upper-class, extremely rich England-based Archbishop of Canterbury appears to rule the Anglican roost. At the Lambeth Conference in 2008, Archbishop Henry Orombi of Uganda said that the leadership of the Anglican Communion ‘should not be reduced to one man appointed by a secular government’.
In an article published in The Times, Orombi said that Rowan Williams was at the very heart of the Anglican Communion but that he had not been elected by his peers. He wrote: ‘We have come to see this as a remnant of British colonialism, and it is not serving us well.’
He was but one of the 230 or so Anglican bishops who boycotted the 2008 Lambeth Conference in protest at the presence of leaders of the US Episcopal Church. Whether there will ever be another Lambeth Conference remains to be seen. If there is, we can safely assume that Justin Welby isn’t looking forward to it.