The Anglican challenge

  • June 27, 2008

This summer, the 77-million members of the Anglican Communion are hurtling toward a crisis that could end with their fellowship ripped apart.

On the surface, the issue that threatens Anglican unity has to do with homosexuality — specifically, the decision of U.S. Anglicans to consecrate openly gay bishops, and the moves afoot in both American and Canadian Anglicanism to approve the blessing of same-sex unions.

But the controversy points deeper, to profound cultural cracks that have opened between the historic north-Atlantic homelands of empire and the post-colonial, global south, and between essential understandings of what the Christian project should be in the modern world.

Some 300 bishops — more than a third of the Anglican Communion’s leadership, representing half its worldwide membership — met in Jerusalem in late June to lay the groundwork for a massive course-correction in Anglicanism. In his remarks at the Global Anglican Future Conference, Archbishop Peter Akinola, primate of Nigeria and leader of the conservative charge, accused Anglicans in the global north of apostasy and assailed the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of world Anglicanism, for leading the Communion into moral turpitude. “We must rescue what is left of the church from the error of the apostates,” Akinola said.

As the conclave met, more “mainline” bishops, and some of the dissidents, were preparing for the mid-July opening of the Lambeth Conference, a gathering of all Anglican bishops held every 10 years. It will be a wounded affair: Absent will be most bishops from sub-Saharan Africa and several from American dioceses now threatening to split from the U.S. Episcopal Church over the ordination of gay bishops.

The widening rift first became visible at the 1998 Lambeth conference when African and other bishops persuaded their colleagues to officially reject “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture” and oppose the blessing of same-sex unions.

This insurgency came as a shock, say bishops and other observers I have talked with.  Anglo-American Anglicanism, which had hitherto controlled the agenda and tone of Lambeth, had always proceeded more or less in tandem with the “progressive” movements in north-Atlantic society. The Episcopal Church in the United States and the Church of England responded to feminism, for example, by renouncing ancient tradition and authorizing the ordination of female priests. In the 1990s, it seemed obvious that the gay rights struggle in civil society would eventually result in an official acceptance of homosexual ordinations and marriage.

Then suddenly, in 1998, the bishops gathered for Lambeth were confronted with a rebellion against this logic instigated by prelates from the huge and rapidly burgeoning churches of sub-Saharan Africa. (In Nigeria alone, an estimated 22-million Anglicans are in the pews each Sunday.) Anglicanism’s black, post-colonial global south spoke, and its words flew in the face of the kind of cultural accommodation most white bishops in the global north thought was inevitable, and some felt was indeed desirable. Most of these bishops, of course, were social liberals who had long supported African self-determination and independence. To their surprise, the Anglicans of “liberated” Africa turned out to be far more conservative than anyone could have expected.

The non-binding 1998 resolution declaring homosexuality a sin was ignored in the United States, where, in 2003, the Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop. This action  could well go down in history as the crucial event in the break-up of the Anglican Communion.

The challenge facing Anglicanism, however, goes beyond the single issue of ordaining homosexuals who are living in public same-sex relationships. In the broadest sense, the question is whether Christian churches will or will not be passive collaborators in whatever social movement happens to be making headlines in the northern hemisphere.

Because Catholics are so often at odds with the dictates of mass culture these days, and because we take for granted the moral beliefs now being championed by dissident Anglican bishops, we may be tempted to view the turmoil among the Anglicans with a certain smug disdain. We shouldn’t. Though it’s not the whole story, Catholicism has a long, sorry history of alliances with despots and enemies of human rights. Catholics cannot afford to relax our vigilance about the desirable place of the Christian in modern society: opposed to its madness and cruelty.

In their attempts to bring Anglicanism back to its biblical and, indeed, its Catholic theological foundations, the dissenting Anglican bishops and their followers are proposing that their church become an evangelical, anti-secular, counter-cultural force. We should pray that their efforts end, not in the tragic collapse of Anglicanism’s Christian solidarity, but in a revival of hope and purpose throughout the Anglican Communion.

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