By Andrew Symes
- It will not cause division.
News headlines are saying that this Canterbury meeting will be ‘make or break’; that one or other side might walk out, causing a split in the worldwide Anglican Communion. But any failure of agreement will simply confirm what is already the case. The fact is that as culture changes, differences of opinion have widened in Anglicanism, as in all mainline denominations. And Anglicans worldwide have been in impaired communion ever since the 1990s when a minority of US and Canadian Bishops, clergy and laity could not in conscience follow the revisionist direction of their leaders, and called for help and alternative oversight from overseas Provinces. The same has not yet happened in the Church of England, although divisions over the same issues have existed for some time.
- Not so much “schism” as torn net.
The last 20 years have seen the emergence of a dynamic new form of evangelical, multicultural global Anglicanism, which asserted itself for the first time at the Lambeth Conference of 1998 and has established the related movements of ‘Global South’ and ‘Gafcon’. These see authentic Anglicanism based not on shared liturgy or commitment to the historic mother church and its leaders, nor on the idea of subservient chaplaincy to the powerful, but to shared faith in the apostolic Gospel based on a common understanding of the Scriptures. There are many in the C of E who have sympathies with this.
But even though the existence of these movements cause tensions and harden disagreements, relationships continue between churches of global West and South – a form of fellowship can exist based on common humanity, mutual respect and some shared language of faith. So what has emerged is not a clear-cut ‘split’ or ‘divorce’ in the church, with two opposing tribes, but rather the rupturing of many of the ties that hold us together while others remain intact or partially damaged. If Anglicanism is like a part of the great net of the Kingdom that Jesus taught us God uses to gather in his people, then many of the filaments are damaged or broken; it looks messy and its usefulness is compromised.
- What are the causes?
Again, the media likes to keep it simple – this is a split over attitudes to homosexuality. Even worse, some have been promoting the lie that African Anglican leaders (and by implication their English supporters) hate gay people.
But it’s important to know the truth, which is always a casualty of any conflict. Yes there are differences over sexual ethics, but underlying what we think about homosexual relationships may be very different understandings about the nature of the church and its relationship to society, what it means to be a human being, the meaning and authority of Scripture, and ultimately how we view salvation and God himself. Serious disagreement with my neighbour’s ideas and actions is not incompatible with love and respect for him.
But inevitably history and ethnicity play a part in the tensions and divisions as well. Leaders from African and Asian countries have perceived the traditional ‘corridors of power’ of global Anglicanism, based in London and funded from America, to be impenetrable, controlled by an Anglo-Saxon liberal elite, and patronising in a way that has not quite shaken off the sense of imperial superiority. This is despite the outreach and reconciliation efforts of recent Archbishops not personally tainted by racist attitudes.
- What are the potential outcomes?
If the Primates who meet at Canterbury are unable to remain in the same room beyond the introductions, not much will change immediately, but orthodox senior figures in the Church of England will be embarrassed at being aligned with the declining liberal churches of the secular West and increasingly cut off from the regions of greatest spiritual vibrancy amid poverty and persecution. Meanwhile major decisions by General Synod in a revisionist direction, cheered on by the secular media and government, could cause a wider coalition of orthodox Anglicans to look to Gafcon for support and even oversight.
It’s possible that theological differences could be put to one side and a way of continuing to work together is brokered, based on shared commitment to helping the poor, but this will be resisted by Gafcon-aligned Provinces wary of compromising the Gospel for financial aid.
What many hope for is the beginning of a managed separation, whereby different forms of Anglicanism are recognized by Canterbury even if they are not in fellowship with each other. Many in the C of E establishment will not approve of this, as it will give the green light for conservative Anglicans in England to exist outside of Diocesan control, but could it be the best way of working out a ‘good disagreement’?
Andrew Symes is Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream