The Anglican Communion is in crisis. That’s not really news, it’s been in crisis for many years.
The Anglican Communion is a grouping of national and regional churches which are in full communion with the Church of England. It grew out of the the British Empire as the Church of England sent, first, missionaries and then bishops to establish outposts throughout the empire. Those new churches eventually became autonomous and, modelling themselves on the Church of England and their worship on the Book of Common Prayer. It is often claimed that the Anglican Communion came into existence with the ordination of Samuel Seabury as the first Bishop of what is now the Episcopal Church of the United States of America (ECUSA). The first Lambeth Conference (the meetings of the Anglican Bishops from around the world) was in 1867. The ties that bind these churches together are loose and born largely of mutual respect and a broad agreement on matters of doctrine. Traditionally the Anglican Communion has treasured its Union in Diversity bound only by it’s four Instruments of Communion:
- The Archbishop of Canterbury (as the focus of unity)
- The Lambeth Conference
- The Anglican Consultative Council
- The Primates’ Meeting
However, in recent years there have been tensions between the churches of the
Communion. These have centred around the areas of doctrine, discipline, worship, and ethics. Where, in the past, the autonomy of the churches to organise their worship and practice has been respected now there are churches who are demanding conformity from all member churches on issues where they feel other churches are departing from tradition and, particularly, from scriptural authority. This has occurred most obviously in the question of the ordination of practising homosexuals and of same sex marriage.
For many years there have been growing disagreements and divisions between liberals and traditionalists. By their very mature these have seen some national churches falling on one side or the other. ECUSA and the Anglican Church of Canada have, in a number of areas, followed a liberal agenda – the ordination of women as priests and as bishops, the ordination of openly gay men and women as priests and even as bishops and the sanctioning of same sex marriages. This has drawn criticism from many African Churches and, indeed, from within their own churches. The African Churches have demanded that ECUSA and the Anglican Church of Canada be reprimanded or even suspended or expelled from the Communion because, they claim, the moves taken by these churches are in clear opposition to scriptural teaching. In response the churches say that the actions had been undertaken after lengthy scriptural and theological reflection, legally in accordance with their own canons and constitutions and after extensive consultation with the provinces of the Communion. Some African primates, together with conservative groups in the churches in America, Canada and the UK have set up a process whereby episcopal oversight is offered by conservative bishops in Africa for parishes in those other countries.
All of this naturally undermines the unity of the Anglican Communion. The last two Archbishops of Canterbury, George Carey and Rowan Williams, both attempted repeatedly to bring the disputing parties together to negotiate and understanding. This proved impossible. Now, Archbishop Justin Welby has announced that he is calling together the 38 primates to discuss changing the relationship between churches in the Communion in order that they might be able to continue support of and fellowship with one another without requiring doctrinal conformity. He proposes that the churches of the Anglican Communion will express their unity by communion with the See of Canterbury without necessarily being in full communion with one another.
While it will be interesting to see whether this approach is any more successful than that of his predecessors he is taking a considerable risk.
I think it very likely that he will not be able to hold together even this Communion-lite as the African Churches will demand that in order for them to be in full communion with Canterbury the relationship between Canterbury and ECUSA and Canada will need to stop short of full communion. I don’t believe that, even given his desire to hold the African Churches in communion with the Church of England he would be able to accept that. It would create too many problems at home, not only with the liberals of the Church of England but would also further diminish the Church of England’s standing in the nation.
Like his predecessors he is caught between a rock and a hard place. Even Solomon would struggle to reconcile the Anglican Communion.