by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s and Vice-Chair of the Ozanne Foundation
On holiday recently I read a book I was sent last year. It’s called The Anglican Communion at a Crossroads – The Crises of a Global Church, by Christopher Craig Brittain and Andrew McKinnon (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018). It doesn’t look exciting (no pictures, even on the cover!), but is very helpful in understanding what’s going on in the Anglican Communion as it approaches the Lambeth Conference 2020 – and maybe too how we can re think ways we handle social and political conflict more generally.
Drawing on over a hundred interviews, the authors look at the last twenty years of conflict in the Anglican Communion, quoting senior church figures worldwide (mostly bishops), and looking in detail at the schism that occurred in the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 2008 which led to the establishment of the Anglican Church in North America.
There’s lots of interesting stuff here. It emphasises how complex is what’s going on – it’s not just ‘biblically faithful conservatives’ versus ‘enlightened liberals’. The conflicts within churches are being shaped by globalisation and communications technology, which make the tensions between the global and the local ever harder to manage, right across every aspect of our world from immigration to the environment, as well as about our understandings of sexuality.
Two examples to consider. Brittain and McKinnon found some truth in the argument that support for gay Christians in some Anglican churches of the Global North may lead to persecution of Christians by Muslims in Africa and elsewhere, but that political and economic divisions were seen by Anglican leaders as rather more powerful in fuelling Christian-Muslim conflict. More than that, being outspokenly anti-gay was seen as a necessary response to competition from independent Pentecostalist churches which were winning converts by portraying Anglicanism as a compromised church. And the authors also quoted an African bishop who hosted two delegations of visiting Anglicans to his diocese, groups of other Christians who were rejected by some of his churches because they either ordained women or ordained homosexuals; one Anglican delegation was from east Africa and one from South Africa – neither was from the Global North.
The reality is complex.
The Anglican Church is divided on many issues and at many levels, from local parishes to the worldwide Communion. Geographical boundaries have broken down, as cheap travel and communications have made it possible for bishops from South America or elsewhere in the Global South to give support to disaffected groups in the Global North.
And conflict has focused on sexuality as opposed to doctrine or the ordination of women, because new technology has made it possible: there was no internet in 1992 when the Church of England voted to ordain women as priests. Would the Pittsburgh schism have happened without the support of the internet? And how long will it be before ‘affirming churches’ in the Global North (or South) create a GAFCON-style network of their own?
Internal division within churches is perhaps more open in the Global North (hence the Church of England’s Learning in Love and Faith initiative), but none of us are good at handling it. Brittain and McKinnon’s study of Pittsburgh’s schism, and their musings on the Diocese of Sydney’s (lack of) relationship with most of the Australian Anglican Church, underline the need for reflection on the issue. They offer some analyses of why three current strategies to bring unity in the Communion aren’t working.
- The GAFCON strategy of being ‘biblically faithful’ depends on claims by a few to have the authoritative view (‘what the Bible says’), while suppressing internal divisions and disagreements by focusing on one issue (sexuality), in order to avoid classic Anglican disagreements between catholics and evangelicals (e.g. about lay people presiding at eucharistic services).
- The sentimental view of ‘the Anglican family’ with its historic ‘bonds of affection’ (and Brittain and KcKinnon quote a bishop’s image of ‘a bowl of spaghetti’ to describe the entangled links between Anglicans). These links struggle to survive when faced with groups who seek to disentangle tangled strands into straight lines, using the bible (GAFCON) or a conciliar synodical process (American Episcopalian Anglicans) as alternative sources for their authority, reacting against neo-colonial links with Canterbury.
- Attempts to find a mid-way between full communion and federalism by setting up managerial structures (e.g. the Anglican Consultative Council or the Primates’ Meeting), or proposing an Anglican ‘covenant’, have also been less than successful.
So, where are we going, in a binary-thinking digital and post-Brexit world?
GAFCON draws its power from opposing the acceptance of same-sex relationships, and defines the ‘other’ as unfaithful to the Christian gospel, in good sectarian fashion. But, just as history teaches us that a common enemy unites different groups, so it tells us that without that enemy then underlying tensions and divisions will re-emerge. So if part of the Anglican Church splits away, it will then itself split, because Anglican conservative catholics and evangelicals disagree about so much – it’s what they’re against that brings them together into a common alliance. Hence the importance for them of having sexuality as their powerful uniting issue, and why they will not accept compromise by seeing it as anything less than a first-order issue of true faith.
Let’s take a view that’s wider still: what can Anglicans learn from the Church universal in how it handles local diversity and common faith?
As the New Testament shows, from Acts chapter 6 onwards the church universal has faced divisions. Sectarian splits over the centuries have gone along with the use of an external enemy (e.g. Anglicans versus Roman Catholics) to hold internal dissidents in check. But over the last century or more, the Church universal has made messy, halting and yet real progress towards greater ‘communion’, in two ways.
One is by working together in mission across denominational boundaries, in common commitment to Jesus Christ. The other is by building local, national and international relationships to bring people closer together, which has included dialogue to help understand and ameliorate issues which have caused division, as well as setting up some structures (e.g. the World Council of Churches) which have provided a focus for meeting and for growing a common sense of purpose.
The most successful results of this have not been major projects for structural unity, or new ecumenical councils, but work towards greater ‘communion’ while recognising the integrity of local and national churches (and Christians of all sorts) in their particular callings.
This is a much healthier recipe for building up the Church universal, and its mission to a diverse and broken world, than trying to seize on a common enemy as a strategy for repressing dissent. It’s a good recipe for building up the Anglican Communion too. It also chimes with the views of both Jesus and Paul: ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get’ (Mathew 7.1-2); ‘Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand’ (Romans 14.4).
Brittain and McKinnon’s book title puts the Anglican Communion at a ‘Crossroads’. Which other road might we follow, whether or not we’re Anglicans, and how might we refute the binary thinking of our modern globalised age?
Well, we might with our fellow-Christians begin with our shared desire to follow Jesus Christ and be centred on him, and not sit in judgement on those with whom we disagree. We could base our unity, not on a written founding document or declaration, but on our relationship with the incarnate God who loves us equally. And we might just learn to define ourselves by what we’re for, not what we’re against, and refuse to think of people as ‘the other’ – not only in relation to matters of faith, but to all our fellow-humans, standing up against the exclusion and nastiness of our current age, so that together we live out the gospel of the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Brittain and McKinnon’s book concludes with a question to leaders of the Anglican Communion, which we could broaden into a question for each and all of us. Will the voices calling us to ‘walk apart’ and end the experiment we’re making to live with difference (whether it’s in the Anglican Communion, the Christian Church, our political divisions or in the human race itself) continue to strengthen? Or can we redefine the crises we face into the challenge to follow the shared purpose and end to which God is calling us (mission, love, mutual service) and so transform the world in the image of Christ?