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A New Direction for the Anglican Communion

I.

The Anglican Communion, the world’s third largest grouping of Christians after the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches, is on the brink of disintegration. The battle that pits liberal modernizers against Evangelical conservatives is fast dissolving the fabric underpinning Anglicanism, threatening a permanent breakup. Anglican Christianity needs a new direction if another schism is to be averted.

Many commentators, such as the Reverend Giles Fraser or the British freelance theologian Theo Hobson, claim that this is a purely internal issue that only concerns Anglicans, predominantly so the Church of England itself where the conflict between militant liberals and conservative traditionalists is particular venomous. In a recent article in the Spectator, Hobson rightly distinguishes traditionalists (who oppose women bishops) from Evangelicals (who oppose homosexuals) but wrongly equates Anglicanism with social, cultural, and political liberalism. But, as I hope will become clear, Anglican theology cannot be reduced to liberalism of any kind.

Others, like the US columnist James Carroll, contend that the division within Anglicanism reflects a wider social and cultural tension between traditional values and societal change. In an op-ed in the Boston Globe, he asserts that the majority of Anglican bishops follow the “liberalizing American lead,” which represents “broader trends toward equality, tolerance, and democratization that challenge every traditional society.”

But even supposing that modernization is desirable, why would the world in general and the Anglican churches in particular embrace the American variant of modernization? Why would different countries and different religious cultures not choose a path that is in line with their own traditions?

More fundamentally, both Hobson and Carroll fail to grasp the wider implications of the current crisis. The Anglican Communion is a worldwide church. Far from merely representing the remnant of British colonialism, Anglicanism is an integral part of the Christian tradition and a global community that has always mediated between Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and some Reformed strands. As such, the fate of the Anglican church will impact on the future of Christianity—the world’s largest religion and perhaps the only truly global faith.

II.

The birth of Anglicanism is commonly associated with King Henry VIII when the Church of England rejected papal authority over Henry’s multiple marriages. But the Anglican Church can be traced to the 6th-century Christianization of Britain, the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 597 AD, and the formation of an English Church (ecclesia anglicana) in the Middle Ages. With England’s global influence, national congregations were established overseas and Anglicanism was formed. Partly as a result of the Protestant Reformation, no single Anglican church could wield supreme authority, since each national congregation is fully self-governing.

American Independence consolidated the autonomy of national Anglican churches, a model that was subsequently exported by the British Empire and Christian missionaries to Australasia and Africa: with almost 20 million members, Nigeria has the largest Anglican church (the Church of England counts officially 26 million members, but only a few million are regular church goers).

Historically, what binds the Communion together are ties with the Church of England and the primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury who is “first among equals” within the body of Anglican bishops. Theologically, Anglicanism represents an authentically reformed Catholicism, true to Christian roots in the Church Fathers and the Middle Ages, which also resonates with important aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy.

III.

But the bitter conflict between liberals and conservatives undermines this uniqueness and the Communion’s ability to act as a bridge between Christian churches.

The decision by the Church of England two weeks ago to approve the consecration of women bishops has further strained relations with Rome, with the Vatican expressing deep regret and concern for the future of ecumenical dialogue.

Moreover, this decision has exacerbated tensions between the liberal and the conservative wing. These tensions mirror a wider rift within the worldwide Communion between an increasingly militant liberal faction and a rising conservative Evangelical wing, especially since the 2003 election of V. Gene Robinson, an openly practicing homosexual priest, as Anglican Bishop of New Hampshire.

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Last month’s meeting of Evangelicals in Jerusalem took place under the banner of the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON), a conference that gave rise to a new movement—the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (with the rather unfortunate acronym FOCA). This movement approved plans to establish a separate global council of conservative bishops.

Their intention is not to set up a separate church but to take over the Communion by excluding those whom they view as liberal heretics, including Rowan Williams, the reigning Archbishop of Canterbury. The rebels are boycotting the Lambeth Conference, which opened in Canterbury on Sunday—a once-a-decade assembly of Anglican bishops, which has no formal decision-making powers but is seen as the collective mind of Anglicanism and a unifying instrument of the Communion.

This sectarian attitude contrasts sharply with that of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which is sending Cardinal Walter Kaspar to Canterbury in order to reaffirm the Vatican’s commitment toward a full reunification of all episcopally-based churches.

IV.

It is true that the clash between liberals and conservatives focuses on gay and female bishops. But the trouble is that by reducing these questions to scriptural interpretation and historical precedent, both sides ignore the Communion’s formative tradition and sources of authority. It is this ignorance that continues to prevent a proper theological debate between the warring sides.

Conservatives condemn liberals for embracing secular moral norms incompatible with Anglican teachings on ethics and marriage. Liberals accuse traditionalists of intolerance and scriptural literalism at odds with Anglican inclusiveness. Both are right about each other, but wrong about their church.

In reality, liberals and conservatives share much more in common than they are prepared to admit. Both claim a monopoly on biblical interpretation that neither has. Both purport to speak for a majority of Anglicans that neither represents. And both view Anglicanism in partisan ideological terms rather than from a robust theological perspective.

As a result, the deepening divide between liberals and conservatives hides a more orthodox and more radical vision. Such a vision transcends the current divide and situates the Communion alongside the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches firmly within the Episcopal tradition.

Episcopacy—the body of bishops—differentiates Anglicanism from schismatic Protestants like the Baptists by preserving the apostolic succession, the unbroken link of bishops with Jesus’ twelve apostles. The practice of apostolic succession both safeguards the legitimacy of the Anglican mission and preserves the continuity of local Anglican churches with the authoritative universal (or catholic) Church. As a result, the historical primacy of the See of Canterbury within the Anglican Communion is indissociable from the primacy of the See of Rome for all episcopally based churches.

What is specific about the Anglican Episcopal tradition is that it fuses traditional liturgical and sacramental practices with progressive political and socio-economic ideas—a legacy that goes back to the founding fathers of Anglican theology in the 16th century, such as William Tyndale and Richard Hooker.

Indeed, a desire to renew and extend the Christian Episcopal tradition was at the origins of Anglican theology. Against monarchical and clerical absolutism, Hooker argued in his book Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594–97) in favor of a Christian commonwealth based on natural law and the sacraments whereby both tradition and reason correct literalist scriptural interpretation and limit political power.

Likewise, contrary to the Calvinist conflation of the divinely elect with the materially wealthy, Tyndale linked the Christian promise of universal salvation to the practice of charity. According to Tyndale, “wealth is there for the purpose of making friends, and those friends are, without any qualification, the poor on your doorstep.” The implication is that Christians are bound in “debt” to others: for example, financial surplus is owed to the poor and destitute, Christians and non-Christians alike.

As such, Anglicanism has always sought to represent a reformed Catholic alternative to both Protestant liberalism and conservative Evangelical fundamentalism.

V.

All this matters today because the integrity of the Communion is under threat from the impoverished extremes of liberals and conservatives. If liberals want to broaden the priesthood to include women and gay bishops or if conservatives want to oppose any such development, then they must produce theological arguments from within the Episcopal tradition. Both must also respect the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury as “first among equals.” Otherwise, liberal and conservative bishops would depart from Anglican orthodoxy and loose their own legitimacy.

It is hard to see how the conflicting visions can be reconciled. But in order to reunify the 80-million-strong worldwide Communion, Anglicans could do worse than recover Anglican theology. Rowan Williams has taken a first step by questioning the non-theological motivations that prompted liberals to press ahead with appointing a gay bishop and conservatives to establish a rival council of bishops.

His critics rightly contend that his leadership since 2003 has not succeeded in breaking the deadlock. Though he inherited many problems from his predecessor, thus far he has failed to change the terms of the debate—not least because his own stance has at times oscillated between social liberalism and theological conservatism.

However, Williams is uniquely positioned to articulate a new direction for the Communion because the current divisions hide a more visionary option which he has always sought to convey: a canceling of the opposition between liberals and conservatives by a revivified theology that preserves and extends the Anglican Episcopal tradition.

According to Williams, the Anglican conception of Episcopacy corrects Catholic absolutism with the broadening and widening of its priesthood beyond the Pope and his appointees, while also refusing the liberal creed of mainstream Protestantism as the sole grounds for social justice and human freedom. And in order to restore a sense of sacredness and beauty to both modern Catholicism and Protestantism, Williams wants to draw on the Eastern Orthodox tradition of participation in divine mystery and wisdom.

Unless he wants to preside over a de facto schism, Williams needs to set out a renewed vision of Episcopal Anglicanism and rally Anglicans around it. Those who reject his authority and this vision on non-theological grounds will exclude themselves from the Communion.

This vision, which rejects the current divide as spurious, can be found within the Anglican tradition. Thus, a properly figured and reinvigorated Anglican theology is indispensable to the preservation of the global Communion and a rapprochement of Christians across the world.

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