The Way Forward for the Anglican Communion?

The End of Canterbury?

Will the sun set on the Anglican communion?

The archbishop of Canterbury is going to resign next year. At least that’s the story making the rounds of newspapers in London, and the interesting part is not that the 61-year-old Rowan Williams should be willing to give up another decade in the job. Or even, if the Telegraphis right, that the clergy and his fellow bishops are working to push him out.
Photo of Rowan WilliamsROWAN WILLIAMS


No, the interesting news about the looming resignation is how little attention anyone appears to be paying to it. The Church of England just doesn’t seem to matter all that much, fading from the world’s stage only slightly more slowly than the British Empire that planted it across the globe.

Theological consequences will follow the dwindling of Anglican identity—the claim, ever since Queen Elizabeth I, that the Church of England represents the great middle way between Protestantism and Catholicism. Ecclesiological consequences, as well, will follow the end of Anglican unity: the disappearance of a coherent, worldwide denomination, led by the archbishop of Canterbury, for those who hold a certain moderate form of Christian belief.

Christianity will survive in other forms, of course, both theologically and denominationally. In the long run, the great tragedy of the fading of Canterbury and the looming breakup of the Anglican communion may be the geopolitical consequences—fraying the already weak ties between the global South and Western civilization.

 Anglicanism remains widespread, with 80 million members around the world, from the Episcopal Church in the United States to the followers of Henry Luke Orombi, archbishop of Uganda. England is still the largest Anglican province, with 26 million members, at least nominally. But far more Anglicans are in church on a Sunday morning in Kenya and Nigeria than in Britain, and the center of Anglican belief is now firmly in Africa—a major part, as Philip Jenkins noted in his 2002 book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, of the nearly complete conversion of sub-Saharan Africa to Christianity over the last 100 years.

The rise of the African church could have made Canterbury an important player in international relations—not exactly a rival to Rome (Catholicism’s one billion adherents make that unlikely) but at least a second European center with which Africans would have felt a relation and to which they could have looked for intellectual and ecclesial authority.

Instead, hardly anyone notices when the archbishop of Canterbury is about to be replaced and the unity of Anglicanism is about to be shattered. The job of the archbishop of Canterbury has always been something of a high-wire act, delicately balanced between the Protestant impulses of the church on one side and its Catholic impulses on the other side. And, from time to time, various archbishops have lost their balance (notably when John Henry Newman slipped away to Catholicism in the battles over the Oxford Movement in the 1840s).

This time, unfortunately, it is the wire itself that is breaking. What the archbishop of Canterbury needed to hold together was a church divided between such African heroes of the faith as the retired archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, and such established masters of the Anglican bureaucracy as the primate of the Church of Canada, Fred Hiltz. On issues from the legality of abortion to the installation of female bishops and, especially, church ceremonies for gay marriage and the consecration of openly gay priests, the difference between the conservative African churches and the radical Western churches—between, say, Nicholas Okoh, Anglican primate of Nigeria, and Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States—is unbridgeable.

The current archbishop is a cultivated, intelligent man: a published poet and literary figure with theological sophistication and a talent for administration. Rowan Williams never possessed either the international star-power of someone like John Paul II or the intellectual depth of Benedict XVI. Still, he has more or less succeeded in his decade-long attempt to hold Anglicanism together with a kind of quiet, British suasion.

He pursued that end, however, mostly by trying to make himself an utterly neutral figure, beginning his reign as archbishop, for example, by leaving the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, an important British pro-life group. And his Laodicean pose has led him into such inanities as his 2008 call to enact some form of the “unavoidable” sharia law in Great Britain—even while his fellow Anglicans in Nigeria were being attacked by Muslim mobs.

Pope Benedict’s 2009 offer of a Catholic home for traditionalist Anglicans is reported to have taken Williams by surprise, and he has found no answer to the administrative disaster of new conservative parishes being established in America—parishes that proclaim allegiance to conservative African bishops rather than to their local ordinaries. For that matter, the church-dividing question of gay marriage and an openly homosexual clergy has not been solved during the archbishop’s tenure. It’s only been repressed.

The moving force behind the rumor of Williams’s impending retirement seems to be Richard Chartres, bishop of London—an interested party, it should be noted, given that he is a leading candidate to succeed the retiring archbishop. A close friend of the royal family (he preached the sermon at the wedding of Prince William), Chartres is best known for his environmentalism and his attempts to forge new Anglican ties with the Eastern Orthodox churches. It’s a mystery how any of that is supposed to appeal to the traditionalist African churches, whose strongly missionary faith is locked in a struggle against the spread of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa.

The last full meeting of the Lambeth Conference—the once-a-decade meeting that brings together leaders from all the national churches to discuss and pass denomination-wide legislation—did not go well, back in 2008. African bishops pulled in one direction, holding separate meetings and hinting at schism, while the Western leaders pulled in the other direction, demanding that all churches in the communion embrace their views on human sexuality. That the church kept any unity at all was a tribute to the meliorating work of the  of Canterbury. And with Williams no longer at the helm, little will be achieved at the next Lambeth Conference.


This article, from the ‘Weekly Standard’, offers an interesting view of what actually might be going on in the Anglican Communion at this time in it’s eventful history; tracing the events that have led to the possibility of  further disintegration of the world-wide Church community.

Mentioned here are the continuing efforts made by the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Rt. Revd. Dr.  Rowan Williams, under whose leadership, as Primus-inter-pares, various ‘Global South’ Provinces of the Communion have drawn back from full participation in the corporate life of the Communion – citing their opposition to certain innovations made by the more liberal ‘Western’ Provinces on matters of gender and sexuality.

The article’s author seems to blame some Bishops and other members  of the Church of England for giving birth to rumours of Archbishop Rowan’s impending retirement from the Canterbury Primacy – rumours which so far would seem to be unfounded, or at least unacknowledged by the Archbishop himself.

Also, the author’s parallel between the dissolution of Britain’s Imperial status on the world stage, and the possible diminution of the Church of England’s role in the future of  world-wide Anglicanism, is not as clear as is presented here. Obviously, if the ABC were, indeed, to resign in the near future, then the Communion might find itself in a further state of flux and uncertainty regarding the hopes of the U.K. Anglican Church Office for a newly-imposed disciplinary Covenant relationship based on the C. of E. and Canterbury.

If the Founding Province of Canterbury were to cease to be at the heart of the Anglican Communion, it would obviously no longer be able to claim the title ‘Anglican’, which was historically derived from the beginnings of the Reformed and Catholic Church of England.

There are those in the Communion – especially among the national Churches of the more liberal ‘West’, who believe that the imposition of a proposed disciplinary and confessional Covenant would not take into consideration the movement already made in some Western Provinces, towards the inclusion of Women and Gays in the life and ministry of their Churches; barring them from full membership of the new Communion.

On the other hand, Churches of the ‘Global South’ – including some of the African National Churches – are very reluctant to join in any Covenant relationship that might risk the inclusion of the more liberal Provinces on issues of gender and sexuality. The ‘stumbling block’ against their membership is seen in Section 4:2 of the Covenant Document, which provides for ‘relational consequences’ of a disciplinary nature that please neither sides of the argument. For Western Churches they are proscriptive of the inclusivity of the LGBT community; and for Global South Churches, they are not proscriptive enough.

If these circumstances persevere, then it would seem that the only options would be for the Anglican Communion to stay as it is – without the Covenant  or any overt interference between the Provinces (and this would be my own preference and, I believe, the preference of most ‘Scripture, Tradition and Reason’ Anglicans); or to form different sodalities around the particular theological and cultural bases they already inhabit. In this way, those Provinces that remain in communion with Canterbury Province would remain  ‘Anglicans’, and those that do not would be a newly-minted ‘confessional’ Church. Whatever happens, any attempt at ecclesial reconciliation would require a greater degree of  humility – on both sides.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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