The Anglican church – Praying for time
Disputes over women bishops are the least of the Anglican church’s problems
AMID sighs of relief from the many, and muffled groans from the few, the Church of England on November 17th at last approved the appointment of women bishops. At a meeting of the church’s General Synod, only around 30 of the 480 people present raised their hands against the necessary change in canon law. A woman could be wearing episcopal purple by next year.
This was a big, but expected, landmark. The change was favoured by most of the church’s leadership, the clergy (one-third of which is female), and public opinion. If this week is remembered as an important one by historians, it may be for a different reason: it was the moment when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, acknowledged that the Anglican Communion, the global family of churches with a membership of about 80m, of which he is head, may be impossible to hold together.
Nobody can deny that Mr Welby has tried hard to keep the family intact. He has visited Anglicans in almost every part of the globe and was well received everywhere. But this week he acknowledged the deep divisions which, he told the synod, may be “too much to manage”. Anglicanism, he went on, is in a state so delicate that “without prayer and repentance, it is hard to see how we can avoid some serious fractures.” Mr Welby also acknowledged for the first time that the splits are so great that the Lambeth conference, a once-a-decade gathering of global Anglican bishops, might never happen again.
The split is mainly but not solely over same-sex relations. At one end of the spectrum, the Episcopal church in America has consecrated an openly lesbian bishop; at the other end, African bishops have supported harsh anti-gay laws. By comparison, the issue of female bishops is not so divisive. But developing-world conservatives are also dismayed when their northern colleagues make liberal theological noises—by suggesting, for example, that Jesus might not be the only way to salvation.
Despite all this, the archbishop insisted that reports of the death of Anglicanism have been exaggerated. “The Anglican Communion exists and is flourishing in roughly 165 countries,” he said. That may be true. Whether they can stay part of the same family is a different matter.
The overwhelming majority at the Church of England General Synod last weekend voted FOR Women Bishops – as indicated by the following report:
” At a meeting of the church’s General Synod, only around 30 of the 480 people present raised their hands against the necessary change in canon law. A woman could be wearing episcopal purple by next year.”
However, in this report from the ‘Economist’, this matter would seem to be least in the basket of problems faced at this present moment by the Church of England – and, by extension, the world-wide Anglican Communion.
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s perambulation around the Provinces of the Communion – now completed – has informed the ABC of difficulties faced by certain Provinces who are adamantly against the Church’s openness to LGBT people and their incorporation into the ministry and leadership of Anglican Provinces. GAFCON Provinces – mainly from the Global South – have already formed their own association which refuses Eucharistic fellowship with the more liberal provinces of the Communion. This situation would seem to put a spoke in the wheel of the ABC’s plans for a more diverse and accepting fellowship of provincial Churches linked with the historic See of Canterbury.
How this will play out in future relationship among the present provincial Churches of the Communion is yet to be seen. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s prescription of prayer and penitence would seem, on balance, to be required, mainly, of those provinces which have already widened their borders, to include the ordination of Gay and Lesbian clergy and bishops and the provision of forms of blessing for Same-Sex committed, faithful relationships; before the more conservative provinces of the GAFCON might ever consider remaining in communion with them.
Considering the fact that the GAFCON Churches contain a larger population than those of the more liberal Churches of the West; it would appear that Canterbury may have to choose between the two different sodalities to retain any semblance of a united Anglican Fellowship of Churches within the founding English provenance of world Anglicanism.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand