The National Catholic Review
Austen Ivereigh
Will disagreements tear apart the Anglican Communion?
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During a recent debate at the Church of England’s General Synod, N. T. Wright, the Scripture scholar and bishop of Durham, summed up the crisis facing the Anglican Communion rather graphically. “We are living through, on many levels, a massive outworking of the law of unintended consequences,” he said. “Or, in plain English, a slow-moving train wreck.”

Bishop Wright is a touchstone theologian for traditionalists. He opposes women bishops, noncelibate gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions—the hot-button issues that have plunged the Anglican Church into possibly the greatest crisis in its history. But that does not mean he supports the decision by 280 conservative (or “Bible-believing”) Anglican bishops of the developing world to form their own communion-within-a-communion at Jerusalem a few weeks ago in defiance of the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Bishop Wright likes neither the Global Anglican Future Conference bishops’ spurning of that authority, nor their claim to be more faithful to the Bible, nor their demand that other Anglicans sign on to their 14-point declaration of Anglican orthodoxy. Bishop Wright is a Church of England conservative evangelical, rather than an African or Australian one; and in the current meltdown, that is just as important a difference as those between liberal and conservative Anglicans, or Catholics and Protestants.

As the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Primates, which is held every 10 years, meets in Canterbury (July 16-Aug. 3) against a backdrop of what journalists are calling the “summer of schism,” it is worth noting that the cause of the current Anglican crisis is not disagreement over homosexuality. Most Catholics as well as nonbelievers I know have strongly diverse views about same-sex blessings, civil partnerships and gay adoptions; homosexuality is one of the great divisive issues of our age.

But disagreements do not necessarily lead to divisions or crises. The real question is why the Anglican Church has not been able to contain the disagreements, and why they are causing the church to tear itself apart.

The current crisis is not, in other words, doctrinal; it is ecclesiological. As the center of Anglicanism has moved away from the Church of England to the global communion, the glue that has held the Church of England together has been exposed as inadequate for binding the Anglican Churches worldwide.

Mission Impossible?

Consider the uniqueness of the historical project of the Church of England, an attempt—intrinsically flawed, to some; to others, heroic—to contain under a single roof the different traditions within Christianity. There are many rooms in the Anglican mansion. “Enlightened” Protestantism (which describes most Church of England bishops) co-exists with “evangelical” Protestantism (which describes much of the clergy and laity); the first stresses reason, the second biblical authority, while Protestant elements operate alongside Catholic ones.

The Anglican Catholics are in turn divided between “liberals” and “traditionalists,” grouped in such organizations as Affirming Catholicism and Forward in Faith. Liberals, whether Catholic or not, favor women priests and bishops, and a change in church policies on homosexuality, because they believe it is part of the church’s job to keep pace with the historical movements for emancipation. Conservatives, whether Anglo-Catholic or evangelical, are against adapting to the age. The Bible tells the evangelicals otherwise, while Anglo-Catholics believe that if Anglicanism should adapt to anything it should be the Catholic and Orthodox Churches of which they believe themselves to be a part.

All can give good reasons for their beliefs, and traditionally all can be accommodated—messily, awkwardly, often with extreme bad grace and sometimes only with imaginative 11th-hour compromises. In Britain, it is almost a national sport to watch the different parties maneuvering around the field at synods. You can almost hear the amazement each time the Church of England pulls clear of schism at the last minute—like the gasps that accompany goals before the final whistle.

Church of England Anglicans are proud of this capacity for compromise, which is bound up with the project of political liberalism. As a national church its task, subject to the will of Parliament with the Queen as its head, has been to bend and adapt to cultural developments. There has been the odd exodus—the evangelical rebellions of the 18th century against “worldly” bishops, which led to Methodism and emigrations to Virginia, or the 19th-century Anglo-Catholic protest, which caused some to cross the Tiber—but on the whole Anglicans stay put. They know the rules: you fight hard, but must be ready to bargain and compromise.

Fault Lines

In recent decades, however, the Church of England has been shrinking as fast as the Anglican Church in former British colonies has been growing. These days the average Anglican is more likely to be a struggling African farmer than a lady making cakes for a sale at her English village church. The gravitational center of Anglicanism has drifted southward, to countries where the church is not part of a liberal political project, and where excessive compromise and nuance mute its proclamation of the Gospel. Just as important, the old alliance between church and culture has been broken in England by the rise of secular attitudes and lifestyles: cultural Anglicans believe they have found better things to do on Sundays than worship. The case for bending to culture in order to “baptize” it is therefore looking much weaker, and the Church of England’s authority within the Anglican Communion is correspondingly reduced.

While the Anglican Communion has come of age, what holds it together is not structures, but rather fellowship and a shared cultural history. There is almost nothing that can force the “enlightened” North Americans, who see gay emancipation as a matter of historical justice, to coexist with developing-world evangelicals, for whom homosexuality is an abomination deplored by Scripture. As long as former colonials were taking their cue from the Church of England, the absence of structures was not fatal. But at the last Lambeth Conference, in 1998, concerned about the Church of England’s growing acceptance of homosexuality and what they saw as a betrayal of Scripture, a lobby of bishops from the developing world moved to “save the church” from the forces of secularism. They pushed through Resolution 1:10, which declared that homosexual practice was “incompatible with Scripture.”

This was precisely the kind of unambiguous statement of doctrinal clarity that Anglicanism has been at pains to avoid. Not only was it unacceptable to large numbers of Anglicans in the North; it could not be imposed, because Lambeth resolutions are not binding until they are accepted by member churches.

Resolution 1:10 emboldened the evangelicals to take a stand against the blessing of same-sex unions, authorized by a Canadian diocese in 2002, and against the acceptance of a noncelibate priest, Gene Robinson, as a bishop a year later by the Episcopal Church, in the United States. As Africans and Americans declared themselves out of communion with each other, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, struggled to establish firmer boundaries within the Anglican Church but without giving himself “papal powers,” as he put it to a journalist in Rome a few years ago. The 2004 Windsor Report of the Lambeth Commission on Communion was an impressive attempt to introduce a more Catholic ecclesiology through covenants and a jus commune, but it was largely ignored.

The bishops of the global South, meanwhile, demanded “restorative discipline” for the North Americans and their expulsion at Lambeth 2008 if they did not “repent.” Although Archbishop Williams has not invited Bishop Gene Robinson to Canterbury, he has made it clear that expulsion is not what Anglicans do. When Archbishop Williams decided a few months ago to arrange the meeting of the primates as a listening exercise, rather than to set up a series of debates followed by resolutions, the disaffected evangelicals decided to act. Seeing that Archbishop Williams had no intention of disciplining the Episcopal Church, they headed to Jerusalem for the Global Anglican Future Conference.

Saving Anglicanism

The Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans founded in Jerusalem in June by the churches of the global South is the next step in what the developing-world evangelicals see as their way to save Anglicanism. If the Anglo-Catholic movement of the 19th century sought to recover the national Catholic Church of Henry VIII, FOCA has in mind the Elizabethan Protestant version of Anglicanism, with its Book of Common Prayer and 39 Articles. FOCA rejects not only the “false Gospel” of the North American Anglicans and their “unscriptural” endorsement of homosexuality, but also what they call the “colonial” domination of the global Anglican Church by “northern, liberal mentalities.” The new network includes 280 bishops of African, South American and Australian churches, which include as many as half of the Anglican Church’s 80 million believers. Its rejection of the two instruments of communion—Archbishop Williams’s authority (“We do not accept that Anglican identity is determined necessarily through recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury,” reads the Jerusalem declaration) and the Lambeth Conference (which they are boycotting)—means that there are now, in effect, two parallel Anglican Communions, split along both geographical and ecclesiological fault lines.

The sniping at Archbishop Williams from all sides has been intense. He is accused of giving in to evangelical blackmail, of being a closet liberal, of being a ditherer and a Canute-like figure pondering theological abstractions while the waves crash on the shore. In fact his leadership has been extraordinary, a witness to the influence of Catholicism on his ecclesiology. The easier path is the one of expulsions, or at least of taking one side or another; but he has taken the far harder option of trying to forge a communion out of polarization. He has tried to persuade both the global South and the North Americans to renounce their absolute positions for the sake of unity, and not to move impatiently ahead. He exemplified this when—although personally he is convinced that the church will come to accept homosexual partnerships—he vetoed in 2004 the appointment of a gay friend, Jeffrey John, as Bishop of Reading, because he knew it would inflame disunity. The “pro-gay” lobby accused him of surrendering to evangelical pressure, but they misread the decision. Archbishop Williams was demonstrating that a move too soon—however principled—can destroy unity. He has more than once quoted to both the Episcopal Church and the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:33) to “wait for one another.”

So far they have not. A willingness to “suffer for the sake of the unity of the church” is something many Anglicans assume only Catholics have to do. The openly gay bishop of New Hampshire, Gene Robinson, is in England, popping up on television and radio to declare that Jesus loves him and that history is on his side, while the Global Anglican Future Conference evangelicals are growling from abroad, convinced the Bible is on their side. Kenosis for the sake of unity is not on the minds of any of them.

But that does not stop two-thirds of the world’s Anglican bishops who are gathering in Canterbury. If at the Lambeth Conference they can listen to each other—and to God—long enough, there may be a chance for Archbishop Williams still to build the structures on which future global Anglican coexistence so obviously depends. Global Anglicanism after the Lambeth Conference may still look like a “slow-moving train wreck,” but there is a good chance, under Archbishop Williams, that it will still be on the rails.

Listen to a conversation with Austen Ivereigh.

Austen Ivereigh, former adviser to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, is a writer and journalist based in London.

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Rev. Dr. Adela Torchia | 9/4/2008 - 2:43pm
As an Anglican priest, I think that Ivereigh has misunderstood several important aspects of Anglican ecclesiology, and of the current contentious issues. On page 19 he writes: "Most Catholics as well as nonbelievers I know have strongly diverse views about same-sex blessings, civil partnerships and gay adoptions; homosexuality is one of the great divisive issues of our age. But disagreements do not necessarily lead to divisions or crises. The real question is why the Anglican Church has not been able to contain the disagreements, and why they are causing the church to tear itself apart." The Anglican Church definitely contains disagreements, but the reason it does not "contain" them in the sense that Ivereigh implies is because of its strongly democratic structure. Disagreements are aired and discussed at every level rather than having one "official" view that is presented to the public. Like many media agents, Ivereigh seems to assume the view that the AC disagreements are "causing the church to tear itself apart." This is a generalization and the result of Lambeth (Conference Summer 2008) has proved this to be untrue. On p.20 under the subtitle "Mission Impossible?" Ivereigh describes some of the layers of complex co-existence that the Church of England (CofE) has attempted. I think that section also contains some inaccurate generalizations, for example that most of the clergy and laity are "evangelical" Protestants. And especially this: "... while Anglo-Catholics believe that if Anglicanism should adapt to anything it should be the Catholic and Orthodox Churches of which they believe themselves to be a part." People like Bishop Victoria Matthews (now of Christchurch, New Zealand) call themselves Anglo-Catholic, but have several important disagreements with RC ecclesiology. I think that Invereigh's next pargaraph on p.20 is particularly unfair and misinformed: "All can give good reasons for their beliefs, and traditionally all can be accommodated—messily, awkwardly, often with extreme bad grace and sometimes only with imaginative 11th-hour compromises. In Britain, it is almost a national sport to watch the different parties maneuvering around the field at synods. You can almost hear the amazement each time the Church of England pulls clear of schism at the last minute—like the gasps that accompany goals before the final whistle." Given Invereigh's earlier statement that "homosexuality is one of the great divisive issues of our age" I am taken aback at his "joining in the fun" of mocking those who are trying their best -- engaging heart, mind and soul to reach greater agreement on some difficult issues. I guess if one is indifferent to the struggle, it can look silly, but should such people really be standing by the sidelines mocking struggles for which they apparently have no empathy? Comparing the deep wounds of our Anglican family struggles to a soccer match is a little low in my estimation. But as he says in the next paragraph, "on the whole Anglicans stay put". Ivereigh next uses the provocative subtitle "Saving Anglicanism" although I think he is referring to the GAFCON (Global Anglican Futures Conference) group as those who intend to be the saviours (?) of Anglicanism. He calls this group by their other name FOCA (Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans) and says, amazingly, that FOCA was "founded in Jerusalem in June by the churches of the global south" -- all of them? Hardly so! This kind of generalization is quite dangerous in journalism. Regardless of how many or few were there, Invereigh gives them much more power than they could possibly have when he says that as a result of their meeting "there are now, in effect, two parallel Anglican Communions" an amazing statement given that 80% of the invited bishops attended the Lambeth Conference and after three weeks of meetings no schism of note took place. This was no doubt a great disappointment to the journalists<
Michael Bindner | 8/13/2008 - 6:34pm
Given the approach of His Holiness, Benedict XVI to His Holiness, Ecumeunical Patriarch Barthalomew, new possibilities exist for the future of the Anglican Communion and the cause of Western Ecumeunicism. The separation of the southern bishops from the Anglican Communion may be a precursor to the reunification of the African Church under the Coptic Church, which is ancient in its own right. This may also lead to the establishment of a Gallatian Patriarchy, restoring the church of Gallatia and extending it to the English speaking world of the United Kingdom, Ireland and North America. This would certainly solve the problem of what do with the Roman Missal. While there may very well be Latin Rite parishes and diocese in America where the primary liturgy is actually in Latin, the vast majority of Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and High Church Protestents who believe in the Real Pressence of the Eucharist are better together under one, non-Roman head.
Mike | 8/5/2008 - 11:15pm
As a lay Catholic, I have been watching the Lambeth and Jerusalem conferences with interest. The lack of effective leadership in the Anglican communion is disconcerting; the Archbishop of Canterbury and Elizabeth II have failed to use their positions as church leaders to unify their wayward bishops. Avoiding Schism is not a policy for unity. Empty Churches do not make a community of faith. Mike
KEVIN DONLON | 8/3/2008 - 12:20am
Thank you to Mr. Ivereigh for his thoughtful and comprehensive article on the state of Anglicanism. These are perhaps the most crucial days in the life of this expression of the catholic faith since the 16th Century. When Mr Iveriegh suggests that the crisis is ecclesiological not doctrinal, he is fundamentally correct However, when one peels the skins of the ecclesiological crises within Anglicanism, one discovers the crisis has spread to missiology and doctrine. In the area of ecclesiology when one examines the process of discernment and decisions in Anglicanism one discovers that for Anglicans conciliarity in the church came to an end when Henry Tudor suspended canon law, suspended conciliar precedent and entrusted ecclesial governance in the Crown and Privy Council in consultation with the Bishops of England. The Church lost a crucial dimension of its heritage and Anglicanism was set on a course for governance that has set the framework for the present Global Crisis of Faith and Authority. Without the clear connections to a canonical and conciliar tradition that is historic, the fundamental form and expression that has been promoted is one of a covenant such as Windsor. Sadly it does not breed unity because it affirms autonomy over and above the primacy of a faith and order through the ministry of a formal college/synod of bishops. It is clear from the conciliar tradition that all subsequent forms of ecclesiastical and canonical instruments (provinces, metro-political sees, even autocephalous churches) grew from this fundamental form and requirements of the canonical tradition. While the covenant affirms many positive concepts about Anglicanism it also reinforces the primacy of autonomy which will not resolve this or any other future crisis whether it be of a revisionist or traditional strain. What is clear from the events at Lambeth through the lense of the canonical tradition is that the Covenant lacks the significance and substance to unify Anglicanism. The Covenant is not the frame of reference for unity. The catholic tradition East and West has for ages called for a college of bishops in "Synod" to embody and act as the expression of the Church's unity. It is very significant, however, that whenever and wherever the federated view of "canonical subordinationism" occurs in Anglican conversations, the idea of the catholic unity dissipates and the possibilities for conciliar resolution fades like the sunlight at dusk in the stained glass windows of Canterbury Cathedral. Ever since the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), the churches have realized the need to express and strengthen their koinonia by coming together to discuss matters of mutual concern and to meet contemporary challenges to the faith. Such gatherings were understood to be either regional or world-wide. Such Councils/Synods met to: 1)Address the numerous doctrinal and ecclesiastical controversies that arose in the maturing life of the faith community. 2)Create and foster ties of unity among the canonical orthodox churches 3)Insure the administration and structures for a stronger and more visible witness to the Faith once delivered to the saints. Early in the history of the Church, a function of oversight of the other bishops of their regions was assigned to bishops of prominent sees. Concern to keep the churches faithful to the will of Christ was among the considerations which contributed to this development. This practice has continued to the present day but not in Anglicanism; as it lacks the effective structures. This form of episkope is a service to the Church carried out in co-responsibility with all the bishops of the region. All recognize that every bishop receives at ordination both responsibility for his local church and the obligation to maintain it in living awareness and practical service of the other churches. The Church of God is found in each of them and in their koinonia. As it was then,it should be now and
Bruno Moreno | 7/29/2008 - 9:11pm
Mr. Ivereigh: You say "Most Catholics as well as nonbelievers I know have strongly diverse views about same-sex blessings, civil partnerships and gay adoptions". Nonbelievers can believe or disbelieve whatever they want to. However, Catholics cannot. Any Catholic who approves of same-sex blessings, civil partnerships (for Catholics, of course) or gay adoptions has seriously strayed from Catholic teaching, rejects the Magisterium of the Church and can hardly be used as an example of what Catholics think. Please, correct me if I am wrong, but you seem to imply that, if Anglicans "listen to each other and to God", they will accept same-sex blessings, gay adoptions, etc. as acceptable practice in their communion, for the sake of unity. Do you actually mean that it is God's will to accept those things (for the sake of unity or for whatever other reason) and, therefore, that the Catholic Church should also accept them? I hope I have made myself understood (English not being my mother tongue). Thank you.
James | 7/26/2008 - 9:51pm
Hasn't Archbishop Williams already shown his hand ("...personally he is convinced that the church will come to accept homosexual partnerships.")? Mr Ivereigh underestimates the African bishops and their Western allies. They know, for example, that Williams is ready to accept homosexual partnership. They also probably see his acceptance is more from neglect about their "scriptural truth," than from his intention of not lying (i.e., refraining from saying what he really believes) that there is so much confusion in the Anglican world. When Aristotle was asked what a man could gain by telling a falsehood (or in Williams's case, refraining from saying it), he replied "Never to be credited when he speaks again." How well the southern bishops have absorbed this when Archbishop Williams speaks. They know where he stands and don't like it. Whether you agree with them or not, you can't blame them. Finally, Mr. Ivereigh says that doctrine is not the issue but ecclesiology; but that's like saying the theological louse in the cleric's collar is following him. They both go together. At least for the Africans (and most other Christians who try not to separate doctrine from morals).
PJOHNSON | 7/26/2008 - 10:25am
Just a point of correction: N.T. Wright does not oppose the ordination of women to the episcopate. See his letter to The Times (14 July 2005): "Sir, Anthony Howard (T2, July 12; see also report, same day) describes my action in signing, with 16 other bishops, an open letter pleading for fuller debate on women bishops as a “defection”. This is a complete misunderstanding. I have for some years argued strongly in favour of women bishops, in public and private, in person and in print. I have not changed my mind. The motion before us at the General Synod was not whether we were in favour of women bishops, but whether we favoured a particular way of proceeding towards that goal."
anthony sadler | 7/26/2008 - 4:43am
as a former Archbishops' Secretary for Appointments, I found the article most interesting and I think fair. However, there are two defining fundamentals of Anglicanism which have not been emphasised enough. First, a willing acceptance that there are differing interpretations of scripture, even on fundamentals, and secondly that each Province has the right to manage its own affairs without interference from outside.We need to go back to Hooker to remind ourselves where we came from. My parish was typical middle of the road Church of England, and we would certainly never be prepared to sign up to a doctrinaire statement like GAFCON.