By Ian Harris Otago Daily Times Nov. 13, 2015
Sex and modernity have been undermining traditional forms of Christianity and the church for more than a century. That is not surprising, since those forms were forged in pre-secular cultures and societies. And judging by the latest initiative of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the pressures on the worldwide Anglican Church are close to breaking point.
He has called a meeting of archbishops from the church’s 38 “provinces” around the world to jettison the notion of a united global Anglican Communion, and move forward as a looser association of independent national churches. They would be linked to the archbishop of Canterbury, but not necessarily to each other.
This follows 20 years of efforts to end bitter sniping between liberal and deeply conservative Anglicans, including a brave but ultimately futile attempt to formalise their relationship through a global Anglican Covenant. Instead of spending time and energy trying to paper over the cracks, Welby thinks churches of his heritage have more constructive things to get on with. So he is looking to cut the losses and salvage what he can.
There has to be a tinge of regret in this. Anglicans pride themselves on being a broad church, holding together fundamentalists and charismatics, evangelicals and liberals, those who emphasise their church’s Catholic tradition, others its Protestant energy. One insider observes rather smugly that “other traditions look to the Anglican Communion to learn from its ability to have good disagreements”.
Not any more. Divisions over sex and theology have become too abrasive to permit of mutual tolerance. So when in 2003 the Episcopal Church in the United States consecrated a bishop who was not only homosexual but had a partner, the Communion erupted. Five years earlier the Lambeth Conference of bishops from around the world had rejected homosexual practice as incompatible with scripture. It is certainly incompatible with the culture of Palestine 3000 years ago, whose attitudes are reflected in six scattered biblical texts.
The latest 200 years of scholarship, however, offer churches a more informed understanding of scripture as the product of deep human experience and reflection rather than divine dictation. And science provides a more informed understanding of homosexuality as a regular and natural element of the sexual spectrum in every society. Churches are unwise to ignore either of these advances.
Some, though, still do. In line with their cultural and theological convictions, the official Anglican bodies in Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda support their countries’ criminalisation of homosexuality. In 2008 they came together with others of like mind to form the Global Anglican Future Conference (Gafcon) – a broadside aimed at the erstwhile “broad church”.
The following year a handful of dioceses in the US and Canada protested at the homosexual bishop’s consecration by setting up a rival denomination, the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA). Some dioceses in Africa, South America and Asia backed them, even offering to take under their wing parishes in America and England which held to the Lambeth line.
Gafcon sees itself as standing for “truth” in opposition to “moral compromise, doctrinal error and the collapse of biblical witness in parts of the Anglican Communion”. So concerned are many bishops in the global south at liberal Anglicans in the West that 250 of them boycotted the Lambeth Conference in 2008. Fearing a repeat, Welby has postponed the next conference indefinitely.
Truth in religion is tricky, since all religions are ultimately the product of human ingenuity in response to experience. That means apprehension of truth varies. It is best regarded as provisional, rooted in tradition but always open to new knowledge and insights that ground it in the present. In a world where everything is constantly evolving, leading Anglicans have made a huge contribution to this process.
Conservatives who believe they have truth locked in once and for all must not be allowed to close that down – and Welby’s proposal to let the provinces “live in separate bedrooms”, as some describe it, may well lance the boil. Anglicanism will then continue much as it is now: basically federal, loosely linked, culturally and doctrinally diverse. More broadly, it’s a pity that the institution of the church, which exists to promote Christian faith, growth and freedom, can end up getting in the way of all three. Progress will then happen both in spite of and because of the institution. The impulse will always be there, especially on the boundaries, to adapt to current realities by drilling deeper to achieve what the church is essentially here to do – not to control, but to free.