18 September 2015
Anglicanism: Canterbury’s risky move
The Archbishop of Canterbury is proposing to restructure the Anglican Communion, turning the third largest global family of churches into a much looser federation or grouping. The Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Richard Clarke, and 37 other Anglican primates from around the world have been invited to Canterbury next January to discuss Archbishop Justin Welby’s proposals. In the new scheme of things, Anglican churches, including the Church of Ireland and the Church of England, could be linked to Canterbury without necessarily being linked to each other.
With 80 million members, Anglicans form the third largest Christian body, after the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Archbishop Welby’s predecessor, Rowan Williams, became disheartened in his fraught efforts to hold Anglicans together, and they collapsed when they were rejected by the dioceses in his own Church of England. Over the past two decades, it has become more and more difficult to hold Anglicanism together. The main dividing issues are sexuality and the authority of bishops and the Bible, and, to a lesser extent, the ordination of women.
But there is also a power battle between churches in the northern and southern hemispheres, and a widening chasm between more liberal churches in North America and churches in Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya that actively support harsh legislation against gay people. The irony is that the churches most opposed to pluralism and diversity may have forced the creation of a new world Anglicanism characterised by greater diversity and pluralism.
In the midst of mayhem, the Church of Ireland is caught between the two factions. While some bishops encourage change and progress, others support and encourage dissident conservative bishops and clergy who have seceded from the Episcopal Church in the US. Constitutionally, the Church of Ireland is committed to maintaining communion with the Church of England. But the challenge facing both churches is whether they can hold together. In some places that unity is little more than a figment. In many cases, the parishes that claim to be most conservative on sexual issues have all but abandoned the form and content of traditional Anglican worship and liturgy.
The Archbishop’s proposals risk redefining the Anglican theology of the nature of the church, with a communion of churches being replaced by a federation of sects. Without shared discipline or doctrine, it is difficult to see how any new federation or alliance can pretend to hold together. The proposals could leave bishops and dioceses in the Church of Ireland and the Church of England free to pick and choose which churches and dioceses they cosy up to, and the Anglican churches on these islands risk becoming more fractious and divided.