Wednesday, January 13, 2016


What in the world is going on in the Anglican Communion? The thirty eight primates, or heads, of the independent churches that make up the AC are meeting this week in Canterbury. Internet reports of the "gathering" indicate things are not going well. After the first pleasantries, the GAFCON faction has refused to participate in the corporate worship services. They have demanded the punishment of or removal of the American and Canadian primates from the meeting. This is simply pointing out what has been going on in the AC for years. The AC has split into two parts, the First World and the Third World, or the North and the South. Here is a summary of my take on what is going on in the Anglican Communion.

The old Anglican Communion was a victim of a worldwide war, the clash between modern western democracy and fundamentalism. Let me explain.

Modern western democracy slowly developed in Europe and its extensions, as in America, after the middle ages. The Old Regime in Europe reached its height in the seventeenth century. It was an interlocking alliance of monarch-aristocracy-church. It claimed its justification from God (Divine Right). Religion was an integral part of this establishment with state churches almost everywhere. Early on, cracks began forming in this system. In the 1640's, the representatives of the propertied classes in England executed the divine-right monarch. A few decades later, in the 1680's, they booted out the "legitimate" monarch and replaced him with another. The big break against the Old Regime, however, came in the eighteenth century as a rising middle class and Enlightenment ideas directly challenged the underpinnings of the Old Regime. In the 1770's and after, two great political revolutions, the American and the French, overthrew the structure of the Old Regime. Gone were monarchy, rights of the aristocrats, and the state church. In came the principles of democracy: liberty, equal rights, justice, rule of the people, and separation of church and state. When religion was removed from its privileged position, society became more and more secular. In Great Britain, the ruling classes kept the formalities of the Old Regime, but gradually incorporated the principles of the great revolutions. France-US-Britain soon formed a western democratic alliance. 

The twentieth century was the final war for western democracy. In the First World War, the remnants of monarchy and aristocracy were crushed (Pres. Wilson: Make the World Safe for Democracy). However, out of the turmoil of this colossal war and its drastic changes came totalitarian backlashes: Nazism, Fascism, and Communism. The Second World War was democracy's fight that destroyed fascism. Communism survived temporarily only to collapse of its own internal contradictions in the 1980's. Western democracy was completely triumphant in the twentieth century. This meant western secularism triumphed too.

In the western world, some religious people objected to the secularism and longed for a return to the predominance of religion in public life. In the early twentieth century, groups called "fundamentalists" called for a return to the fundamentals of Christianity. Karen Armstrong has written: "Fundamentalism represents a kind of revolt or rebellion against the secular hegemony of the modern world. Fundamentalists typically want to see God, or religion, reflected more centrally in public life. They want to drag religion from the sidelines, to which it had been relegated in a secular culture, and back to center stage." ( ).

After the Second World War, the Episcopal Church responded to the tidal wave of democracy sweeping the country and resolved to become part of it. Four great reform movements came from this starting in the 1950's: civil rights, women's ordination, a new prayer book, and equality for homosexuals. Not everyone in the Church agreed with this turn to horizontal religion. The Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic factions resisted the changes longing for the continuation of a vertical religion. Through the first three reforms, the loss to the Church was minimal. However, with the fourth one, resistance changed and became much more threatening to the institutional integrity of the Episcopal Church. Why did the fourth, homosexuality, turn out so differently for the Church? Two fundamental reasons: 1-conservative activist groups, and 2-support from foreign bishops.

All great revolutions in history have following smaller counter-revolutions. They are backlashes against the unsettling changes that came from the revolutions. In the late twentieth century there was a worldwide fundamentalist revival that occurred in almost all great religions. These fundamentalists formed a backlash against western democratic values, particularly the secularism, and called for a return of the predominance of religion in public life. This was perhaps most noticeable first in the Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution in Iran in the 1970's that established an Islamic theocracy. Other Islamic fundamentalist groups such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS grabbed headlines too. They too aimed to defeat western culture and establish theocracies. 

In Africa, there was likewise a backlash against western democracy. Many traditional cultures in Africa and south Asia resented outside influence they saw as threatening to their way of life. In the 1990's, the equatorial African Anglican primates began pushing back against the reforms made by their Anglican cousins in America. In 1997-98, the ultra-conservative activist groups in America, as the American Anglican Council and Ekklesia, linked up with certain African primates to force the Anglican Communion's Lambeth Conference of 1998 to pass a resolution condemning homosexuality. Between 1998 and 2004, the alliance between the American ultra-conservatives and the African primates cemented. Some primates cut off all communion with the Episcopal Church. For the Africans it was a fight against not just homosexuality but the whole culture of western secular democracy. As the head of GAFCON said recently, "The issue was not homosexuality, per se, but the corrosive culture of the West." ( ).

With strong support from certain Third World primates, five ultra-conservative dioceses in America voted to leave the Episcopal Church. 

So, it seems to me what we are seeing now is the break between the western democratic provinces of the AC and the more traditionalist Third World provinces (aided by their ultra-conservative American allies). The fight is not just about homosexuality, the most visible point of contention. It is about a difference in understanding of the interface of the Church and society. England, the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the like are provinces trying to minister to a secular society and that means adapting to the social and cultural changes going on around them. The GAFCON/Global South provinces are trying to minister to traditional cultures with deep-seated societal structures. Promoting the power of religion in society is a way of resisting the foreign influence.

The Anglican Communion has been divided since 2008 when Third World primates set up their own Anglican union at GAFCON. Since then, GAFCON and its overlapping ally Global South have proceeded as if they were their own Communion. They recognized a proxy church in America in 2009 (Anglican Church in North America) cementing the break. Since there is no governing authority in the Anglican Communion, there is nothing to stop GAFCON from doing whatever it wishes. 

Whatever kind of "communion" the Archbishop of Canterbury will make this week will have to recognize what has already happened. It will not be undone. For all practical purposes, the AC is now two groups; and the GAFCON part is not in communion with the other part.

What the future Anglican Communion will look like remains to be seen. The Archbishop of Canterbury says he hopes for a looser organization. Looser? If it gets any looser it will not have any meaningful form or purpose. I suspect the AC will go on in name only with periodic meetings of its "Instruments of Communion" absent a lot of archbishops; and it will go on being what it is, thirty-eight independent churches, but with some "GAFCON Anglican" units thrown in. The old unity of the Anglican Communion is over. It ended in the fundamentalist counter-revolution of the late twentieth, early twenty-first centuries.