All Agony, No Ecstasy for Anglicans

What are the primary reasons behind the disintegration of the Anglican Church?

July 18, 2008

What are the primary reasons behind the disintegration of the Anglican Church?

Matters are expected to come to a head at the once-in-a-decade Synod at Lambeth Palace in South London.

The palace is the administrative headquarters of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the titular head of the worldwide Anglican Communion and the head of the Church of England, the Mother Church of Anglicanism.

The archbishop, Rowan Williams, may be the last archbishop who can claim to preside over a church with more than 70 million members worldwide.

Already more than 300 bishops and archbishops are boycotting the 880-member Synod. In June, they held their own Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem.

They represent the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church, and they are adamantly opposed to homosexuals in the church in general and to homosexual bishops in particular.

They accuse Williams of being too tolerant of homosexual-friendly churches in Canada and the United States and Gene Robinson, the avowedly homosexual bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson is not the first gay bishop in the church, but he is the first to be publicly and pro-actively gay.

Another group of conservatives, very different in temperament, are the Anglo-Catholics who have resisted the ordination of women pastors and are adamantly opposed to their installation as bishops. They are joining the Roman Catholic Church in droves.

All of this disintegration falls heavily on Williams. Contrary to the feeling of many of his parishioners, he does not enjoy papal powers, has no authority over his own bishops and priests and is regarded in the Church as one among equals. He cannot change doctrine, alter the liturgy, nor adjudicate the crisis in the Anglican Communion.

The Anglican Communion is a loose confederation of regional churches in more than 50 countries that have heretofore accepted the common precepts and liturgy of the Church of England. But compared with other Anglican churches, the Church of England is anomalous.

It is an established church, it is the Church of England but not Britain — and it has always been a malleable and liberalizing force in British politics and in the British Empire, which spread its creed around the globe.

In theory, the monarch appoints the bishops of the Church of England. In reality, church officials advise the prime minister on the best person for the job.

When Williams came in six years ago, he was heralded as a true man of God and someone outside of the English church. He came from the Welsh church, which is Anglican but like the Church of Scotland and the Church of Ireland is not established.

At the time, a few bishops privately wondered whether a holy man could deal with the mounting crises in the church. Williams has joined a long line of failed archbishops, but in his case failure may not be his fault. Other failed archbishops have been variously drunks, fornicators and one who doubted that there was a God at all.

Initial enthusiasm for the quietly religious Williams has grown to a swell of disapproval over his handling of the sex and gender issue, and of a recent suggestion that there might be a place for shari’a law in Britain’s Muslim communities.

Another crisis for the Church of England, but not for the worldwide Communion, has been the declining church attendance as part of the growing European secularism.

More and more people who say they are “C of E” are marriage-and-funeral Christians. The church is rich in land, but many of its churches are located in the wrong place — downtown rather than where people live, in bedroom communities.

In the eyes of its followers, what the Church of England offers to the worldwide movement is beautiful language, whether it is in the Book of Common Prayer, in the Missal, or in the cornerstone Bible, the King James version.

Also, the Church of England has a long tradition of having beautiful hymns, but some of them are curiously inappropriate for the Third World.

One of the most popular is “Jerusalem,” in which the poet William Blake wonders “And was the holy Lamb of God/On England’s pleasant pastures seen?” Stirring stuff in the Yorkshire Dales or the flats of East Anglia, but incomprehensible in Accra or New Delhi.

There is no question that today’s Anglican Communion, with its proselytizing evangelicals, is a far cry from the Anglicanism of yesteryear, which marched hand-in-hand across the world with an empire, hinting but not quite saying that that was a divine enterprise.

Converts throughout the world happily prayed for the British monarch and “those set in authority over us.”

One bishop entering Lambeth Palace, when asked what he hoped for at the gathering, rolled his eyes and said, “A miracle.” Unfortunately, Anglicans have never had the reverence for miracles that the other Catholic Church, the Roman one, has.

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Takeaways

More and more people who say they are "C of E" are marriage-and- funeral Christians.

Initial enthusiasm for the quietly religious Williams has grown to a swell of disapproval over his handling of the sex and gender issue.

Rowan Williams may be the last archbishop who can claim to preside over a church with more than 70 million members worldwide.

The Anglican Communion, with its proselytizing evangelicals, is a far cry from the Anglicanism of yesteryear.