Jerusalem — The future of the Anglican Communion, the third largest Christian church in the world, has been in serious doubt since the 2003 election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay cleric, to be bishop of New Hampshire.
This week, some of that uncertainty is being resolved. The Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) convened in Jerusalem on Sunday, drawing 1,200 conservative Anglicans, including 304 bishops. One of their number, Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini of Rwanda, describes the event as “the beginning of a second reformation.”
Immediately in advance of the gathering, conservative church leaders issued a pamphlet entitled “The Way, the Truth, and the Life.” In it, they assert that on issues of sexuality the collective decisions by primates, as the leaders of the 38 Anglican provinces are known, have been “ignored” and conservatives “derided” and “demonized” by the U.S. Episcopal Church. “There is no longer any hope, therefore, for a unified communion,” the document proclaims.
GAFCON attendees have been reticent to use the word schism — they prefer “broken.” But this seems a preference without distinction. Most of those at GAFCON are boycotting the Lambeth Conference, the once-a-decade gathering on doctrinal matters — deemed “an instrument of unity” in Anglican theology — which will be held next month in Canterbury, the ancient seat of the Church of England. One of the pamphlet’s authors, the Oxford theologian Rev. Roger Beckwith, says that the move puts Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and nominal head of the global communion, “in an impossible position.”
Homosexuality, and particularly the consecration of Robinson, will likely be known to history as the cause of this Anglican crack-up, just as schoolchildren remember the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand as the “cause” of the First World War. But, likewise, such an understanding is a dramatic oversimplification.
More crucial than the substance of any single issue to understanding recent developments in Anglicanism is the dramatic rearrangement that has taken place in the communion’s demographics and leadership over the past several decades. Today, the church is overwhelmingly African, and these Africans are overwhelmingly orthodox. That is, they believe Jesus to be the sole route to salvation, and that the Bible’s proscriptions are meant to be taken literally. As Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi preached at GAFCON’s opening service, “I come from Uganda, and my God performs miracles. This Bible is black and white. It is not a historical document.” (By contrast, a leading Western thinker has tepidly called for “creativity in our theology” as a means of holding the communion together, while Bishop Robinson has defended himself by saying the Bible’s proscription of homosexual acts applies to homosexuality as it was understood two millennia ago, which he says is different from today.)
The change in the church leadership’s consistency is manifest at Jerusalem’s Renaissance Hotel, where it is nearly impossible this week to turn around without seeing a Nigerian, a Kenyan, a Ugandan, or other African ensconced in the crimson robes that signify the office of bishop. This alone is something of a new development; there are more African Anglican bishops present here than there were on the planet a few decades ago.
Africans began to take control of their churches in the 1960s, and these have since grown rapidly, imbued with a vitality lacking in most Western churches. Even so, these churches frequently did not have the money to finance their attendance at the Lambeth Conference. “The American church simply thought it could get its way,” Beckwith says, “and very largely they did in the past for two reasons: They had money, and Africans did not.”
The vibrancy of African Anglicanism has started to be matched with the funds to support it. In 1998, Africans surprised Lambeth observers by showing up in droves, and turning the tide against the liberalism of the Episcopal, Canadian, and English churches by approving a strict resolution affirming the authority of scripture as written, and pronouncing again the immorality of sexual acts outside of the covenant of marriage.
Some Episcopalians have accused American conservatives of manipulating African bishops. Barbara Harris, an Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts, has even claimed that African bishops’ loyalty has been “bought with chicken dinners.” But it is clear that, at GAFCON, Africans are calling the shots. The event grew out of a Nairobi meeting of African bishops, and Africans are paying their own way. Peter Akinola, the primate of the Nigerian church and the chairman of the gathering, raised $1.2 million in three weeks for the conference. Indeed, his church even subsidized the attendance of a number of Americans, and Akinola has employed a young American priest as his private chaplain for the event.
At GAFCON, the African church — the largest church — is signalling that, by rights of dogma and demography, it should be calling the shots. Robert Duncan, the conservative bishop of Pittsburgh, says that the conference’s task is nothing less than to prepare for a “post-colonial” Anglicanism that has “come of age.” Certainly the choice to hold GAFCON in the Holy Land, and not in England, is a powerful statement about where conservatives see their origins and, too, their legitimacy.
There is, of course, a certain irony to all of this. The West once redeemed Africa for Christianity; now it is the Africans who seek to do the redeeming. African prelates see themselves as repaying a favor. Benjamin Nzimbi, archbishop of Nairobi, tells me that he sees GAFCON as a way of “reclaiming Anglicanism the way we received it.” Certainly Africans seem to have the advantage, as their churches grow and the Episcopal Church shrinks. (A recent Harper’s cover article on the subject, seeking to explain away this trend, lamely points to the fact that the American church’s pension fund is flourishing.)
Conservative Episcopalians see few prospects for themselves in the church. Jack Iker, bishop of Fort Worth, says, “We either make a place for ourselves, or we have no place.” He predicts that within a year after GAFCON, whole conservative-leaning dioceses in the United States will have sought an alternative arrangement outside of the American church.
The turn from the church’s seeming leftward trend is, in some sense, a surprise. But in some way it is merely a repudiation of the wrong-headed assumption, based on the American experience, that each year brings “progress” in the form of an ever more secularized, liberal church. Anglicans are beginning to show that this rule is not as firm as it might seem.
–Travis Kavulla, a former associate editor of National Review, is a Gates Scholar in African History at Cambridge University and a 2008 Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellow.