Religion & Liberty Online

Why the Anglican Communion Matters

GAFCON IV may seem like much ado about an already fragmented Anglican Communion, but what it heralds about the future of global Christianity is as significant as what it reminds us about the long-term spiritual impact of the British Empire.

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As an ecclesial model, Anglicanism has until recently managed controversy and diversity better than almost any other. The generous boundaries of the tradition have space for a wide spectrum of expressions, from low-church evangelical to the Anglo-Catholicism of the Oxford Movement to charismatic, nonliturgical modern worship in individual parishes like London’s Holy Trinity Brompton to local expressions influenced by the best parts of regional culture throughout Africa and Asia. The diversity of the Anglican Communion is visible in every photograph of the gatherings of bishops when there are at least as many if not more bishops from the global majority than those of European descent. The national churches of the Anglican Communion have played vital roles in the spiritual, social, and political lives of the various nations they serve, so a crisis of unity within the Communion, which has reached a head this spring, has wide-ranging negative consequences for global Christianity and should concern all of us, Christian or not.

When the Anglican Communion began to feel tremors in the mid-1970s with the rise of the ordination of women to the priesthood and movements in some national churches toward the reinterpretation of doctrine to accommodate heterodox views on sexuality, and ultimately gender and marriage, it was reasonable to remain confident that these controversies would not result in schism. But anyone with such confidence in the 1970s would be grieved to see that those early fault lines have erupted as the Anglican Communion has all but shattered. An estimated 85% of the faithful within the tradition that was carried around the world by the British Empire no longer look to Canterbury as their spiritual home. In the words of Nigerian archbishop Ben Kwashi, “We want to move with the mission of God in the world.” Implicit in the archbishop’s statement is that Canterbury and the other 15% of the Communion are no longer moving in that direction.

When Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby convened a long-delayed Primates Gathering and Meeting in January 2016 for the heads of the various independent church provinces of the Communion, he met resistance from Anglican leaders in the Global South. The then archbishop Stanley Ntagali of the Church of Uganda wrote to his church that he would “withdraw from the meeting” if “godly order” was not restored. The conservative primates in the Global South were able to leverage their numbers to force a reordering of the meeting’s agenda to address the consecration of an openly homosexual bishop in The Episcopal Church (U.S.A.), the American province of the Communion.

The 2016 meeting saw The Episcopal Church suspended from full participation in the Communion for three years, but the bigger news was that this was a clear signal that Philip Jenkins’ prediction in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity had finally arrived—while the resources, infrastructure, and the oldest institutions among Christian traditions reside in Europe and the United States, it is the majority world that now holds the power. Transnational political organizations like the United Nations purport to welcome all sovereign nations to the table as equals, but it is unrealistic to believe that the governments of African nations could ever exert enough influence to meaningfully disadvantage the United States in any way. But in the ecclesial realm, the representatives of African Christians had done just that—censured their American counterparts for a departure from orthodoxy and tradition. Theologically and doctrinally, I believe the schism was necessary, but there are more than a few things that we have lost because of the rupture.

The Anglican Communion as a Transnational Body

The 20th century has seen the rise of transnational organizations that serve many different purposes on the international stage. And many were formed for one purpose but proved quite effective for other purposes. Alliances of various Christian denominations, which were already connected doctrinally and historically, have proved to be some of the most universally effective. The contribution of the 1.3 billion strong Roman Catholic Church to the fall of communism, for example, can hardly be underestimated. While significantly smaller, the Anglican Communion has had a few advantages since its founding in 1867. First, the national churches of the Communion tend to exert significant influence as institutions or through its communicants in some of the most powerful nations in the world, including the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States, even as attendance on Sunday morning wanes. Certainly when the British Empire was in existence, the most influential members of society were members of the established church or its local national affiliate. But often it was the Anglican church that built colleges, schools, and other institutions that helped to modernize the nations. Second, Anglicanism’s traditional posture toward secular institutions (which has at times been a liability for its own institutions) lends itself to a much more fertile ground for pluralism than other traditions.

Further, there are scores of concrete examples of the good that has come from the political connections within the Anglican Communion. For example, Rev. Robert Traill of the Church of Ireland, despite his own anti-Catholic sentiments, used his status as an Anglican minister to advocate on behalf of the Irish people who were acutely suffering during the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. A century later, Bishop George Bell of the Diocese of Chichester, a position that entitled him to a seat in the U.K. House of Lords, was the primary medium through whom Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others involved in the resistance movement against Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich communicated with the Allied Powers. It was Bishop Bell’s advocacy that influenced public opinion against Nazi Germany prior to the start of World War II before it turned decisively with the start of the Battle of Britain. Through his letters, the world learned about the atrocities committed under the regime. The advocacy of Traill and Bell and countless other clergy have been politically effective (eventually) because of their moral rather than the political authority that raises them above the political fray.

The Anglican Communion as Conscience of the Empire

The British Empire does not enjoy an unmitigatedly positive moral record. It is a complex and conflicting one, with the British having played a role in morally outrageous behavior in all corners of the world—including having contributed significantly to the transatlantic slave trade. Nigel Biggar’s new book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, engages the moral arguments about the British Empire, including on the question of slavery. After having benefited materially from the slave trade in significant ways, the British spent far more in the cause of eradicating it once it was outlawed at home. Political decisions like those to spend taxpayers’ money to purchase the freedom of slaves held in the Caribbean and to deploy the British Navy to destroy slave castles on Africa’s coast and interdict slave ships were bolstered by the earnest abolitionist pleas that were informed by an Anglican spirituality at home and in the African colonies from which slaves were exported. And in the 20th century, the United Kingdom and the far corners of the empire sacrificed much in terms of human life and material wealth to eradicate the scourge of Nazism from Europe even in the face of more pragmatic options to appease Hitler.

These examples should not be read, however, as a defense of the British Empire per se, but it was Anglican Christianity that the empire exported. And Anglican Christianity did enjoy a privileged place across the empire and the Commonwealth that allowed its ministers and bishops a voice to make moral arguments on behalf of what is right and just. 

The Anglican Communion as a Source of National Identity

Nineteenth-century philosopher Joseph de Maistre called Anglicanism an “unbelievable” form of Christianity because it required the belief that God became man for the English alone. He would probably be quite surprised to see the ethnic and national diversity of the Anglican Communion today. At the heart of this observation, however, is a recognition that Anglicanism works its way into a complex of factors that constitute national identity much more naturally than other forms of Christianity. This has much to do with how the tradition understands itself in relation to the societies in which it is situated.

H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1951 work Christ and Culture seeks to systematize and categorize the ways that various Christian traditions engage the world outside the church itself. Niebuhr calls the traditional Anglican posture “Christ of Culture.” Among other distinctive aspects of this view, traditions that embrace such a position have a robust sense of the church as an institution among other institutions, often manifesting in ethnocentric expressions. Anglican institutions do not seek to dominate society as institutions but to provide a natural and often inoffensive packaging for civil religion. The world has seen this in the last year through the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and the subsequent coronation of her son as King Charles III. Both were civic occasions but also religious ones. It is an arrangement that is valued even by members of minority faith groups, including the late Lord Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth until his death in 2020. And just this month, for example, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, himself a Hindu, participated as a reader of Scripture during the coronation of King Charles III. Even for non-Anglicans and non-Christians, Anglicanism provides an effective moral vocabulary for social cohesion. And given the global nature of the Anglican Communion, this moral vocabulary is and has been mutually intelligible across otherwise quite diverse cultures.

“For four hundred years,” wrote Will and Ariel Durant, “those prayers and hymns [of the Anglican Church], recited by the congregation and priest in the spacious splendor of cathedrals or the simple dignity of the parish church, have given English families inspiration, consolation, moral discipline, and mental peace.” Those same prayers and hymns with a uniquely “English dress” were exported from the shores of Britain around the world where they inspired, formed, and consoled countless others via a fundamental characteristic of Anglican worship—lex orandi, lex credendi. It is true that other forms of Christianity have also proved to be socially and politically beneficial to the world, but the fact remains that the Anglican Communion has played a significant role in shaping the world as it is today. The rupture of the Communion, even though inevitable and necessary, will have unintended consequences along more fronts than merely spiritual ones.

Trey Dimsdale

Trey Dimsdale serves as counsel for First Liberty Institute (FLI) and executive director of the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an FLI initiative focused on education and cultural advocacy for freedom.