Autocratic Anglican archbishops face challenge

By Savi Hensman
April 9, 2016

Tension has mounted in the run-up to an international Anglican Consultative Council meeting in April 2016. While division over sexuality has been a key issue, so too have different views on whether top clergy have the right to rule over everyone else.

Eliud Wabukala, the Archbishop of Kenya and chairman of the international GAFCON faction, has refused to attend. But “Despite my public statement and my personal direction to them, the Kenyan delegation has informed me of their intention to be present,” he stated on 6 April.

Over the past two decades, the Anglican leaders most opposed to including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) churchgoers on equal terms have been increasingly vocal. They have tried to wield power not only in their own countries but also over laypeople and ordinary clergy elsewhere in the world.

The Church of England and other Anglican churches have long worked together and consulted one another over key issues while ultimately running their own affairs. Successive international conferences, while reflecting changing understandings of gender and sexual ethics, have emphasised the need for listening and study. They have also increasingly upheld human rights for all and justice for minorities.

GAFCON and others opposed to accepting same-sex partnerships and even civil liberties for LGBT people have reversed this. They have refused to listen to the opinions and experiences of LGBT people in their own countries. And globally they have insisted on a few clauses of certain resolutions which fit their agenda, while scorning other recommendations without even bothering to discuss their reasons.

They have been able to do this in part because successive Archbishops of Canterbury have been reluctant to challenge them, largely in the interests of ‘unity’. When they have been called to account for mistreating those supposedly in their care, they have paid no heed.

According to them, they are defending the authority of Scripture. But by taking the view that their own version of biblical truth is infallible, they have blocked other Christians from engaging seriously with what the Bible actually contains.

Some have even pushed their governments to pass laws that victimise not only LGBT people but also others who accept same-sex partnerships. So theologians and other worshippers can be arrested and jailed for studying the Bible and sharing their findings.

This ties in with an autocratic style of leadership which fits better into feudal settings or certain types of corporations than churches supposedly following Jesus’ way. He urged his followers, “you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven” (Matthew 23.8-9).

He also said, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you” (Luke 22.25-26) – a message which appears to have been lost on some church leaders.

In January 2016 a gathering of primates (the chief bishops of each church in the Anglican Communion) had tried to bar the Episcopal Church from taking part in international bodies for three years. This was a punishment for moving towards celebrating marriages of same-sex couples, in the belief that this was in keeping with Scripture and the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

However it was soon pointed out that this (all-male and supposedly entirely heterosexual) event, which was not even a formal primates’ meeting, did not have authority to do this. Though primates have had some success in extending their power in the ACC, they do not have complete control.

Some church leaders in other parts of the world have agreed to carry on discriminating against LGBT people in order not to upset fellow-primates, though they would prefer to be more inclusive. However the Episcopal Church has not backed down. In addition it is going ahead with sending representatives to the ACC in April.

Some GAFCON leaders have refused to attend as a result. They have tried at times to present themselves as speaking for Anglicans of African, Asian and Latin American descent. But in reality divisions about theology and church leadership cut across continents. James Tengatenga, the former bishop of Southern Malawi and now chair of the ACC, is among those who has pointed out the limits of primates’ power and taken flak as a result.

“It seems that the rejection of the moral and spiritual authority of the Primates by the ACC Chairman, without public rebuke from the Archbishop of Canterbury, has become infectious and is encouraging further breakdown of godly order in the Communion”, Wabukala lamented in his statement.

But the response of Kenyan delegates is tame compared to the revolt of ordinary Anglicans in Malawi a decade or so ago. The then primate had tried to bar Nicholas Henderson, a priest of their choice, from becoming a bishop, because he had previously been chair of the Modern Churchpeople’s Union, which was regarded as too inclusive. Local clergy and laypeople rose up in rebellion, warmly welcoming Henderson while refusing to let Archbishop Malango into diocesan headquarters.

Some archbishops may seek to 'play God' with the lives of their 'flock', making decisions which cause some members great harm without bothering even to give them a hearing. But such leaders are not God, however politely they are treated by church members, who ultimately seek to serve One who is greater and holier.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on these issues. She is  author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.