Media coverage of the 2008 Lambeth Conference of bishops has largely focused attention on divisions among Anglicans. These are often regarded as conflicts between ‘liberal’ Westerners and ‘traditionalists’ from other parts of the world. Tensions based on cultural differences and international rivalries do indeed play a part, as research such as that of Miranda K. Hassett (Anglican Communion in Crisis) demonstrates. But the divisions are not so neat: ‘evangelicals’ and ‘Southerners’ can be found on both ‘sides’. Indeed, attempts by supposedly ‘conservative’ reformers to rid the Anglican Communion of what they regard as wrong ideas and practices hamper the quest for biblical faithfulness and undermine respect for the spiritual insights emerging from the South.
A straightforward division between West and South?
In a recent lecture, ‘Here, there and everywhere: to where does the Compass Rose point?’, Canon Gregory Cameron, Deputy Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, discussed the future of international Anglicanism (the symbol of which is known as the Compass Rose). He appeared largely to accept the claim of Global South Anglican to represent Anglicans in the South, and endorse the drive by reformers to introduce a covenant restricting provincial autonomy, while advocating some degree of tolerance and openness, and warning against obsession with homosexuality.
He argued that the turmoil of recent years is closely linked with a shift away from the former dependency on long-established churches of the British Isles and USA by other provinces, which Western Anglicans have failed properly to recognise. While ‘very real personal and continuing bonds of study, friendship, identity, and mutual discipleship… still sustain the life of the Communion’, ‘alongside these ties of friendship - the so-called bonds of affection which have been described as holding the Anglican Communion together – there has lurked an unconscious sense of superiority and dependency: a sense that all the really educated theologians find their homes in Oxbridge, and that all the really big money comes from the United States.’
Canon Cameron claims that ‘the dark side to the life of the Anglican Communion is that too often the theological graduates of the seminaries of the NATO alliance unconsciously adopt an air of educational superiority, while American church leaders assume ‘implicit obligations… on the recipients of their largesse.’
Numerical growth among Anglicans ‘has been almost entirely in the South’, and ‘Today it is a truism to say that the average Anglican is a black woman under the age of 30, who earns two dollars a day, has a family of at least three children, has lost two close relatives to AIDs, and who will walk four miles to Church for a three hour service on a Sunday. These are the realities of the Anglican Communion, and probably quite alien to the Diocese of St Asaph’ (the Welsh diocese where he was speaking).
So, according to Canon Cameron, it is not surprising that ‘a growing impatience with the cultural and financial dominance of the NATO aspects of Communion life, and with it, a growing critique of the Churches of the West. Not only are we in the West shrinking in numbers unlike the growing Churches of the South; for many critics, the Churches of the West are losing a sense of their identity as they get lulled into the liberalism and relativism which are presumed to be the hallmarks of the modern Western society… Increasingly, the Churches of the South have asserted their identity in the Anglican Communion, and this is an identity which is uncompromising in its commitment to the supreme authority of the scriptures as God’s Word written; which is content to see the Thirty-Nine Articles as the benchmark of contemporary Anglican life; and which sees itself contending for the salvation of souls in the face of a lively Pentecostalism and a militant Islam.’ The ‘proclamation of traditional doctrinal and moral positions’ would also help Anglicans to deepen unity with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
Canon Cameron does advocate some degree of mutual respect for ‘boundary markers’. Supposedly ‘For conservatives, the boundary stones which mark out the territory set out in scripture for those who seek to be faithful to God are being dislodged. Central elements of Christian obedience, the authority of Scripture and even the divinity of Christ, are being casually moved to the fringes of Anglican identity… Equally, those who might be labelled liberals are becoming increasingly distressed because they see vital boundary stones about Anglican attitudes towards diversity, inclusiveness, tolerance, patient debate and discernment being replaced by the narrow strait jacket of a particular view of orthodoxy; worse it appears that the traditional autonomy of the different Churches in Anglicanism is being replaced by a grab for power and the attempt to impose centralisation’.
He urges acceptance of a covenant which will ‘articulate the boundary stones of Anglicanism, not as something new or alien, but as a clear statement of those fundamentals which we hold as central to our expression of Christian faith’. From his perspective, ‘It would be no less than a tragedy and a real wound to the Body of Christ, if we cannot find the way to sustain one another in the rich and diverse experience of Communion.’
While many people share Canon Cameron’s hope that the Anglican Communion will stay together, his diagnosis of the causes of division and prescription of a cure are questionable.
To begin with, there are profoundly different views around about what orthodoxy means, including the implications of a truly Trinitarian faith and the meaning of the cross. There are plenty of Anglicans (including evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics, middle Anglicans and ‘liberals’) who – while willing to remain in communion with the extreme ‘conservatives’ who condemn and sometimes appear to despise them – regard them as insufficiently rigorous in applying Scripture and upholding tradition. It is indeed important to promote discussion on Biblical and traditional insights into, say, the incarnation and the eucharist, but charges and counter-charges of unorthodox teaching, even heresy, working their way through the equivalent of an international church court might not be the best way to achieve this!
What is more, Anglicans in the South are far from united in supporting radical reform movements (sometimes misleadingly labelled ‘conservative’) such as Global South Anglican (GSA), and the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FOCA) emerging from the Global Anglican Future Conference in mid-2008. Among the strongest opposition has come from churches such as those of South Africa and the Global Centre (bringing together church leaders in most of the Latin American provinces), while disenchanted members of the Episcopal Church in the USA are among the most vocal supporters and key financial backers. Even in Nigeria, where the primate (most senior bishop) Peter Akinola has been a key figure in the drive to discipline or expel those not in agreement with his view of Biblical truth, tough measures have been required to keep church members in line: it is clear that he does not speak for all, even in the ranks of the bishops.
While categories such as ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, ‘the West’ and ‘the South’ are far from meaningless and can sometimes be useful, these are often closely interspersed or overlapping, like colours in a batik. Laying ‘boundary stones’ in such circumstances is not easy, and may cause more problems than it solves. There may be something to learn from the experience of those officials in colonial times and afterwards who were responsible for classifying people and creating territorial borders: neat divisions, so much a feature of modern society, do not always match the complexity of reality, and what is intended to settle disputes may end up inflaming them.
Different kinds of enlightenment
Racism is indeed at work in the church and the world, and many in churches such as the Episcopal Church of the USA would be the first to admit that freeing themselves of its pernicious influence is an ongoing task: prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behaviour are deeply engrained, often unconscious. Indeed, the notion that Anglican differences are a reflection of the gap between ‘North’ and ‘South’ or ‘East’ and ‘West’ may play into racist stereotyping.
It is sometimes assumed that enlightened Westerners, assisted by a modern scientific worldview where evidence is valued and the distinction between metaphorical and literal truth recognised, have progressed beyond the Biblical literalism and premodern views of sexuality still dominant in less advanced societies. Sometimes this is put the other way round: supposedly, in some societies the gospel is still preserved in its pure form, while in the West, corrupted by materialism and cultural relativism, Christianity is usually practised only in a diluted form if at all! But the emergence of divisions can perhaps be viewed in a different way.
The Enlightenment had many features, positive and negative. Benefits included huge advances in medicine and public health, and a passion for freedom – linked in some cases with inspiration of, and by, black leaders such as Haitian revolutionary and former slave Toussaint L’Ouverture. There was however also a tendency by some thinkers, whether atheist or Christian, to view the universe in a somewhat mechanical way and be over-confident about one’s own freedom from bias, as well as regarding white middle and upper class men (if suitably manly) as natural leaders of, or role-models for, everyone else.
The missionary movement often combined heroic and sincere concern for people of other countries with an uncritical attitude to imperialism and an understanding of God which fitted in neatly with prevailing social hierarchies and power relations. For instance, in a sermon by Charles Richard Sumner, Lord Bishop of Winchester, published in the proceedings of the Church Missionary Society for Africa and the East, 1827-28, he exhorted his listeners, ‘Brotherly love will not rest satisfied without striving to add new members to the household and family of Christ’s church. It concerts aggressive measures against the powers of darkness.’ Even in a nominally Christian country, ‘a war is to be maintained against the united influence of ignorance and sin; the channels of divine truth are to be cleansed and purified’.
According to the Bishop, the British had a sacred duty overseas: ‘The very purposes of Providence would seem to be frustrated, if we failed to become a missionary nation. The standard of the cross, through God’s mercies, has been long planted on our shores. Is it not fitting that our hands should be lent to the task of rearing it in those spiritual deserts which are not yet the kingdoms of God and of his Christ? The doctrines of Christianity, by the divine favour, have been preserved in our Protestant church, free, as we believe, from material error, and as pure and powerful for the salvation of souls as in the days of their original revelation to man.’
But the encounters through which Anglicanism spread turned out to be a two-way process. While some converts accepted all that they were told, some in part held on to other beliefs and customs; likewise, while some Western Christians remained convinced that they had much to teach but nothing to learn, others realised that there was more to the peoples they encountered than uncivilised barbarism and heathen wickedness, or the chance of acquiring cheap raw materials or labour. Perhaps, though the language of Christianity might get closer than any other to describing the indescribable love and goodness of the divine, the Word at work from the beginning of creation, the Light that lightens everyone, had already been present in what was best in the cultures of the lands where they arrived. Old certainties were called into question: while people and communities might be called to particular tasks, truth and beauty could sometimes be found in unfamiliar places.
And when Westerners returned from the colonies or sent back writings and film, and the colonised and their descendants arrived in the West, others in those societies might also find themselves prompted to question what they had taken for granted. Freedom from material error could not always be guaranteed. While the colonies were profoundly changed, so too were the imperial powers, in obvious and more subtle ways. Even if the newcomers were themselves convinced of the superiority of the West and the infallibility of missionaries’ views of God, their very difference, ‘otherness’, presented a challenge – and an opportunity for spiritual growth.
Demands for justice by peoples of the colonies, and ex-colonies which remained economically subservient to the major powers and multinational corporations, as well as by those of African, Asian and Latin American descent in Europe and North America, were a further factor in the development of ‘the West’ as it is today, and Anglicans within it. For instance, during the American Civil War, and later in the time of the civil rights movement, certain white Episcopal Church (TEC) leaders – while not entirely free from any aspect of racism – made choices which led to them being labelled as ‘race traitors’, despised and even physically attacked by those opposed to racial equality. Prominent figures in TEC have also encountered intense hostility for their opposition to US foreign policy where this involved overriding the rights and interests of people in the South: their allegiance was first and foremost not to a particular state or ethnic community but rather to a Lord and Saviour whose love broke down barriers and drew to the centre those at the margins.
The difficulty of separating the influence of West and East, North and South, became increasingly apparent. If, say, Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu who spent time in South Africa and was inspired largely by Jesus, helped to develop a movement based on nonviolent resistance, which influenced Martin Luther King Jr and other Christian leaders in the USA, who sometimes worked closely with people of other faiths such as Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (also an admirer of Jesus) and Rabbi Abraham Herschel, and in turn influenced others, labels are hard to affix.
More ‘conservative’ people of faith also experienced a meeting of minds despite cultural differences and geographical distance. For instance ‘theological graduates of the seminaries of the NATO alliance’ include John Rucyahana of Rwanda (Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, in Pennsylvania) and Peter Akinola (Virginia Theological Seminary), who were later to be leaders of the Anglican radical reform movement. Religious movements offering a sense of belonging and absolute certainty amidst rapid social and cultural change held a huge attraction for many people in the South but also in parts of the West. Sometimes this led to a growth in dangerous forms of fundamentalism, where minorities or other communities were demonised, or there was an alarming desire for Armageddon or the equivalent.
Meanwhile many Anglicans and other Christians in the South were striving to decolonise their minds and encounter a Christ who was with and for the poor and suffering in their midst. As nations of the South achieved at least nominal independence, senior politicians and business leaders often tended to ally themselves with the most powerful in the West, in arrangements where their own interests were served (more independent leaders were sometimes deposed following interference by Western governments, as in the Congo, Indonesia and Chile).
While some in the church did not question the status quo too deeply provided they themselves were not too harshly treated, others took a bold stance in favour of those with least wealth and power (especially women and children). Their theology reflected their attempts, against this background, to seek the reign of God, rather than that of any corporation, dictator or ruling elite. Where Christians found themselves working closely with people of other faiths who were also committed to love and justice, this often prompted further reflection. According to the Sermon on the Mount, peacemakers, the merciful and those persecuted in the cause of justice were blessed: what did this mean, when some were of other religions?
It is noteworthy that the large amounts of theological reflection which have gone on in the South in recent decades, reflected in prayer and liturgy, discussions, theological books and articles, sermons, talks and so forth, are barely reflected in the pronouncements of the ‘conservative’ reformers. These far more reflect the absolute certainties and self-belief of the Lord Bishop of Winchester and his associates in the early nineteenth century. Indeed, the impact of some of their demands, for instance around interfaith relations, would shut down much of the theological thinking which has gone on in Asia and other continents, and probably split Anglican churches.
There are exceptions. For instance there is a thoughtful piece on ‘Witnessing and Teaching the Christian Faith in a Multi-religious Society’, written by Bishop Olubayo Obijole of Akoko in Nigeria, in Anglican Catechism in Outline (ACIO): The Interim Report of the Global South Anglican Theological Formation and Education Task Force. It offers a tantalising glimpse of what could be achieved if there was greater dialogue – even if this sometimes involves heated debate – and sharing of experiences and reflections, rather than shouting across fences, or the prospect of judicial-type proceedings to root out ‘heresy’.
Looking to the future
The Covenant for Communion in Mission, commended by the Anglican Consultative Council, includes pledges to ‘Recognise Jesus in each other’s contexts and lives’, ‘Support one another in our participation in God’s mission’, ‘Meet to share common purpose and explore differences and disagreements’, ‘Work together for the sustainability of God’s creation’ and ‘Live into the promise of God’s reconciliation for ourselves and for the world’. This perhaps deserves to be studied, and acted on, more widely.
Much of the richest theological reflection by Anglicans and other Christians in the South is available only in limited-circulation periodicals or conference papers, if at all, and has not been read by many in the West. Strengthening the capacity to share ideas internationally, while recognising the crucial importance of the discussions which go on at a local level about Christian service and witness in particular settings, would be helpful. Indeed, some of the work of Anglican theologians throughout the world could perhaps be put in simpler language and made available cheaply: there is sometimes a gap between ‘popular’ books and leaflets, which are all too often simplistic, and the sometimes excellent but inaccessible material which has emerged over the decades.
Again, the history of how certain ideas developed in Anglican circles perhaps needs to be retold more often, especially for the benefit of those in societies where a large part of the population are under twenty years of age.
There are no easy solutions to the current divisions among Anglicans. But, whatever structures emerge, ultimately Christians continue to profess belief in the same Saviour and share the same planet, influenced by and influencing one another. The internet, other electronic media and interpersonal contact, outside as well as within formal church structures, are being used to foster understanding and thinking on complex issues confronting Christians in different societies, and this can be taken further, so that strangers can be encountered more often as neighbours. In time, greater consensus is likely to emerge, but until then it is to be hoped that those in both the South and West who are trying to promote better communication, and recognition that there are different perspectives on ‘orthodoxy’, will persevere.
Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi is author of Re-writing history, a research paper on the Episcopal Church, among several others. She has contributed several chapters to the new book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008).