Deep Differences Could Tear Anglican Churches Apart

(Photo by Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images)

Dennis Lennox Former executive director, Republican Party of the Virgin Islands
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Anglican prelates are in the historic precincts of Canterbury, England, as the world’s largest Protestant denomination struggles to maintain unity.

Hosted by the Most Rev. and Rt. Hon. Justin Welby, lord archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, the meeting of primates, as the heads of the 39 national or regional churches historically and ecclesiastically aligned with the Church of England are called, comes at a time of increasingly deep differences.

On one hand there is the establishment, underpinned by both the traditional deference shown to the archbishop of Canterbury and the loyalty that inevitably comes with the influence peddling of the wealthy U.S.-based Episcopal Church.

The establishment seeks to preserve the Anglican Communion as it exists now, despite the very real possibility that the already deep differences could become a schism with churches in the so-called Global South — Africa, South America and Southeast Asia — ceasing to recognize Welby, or his eventual successor, as the spiritual head of Anglicanism.

On the other side is a diverse alliance of theological conservatives, including many Americans whose departure from the Episcopal Church decimated what was practically a state church in some parts of the United States. Traditionalists started leaving after the ordination of women and revisions to liturgical worship in the late 1970s, though the big split came following the consecration of the first openly gay bishop in 2003.

While not formally recognized by the establishment-controlled Anglican Communion, the Americans who left to start the Anglican Church in North America are backed by Global South churches, which in most cases are larger and faster growing than Anglican churches elsewhere. Case in point: St. Mary’s Cathedral in Kuala Lumpur hosts an astonishing 12 services every Sunday, despite Malaysia being a Muslim majority country.

It would be too simplistic to say the deep differences in Anglicanism are over sexuality.

Yes, the ways in which some Anglican churches have unilaterally changed traditional teachings on homosexuality, the definition of marriage and the ordination of non-celibate or partnered gay clergy is a dividing issue.

However, there are much bigger issues facing Anglicanism writ large.

Those issues are not the cause célèbres — climate change, refugees, human trafficking, poverty — that the establishment will write into the talking points of the primates meeting as they try to propagate a message of unity, despite the obvious division.

The real issue is the complete collapse of the Church of England, which to this day enjoys unique privileges as the state church of England but not other parts of the United Kingdom, and other once-prominent churches.

As recently reported, only 15 percent of Britons self-identify as Anglican, the lowest number ever recorded. Moreover, only 3 percent of those aged 18 and 24 said they belonged to the Church of England. In the United States, the number of Episcopalians dropped by 30 percent between 1980 and 2015, according to Episcopal statistics.

These numbers are devastating, particularly when one considers just how responsible the Anglican churches of the British Isles, Canada and the United States were in the spreading of Christianity. And in an ironic twist of history, the churches that just a century ago barely existed are now sending missionaries to restore the faith in England and elsewhere.

The conservatives argue too many Anglican leaders have allowed secular culture and political ideology to influence their faith when it is their religion that should guide their worldview.

Proselytizing is all but ignored, as conversion is no longer politically correct — some Anglicans have even apologized for the missionaries who converted indigenous peoples, claiming it was cultural imperialism. It’s also doubtful that few in the establishment would be willing to publicly say Christianity is the only pathway to eternal salvation.

There is no question that the pageantry of prelates processing through Canterbury Cathedral reflects the shared history of Anglicans, but Anglicanism’s center of gravity has shifted to the Global South.

Welby’s challenge will be to assuage those who rightly request a louder voice and leadership roles that reflect their numerical majority in the Anglican Communion with the interests of the moneyed and historically important Anglican establishment, whose advancement of social and political causes shows their obliviousness to the greater challenges they face.

Dennis Lennox is a public affairs consultant and political commentator. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

Perspectives expressed in op-eds are not those of The Daily Caller.