The End of the Worldwide Anglican Communion?

An article is making its rounds on social media, originally published in the 8 January issue of (“The Anglican schism over sexuality marks the end of a global church”) that, in my view, misses the point entirely. In Andrew Brown’s account, sexuality is the issue over which the communion is divided; first the ordination of women and then the ordination of gays and lesbians. Mr Brown hits much closer to the mark (but still misses) when he invokes the central role empire has played first in the formation of the Worldwide Anglican Communion and then in its dissolution. Yes, it is largely post-colonial Anglicans who are most uncomfortable with the northern church’s welcome of women, gays, and lesbians into full fellowship. But this discomfort begs the broader issue of why the eighteenth and nineteenth century Anglicanism they were fed is so well suited to the indigenous hybridizations of authoritarianism they are now re-selling to their former colonizers.


Mr Brown’s analysis misses the mark because it takes the eighteenth rather than the sixteenth century as its point of departure. To be sure, if we begin with Queen Victoria’s empire, then all cats are grey. However, if we begin, as we must, in the sixteenth century with the Elizabethan Settlement (1558) then a very different story (and a very different communion) takes shape. For in the sixteenth century it was not the British, but the Dutch who owned the seas; and it was not the Church of England, but their Dutch Calvinist cousins across the Channel who were exporting their peculiar variety of Christianity to all corners of the earth. Yet, at least in one respect, Mr Brown is spot on. For even if we begin our story in the sixteenth century, the Church of England has never strayed far from the intensely political character of faith. From the very start, when in a fit of matrimonial passion and monarchical rage, the British sovereign chose to take his ball and go home, the Church of England has openly owned the political character of its communion. To be sure, this mix of politics and religion, which has been so much the mark of Christian faith from the very first century down to the last, does not in fact differentiate the sixteenth century from the eighteenth, nineteenth, or twentieth. But at least the Anglicans owned, even celebrated, this political inflection of faith, not as Rome or the eastern Church were inclined, as evidence of divine presence in the world, but rather as evidence of human presence. Human beings shape faith: always have, always will. And that’s not a bad thing, but a good thing.

Is the institutional church an infallible instrument? If it is, then the Elizabethan Settlement is theologically flawed. Is the British Sovereign the leader of the Worldwide Anglican Communion? If she is, then the Episcopal Church has, from the very outset, been renegade. As many British subjects recognized in 1783, you cannot simultaneously remain Anglican and pledge your allegiance to the United States. And so, at the conclusion of the American Revolution, thousands of Anglicans piled onto ships destined for Great Britain. Similarly, when Roman Catholics and Protestants agreed not to kill one another over differences in their beliefs and practices; or when the Church of England adopted liturgical practices virtually indistinguishable from those found in the Roman Church; or when, in contrast to continental Protestants in general and Calvinists in particular, the Church of England promoted the trinity of Bible, Tradition, and Reason as the foundation of Christian faith, they minted the anomalous “third way” which, from the very start, has deeply troubled and confounded Christians of a more conservative bent.

Survey church history from the first through the sixteenth centuries and what you will find is a long, unending series of political, cultural, and theological compromises. That is what the Christian Church does. From the moment that Paul stood up to Peter and James and insisted that full communion be offered to non-Jewish believers, the Christian Church has been in the business of compromising; or, as we prefer to think of it, listening to the Spirit. And it is in this light that Gafcon, the so-called “Global Anglican Future,” is exposed as the most diabolical kind of Christian heresy: the heresy of hubris. For it suggests that some time in the nineteenth century, when Anglican missionaries, certain of the truth of their cultural and religious superiority, fanned out across the planet to give empire its proper religious inflection, the Spirit delivered God’s final message and then fell silent.

If this be the revenge of empire, so be it. The question is, why has this revenge not run its course?

Let us suppose, for the moment, that the Anglican communion had from the beginning opposed the the British Empire’s mission of wealth and labor extraction. Let us suppose that the Anglican communion had renounced British privilege. And let us suppose that members of the Worldwide Anglican Communion had leveraged their considerable wealth and power — behind the Unitarians, Episcopalians are the second wealthiest Christian denomination per capita in the United States — redressing the huge social and economic injustices their brand of extractive capitalism and neo-imperialism has promoted around the globe. Now, let us ask ourselves why it is that we in the capitalist north have hewn a clear path toward gender equality while our brothers and sisters in the global south have remained mired in the nineteenth century.

One possible conclusion we could draw is that the Spirit speaks most clearly to the privileged. We support gender equality because we are beneficiaries of the best schools, safe neighborhoods, good health care, strong public institutions, stable democratic process, and republican values. Our brothers and sisters in the global south are hostile to gender equality because they have been deprived of these goods. Yet another way to inflect this argument is to note that we cannot hear the Spirit together when half of us are hoarding the world’s goods. In nearly all respects, the nineteenth century was an unmitigated disaster, not only for the victims of European empire, but also for the thousands of British families compelled out of economic necessity to sell their own children into the workhouses and mines that fueled British economic supremacy. This was the social and economic climate that lent itself to the gospel now embraced by Gafcon: authoritarian, ruthless, unyielding, heartless, and, above all, uncompromising.

If the Worldwide Anglican Communion in the global north wishes to make its peace with its separated brothers and sisters to the south, it will require more than good words, wishes, and prayers. Anglicans and Episcopalians everywhere need to take a hard look at their wealth and privilege and at the institutions and regulatory frameworks that have made this wealth and privilege possible. In short, if the global south is to join the north again, it will be because Christians in the global north have renounced not simply the anachronistic theology of the nineteenth century, but, more importantly, its economic and social foundations.