Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and symbolic (though in actuality rather powerless) leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, is by all accounts a very pleasant individual. He has been trying valiantly to keep within the sprawling Anglican fold, estimated to be between 70-80 million adherents worldwide, the progressives and traditionalists who have been in each other’s hair for several years, mostly over issues which originate, so to speak, below the belt. The hot-button issues all have to do with sex and gender: the ordination of women as priests and consecration as bishops; the ordination and consecration of gay men and lesbians; the blessing or marriage of same-sex couples; and abortion.
The Episcopal Church in the United States started the ordination of women in 1978 and consecrated its first female bishop in 1989 (getting special credit from progressives, since she is African-American). At the 1988 Lambeth Conference, a decennial event which brings together bishops from all over the world, Penny Jamieson, who at the time answered to the remarkable title of Bishop of Aotoaroa, New Zealand and Polynesia, proposed the principle that no bishop should be compelled to ordain a woman if that goes against his conscience—someone else should do it. The last straw for traditionalists came in 2003, when Gene Robinson, an openly gay man with a live-in partner, was elected as Bishop of New Hampshire. The traditionalists have been going ballistic ever since, with schism a real possibility.
The dispute has a very significant geographical dimension. While there are traditionalists everywhere, the progressives have been dominant among white Anglicans in Europe and North America (and in their outposts, as it were, in Australia and New Zealand—I don’t know how the Polynesians come out). The majority of Anglicans today are non-white. If one looks at photographs of the Lambeth Conference, there are more black and brown faces every decade. Indeed, demographically speaking, Africa is the most Anglican continent. And African Anglicans are overwhelmingly traditionalist, some Anglo-Catholic, most Evangelical. There is an intriguing irony to this. For a long time progressive Anglicans in the West were saying “We have to listen to the voices of the Third World!” Well, those voices have now been heard loud and clear: “Homosexuality is a sin!” – “Female bishops are in violation of Biblical teaching!” – “Abortion is murder!” African bishops have been in the lead of the traditionalist movement within the Anglican Communion. Possibly the final irony is that traditionalist parishes, splitting off from the Episcopal Church in America, have put themselves under the authority of African bishops.
To use the slogan of liberation movements in southern Africa - a lutta continua! – “the struggle goes on!” Progressives believe that they are the vanguard of progress, and so they push forward. On the homosexuality front, the commission that deals with the appointment of bishops in the Church of England is now putting forth Jeffrey John, an openly gay man, as one of two recommended candidates to become Bishop of Southwark (a part of London). There is a slightly bizarre and very English aspect to this event. As head of the Church of England, it is the Queen who must appoint all its bishops. But as with most of her duties, the Queen’s role is largely symbolic—she must ultimately act on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. David Cameron, who currently holds this office, has worked assiduously to move the Conservative Party away from its image of stodgy traditionalism in social matters—sort of putting a miniskirt on Maggie Thatcher. As part of this effort, Cameron has made some strongly pro-gay statements, and it will be interesting to see what he will do in this case.
Although he had previously urged the Western branches of the Anglican Communion to curb their enthusiasm for gay bishops, but perhaps sensing an opportunity, Rowan Williams this time went along with the commission’s recommendation. An important difference between this case and the one of the New Hampshire bishop is that Jeffrey John, although he too lives with a partner, claims that he is celibate. It seems that, in terms of Anglican ecclesiology, a frustrated gay bishop is preferable to a happy one.
Something else has just happened in the continuing lutta, this time on the women front. The Church of England has ordained women priests since 1994, and they now represent about a third of the active clergy. But, being more conservative than their American cousins, Anglicans in the home country are still debating whether women could also be bishops. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has proposed a compromise to the synod meeting at the time of writing—and it is significant that he is himself an African. He suggested that, in any diocese headed by a woman, a man should be appointed as a “complimentary male bishop” to minister to those who don’t like to deal with the female one. Alas, the synod (which functions as a sort of ecclesiastical parliament) rejected the compromise.
It seems to me that the efforts by both archbishops to find a middle ground is in the best Anglican tradition. After all, leaving aside its rather unsavory beginnings in Henry VIII’s adulterous episode, the Church of England defined itself as a sensible via media between the extremes of Rome and Geneva, and its overseas offspring continued in this mellow course. Yet the suggested compromise reminded me of an institution in Orthodox Judaism—in Yiddish, the shabbes goy—a Gentile employed by a synagogue to do the jobs not permitted to Jews on the Sabbath (like turning the lights on and off).
This is all quite juicy, and it is not surprising that it has captured the attention of media not generally interested in church affairs. They have reported quite accurately that African Anglicans have more conservative moral views than their Western coreligionists. What they have generally missed is that morality is just the tip of the iceberg. The moral views themselves are the result of a literalist view of the Bible as the inspired and therefore authoritative Word of God. Much more fundamental is the fact that Christianity throughout the Global South, not just the Anglican variety and not just in Africa, is animated (literally!) by a robust supernaturalism that is rare in the West (except perhaps in the more charismatic movements within Evangelical Protestantism and in the remnants of traditional folk Catholicism). I think it is fair to say that Christians in Africa, Latin America and Asia live in vibrant proximity to the supernatural world. They claim to experience miracles of healing (including occasionally the raising of the dead), the power of prayer to change mundane developments, the exorcism of demons, prophecy, “speaking in tongues”—all the other “gifts of the spirit” that were in the center of the life of the early church. The recent works by the historians Philip Jenkins and Mark Noll have given us a clear picture of this North/South dichotomy. One can begin to understand the importance of this when one puts it in the context of a dramatic shift: The demographic center of Christianity is shifting to the Global South. The majority of Christians in the contemporary world may already live, and if not will soon live in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Will they become more like us, as progressives of course believe? Or is it possible that we will become more like them, which traditionalists hope for? I think that, empirically, it is not yet possible to give an assured answer.