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Anglican Communion and Covenant: A History

January 11, 2011

An excellent overview of the Anglican Communion by my sisters’ father-in-law, who is soon moving to Cheltenham to take up the Rector’s job at St Mary’s with St Matthew’s. You can find the post in it’s orginal context here:

Epiphany Sunday 9th January 2011

Today is Anglican Communion Sunday, which as the opening line of a sermon designed to attract and hold your attention, may not score very highly. Certainly not compared with last Sunday when I could begin with ‘Over Christmas my wife gave me hell’ – referring of course to a book she gave as a present. But it is Anglican Communion Sunday, and a fairly troubled communion it is too. So on my last Sunday here as Canon Chancellor before I go to Cheltenham to take up an appointment there, I would like to talk about the Anglican Communion. But before I do so I would like to thank Bishop John for inviting me to the Chancellor’s stall and to the Dean and my fellow Chapter members for making my time as a member of the Cathedral Chapter one of the highlights of my ministry in this diocese. I have a deep love and respect for the Cathedral staff, both the ordained and the administrative staff and music makers. It has been a privilege to walk with you for a while.

The Anglican Church began by accident – or if you prefer, by grace – when King Henry VIII looked to assert his authority over against the Pope and found a compliant Archbishop of Canterbury in Thomas Cranmer, little knowing that he was a zealous Protestant reformer, inspired by Martin Luther and then John Calvin, but no carbon copy of either. He could take the Protestant church in these isles only so far while Henry ruled but when he died and Edward came to the throne he put his foot down to make this church truly Protestant, before Mary came to the throne when he was duly martyred for his efforts. It was in the time of the first Queen Elizabeth that the shape of our Anglican Church emerged and it was a compromise. It was reformed – we only have to look at the 39 Articles to see that – but no one claimed it was a new church. It remained the Catholic church with the Roman definitely removed. It was God’s Church in this place, both Catholic and Reformed.

Now this was also the time of the discovery of the New World across the Atlantic, and as men and women travelled from Europe to settle there, they took their churches with them, many of them fleeing persecution and determined to be able to have churches in freedom where there would be no state or established church as in Britain. So among the Anglicans who went there was no possibility of recreating the Church of England with its strong state links. In 1789 it became the Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA, and that was the start of a strong tradition of independent Anglicanism. Initially missionary work from the Anglican Church as represented by the oldest societies – the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) and the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) began with a concern to provide chaplains for expatriate British Anglicans, to ensure they were provided for spiritually – a worthy if rather limited aim. It was around the time of the great campaign against the slave trade at the end of the 18th century and start of the 19th that things began to change and there was a drive to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with – to use the language of the day – the natives. Within the Anglican Church this was taken up by the latest society – the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and then the older societies and others as well. By and large Anglican missionaries went to areas that are now Commonwealth countries but were then areas of colonial interest. But this was not exclusively the case – there are Anglican churches in South America, Korea and Japan, that were never colonies. Generally Anglican missionaries planted churches that looked rather like mother back in England – using 1662 Book of Common Prayer and with the familiar pattern of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. With rare exceptions  into the twentieth century Bishops were typically drawn from England – much more so than Wales. In fact most Welsh Bishops were English! The different societies exported their different Anglican flavours. So missionaries from CMS planted churches that were evangelical and suspicious of ritual. Whereas SPG and the splendidly named Universities Mission to Central Africa planted churches that were more Catholic in flavour with loads of ritual. So a country like Tanzania has a real mixture. The north of the country was evangelised by CMS and so it’s low church evangelical, whereas the south of the country is high church.

Until well into the twentieth century the Anglican church throughout the world was led by men (I use that word advisedly) who were white and western-educated. It all began to change in parallel with the whole process of political independence. Bishops were appointed from within – Africans for African dioceses and Asians for Asian. The 1960’s and 70’s saw a rise of independent Anglican Provinces throughout Africa often with an expatriate Archbishop followed by an African. In India the path of the Anglican Church ran rather differently because it fed into the ecumenical churches of North and South India – a fascinating story, but one regarded with some suspicion by more traditional Anglicans. We ought here to mention our own Church in Wales which was disestablished after a long and bruising fight in 1920. Since then we have had our own constitution and our own Archbishop. Along with independence many of the Anglican Provinces around the world have developed our own liturgies. No longer are we held together by the 1662 Prayer Book. So – with all this increasing diversity the question has naturally come up – what can hold all this lot together? A shared history is important, but surely it is not enough. The first Lambeth Conference was called by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1878. Most Anglican Bishops didn’t bother going – boycotts are nothing new.

It is very much the case now that the largest Anglican churches are in Africa. Not only are they the largest but they are growing. The biggest Anglican Church is Nigeria; next is Uganda. Wales is way down the list. If we look worldwide the typical Anglican is a thirty year old African mother who grows most of her family’s food. Mothers Union members know this. The majority of Anglican Bishops are black or brown, although in relation to the number of practising Anglicans in Britain and North America the number of Bishops is disproportionately large in comparison to the rest of the world – by a very long way.

I hope this rather potted history gives you some idea of why the Anglican Communion is where it is today. In the Lambeth Conferences of 1988 and even more so in 1998, many of the African and Asian Bishops felt they were not being heard. The western-style of debating resolutions and then voting on them was culturally alien to many whose command of English was not brilliant. There was a growing resentment of the relative power of churches in Britain and North America who had money and plenty of articulate spokespeople, but other Bishops could see the decline in the number of worshippers and the scale of the challenge to re-evangelise the west. Many, coming from poor dioceses, felt patronised. The Anglican churches of the non-western world tend to be conservative in their theology and ethics. They have their weaknesses; having worked for six years in Uganda and kept in touch with many overseas friends, I know. On the other hand there is a strongly independent Episcopal Church in North America. A crunch point came when Gene Robinson, a divorced man in a gay relationship, was elected as a Bishop in 2003 and consecrated the following year. It was their legal right but spectacularly insensitive with regard to most Anglicans around the world. There were tensions already in the Anglican Communion, but this was a match to light dry tinder. So it was no surprise when about a quarter of Anglican Bishops around the world decided to boycott the Lambeth Conference of 2008 in spite of the fact that Archbishop Rowan Williams did not invite Gene Robinson to attend. Somewhat disingenuously there was another conference organised in Jerusalem – the Global Anglican Future Conference. This has fed into a Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans for those who have signed up to the Jerusalem Statement. In North America itself Anglicans who opposed the more liberal direction of their church represented most clearly in the consecration of Gene Robinson and reaffirmed last year with the consecration of the lesbian Mary Glasspool in California – these Anglicans have come together in the Anglican Church of North America under the leadership of now Archbishop Bob Duncan. Now despite attempts by some like our own Archbishop Barry Morgan to dismiss this as a small minority, the number of Anglicans involved in this church is increasing rapidly and is already much larger than our own Church in Wales. I was at a conference in South Africa in October and was at a seminar led by Anglican Bishops from around the world, offering a dynamic  leadership in terms of mission and faithfulness to the historic Gospel that I fear is not always clear in parts of the western church.

So does this mean the end of the road for the Anglican Communion? I hope not but fear so. I think Archbishop Rowan Williams a wonderful grace-filled man with an impossible job. You may have heard of the Anglican Covenant, a kind of agreement between the different Anglican Provinces. Our own Bishop Gregory has been very much involved with the Covenant; it has been a long drawn-out process of drafting and re-drafting and debates. But my own assessment is that it will go down in history as a valiant failure. The shape of Anglicanism is changing; but my prayer and hope in all this is that I hope we can remember what is really important and that is not the growth or even survival of the Anglican Church. At best we are no more than unworthy servants, a signpost to the Kingdom of God and we look forward to the great day when labels and denominations will fall away in one chorus of praise to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

The Revd Chancellor Dr Tudor F L Griffiths.

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