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Diversity not divorce: Anglicans must aim for a broad church if they can’t agree

The Times has suggested that Anglicanism is facing its “biggest crisis … since Darwin”. Differences over women priests and bishops, sexuality – and more besides – have certainly exacerbated pronounced differences between those parts of the Anglican Communion found in the developing world, and those from the developed world.

To the outsider, Anglicans have a strange way of doing business. The ground rules for doctrinal debates always guaranteed inclusion for participants and most reasonable points of view – even those one might passionately oppose. All sides could always claim a victory, since final decisions were seldom reached.

But in recent years the issue of sexuality and gender has exacerbated, rather than soothed, the vast differences. So is Anglicanism about to slide into extinction? Depending on which newspaper you read, the crisis is either temporary or terminal. For The Times, it is a dramatic “crisis”, for The Guardian, it’s a “loosening of ties”. But how might Anglicanism respond?

To my mind, there are three possible options – options that have faced the church for some years. First, there is the “Carry on Disagreeing” option – plenty of slapstick, but minus the humour. A second option would be to divide from those you no longer agree with. The third option would be to recognise that geography mean less today and that congregations and churches are increasingly related by their shared affinities and agreed moral coherence. Might the Communion become a kind of federation, in just the same way that the British Empire has become a Commonwealth?

Global mansion

Anglicanism is undoubtedly global, but may now be too diverse to be centrally or collegially governed in a manner that guarantees unequivocal unity. So, overlapping might work for a church that has always valued pluralism. Some congregations (note, not all the people living in a parish) that can’t accept women priests or bishops in the Church of England already have this option.

Verily I say: Archbishop Welby faces a tough challenge. Toby Melville/PA

If I read the archbishop’s proposal correctly, he is inviting his fellow archbishops to quietly drop the chimera of “Communion” to become more like a family of churches. Much like the Baptist family name – with prefixes such as Southern, American, Reformed, Strict and so on. If that’s ok for them, why not for Anglicans – Conservative, Liberal, Traditional, Progressive and so on?

Many years ago I argued that the Anglican Communion could be visualised as vast mansion, with the addition of Evangelical and Catholic wings. It remains a large stately home – albeit one in which the vast rooms are now being made into self-contained flats, like many grand houses today. Everyone still has the same official address and shares the imposing exterior and frontage: but different internal relations within the “storied dwelling” mean the union is not as it once was. Essentially, this is an argument about the ownership of the Anglican family name and who is allowed to divorce who and on what grounds. And, of course, who gets the house.

Reform and alienation

That said, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s initiative seems to be characteristically direct and forthright, and potentially perilous – a risk he himself acknowledges. In his very short period of office, he has moved quickly on a range of reforms in the Church of England, with many of these lacking in requisite consultation.

Reforms in theological education, leadership training and simplifying Canon Law have produced both dismay and demoralisation. The emphasis on numerical growth and management has downplayed broader definitions of mission and ministry and undervalued the centrality of pastoral care. Bishops are increasingly seen as managers and setters of targets – not as pastors and teachers. Clergy are increasingly alienated from their own church, and the leadership driving such reforms.

So, I have three concerns about the apparent proposals. First, there is no sign of the Anglican Consultative Council being referred to. The archbishop’s initiative feels like it might be born out of impatience, frustration and exasperation – even though it is being marketed as potentially visionary. Holding complex tensions and competing convictions together is what archbishops are supposed to do. We need them to model patience and wisdom, not terminate tensions through executive managerial shortcuts.

Second, the notice from Lambeth Palace seems to place the stress on the Bible, when “properly interpreted”. This is a tetchy phrase – Anglicans all agree what the Bible says, we just don’t always agree on what it means – and it raises questions about coded affirmations and denigrations being buried in the text. There is no explicit acknowledgement of the role of reason and tradition in shaping church polity (or the role of the Holy Spirit in these).

Third, the assumption in the Lambeth statement is that our distinctive cultures, though different from country to country and continent to continent, are homogeneous in their own local and regional contexts. They are not, of course, as many of our cities and towns support a highly varied ecology of parish churches – some that are passionately conservative, others avowedly liberal, and others just mixed. In any parish, anywhere, some parishioners are happily married; some in civil partnerships; some straight, some gay. Parishes are just a microcosm of the wider Communion and of the society in which they live.

We need bishops and archbishops who can hold these tensions together – rather than allowing divisions to grow, people to go their separate ways and tribal enclaves to develop. What we are aiming for? Is it a United Kingdom of confessional diversity, or a post-war Balkanisation of differences? Whatever the primates decide in January, my guess is that a degree of separation will not necessarily mean schism, let alone divorce.

A slight loosening of the ties could help the Anglican churches. Those family members that want the space to individuate should perhaps be given some licence. Eighty million members, in 38 provinces, all living under one roof, might be a bit too stifling for the 21st century. Instead of a single Communion, might we develop a broad “family” of Anglican churches? Instead of trying to paper over our differences, can Anglicans agree to live slightly apart, but still as friends and neighbours?

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