The dissolution of the Anglican Communion and the end of ecumenism
It seems that the Anglican Communion is at last to be headed for dissolution. And I suppose that the question one must ask is “What price ecumenism now?”
The archbishop of Canterbury is proposing to effectively dissolve the fractious and bitterly divided worldwide Anglican communion and replace it with a much looser grouping.
Justin Welby has summoned all the 38 leaders of the national churches of the Anglican communion to a meeting in Canterbury next January, where he will propose that the communion be reorganised as a group of churches that are all linked to Canterbury but no longer necessarily to each other.
He believes that the communion – notionally the third largest Christian body in the world with 80 million members, after the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches – has become impossible to hold together due to arguments over power and sexuality and has, for the past 20 years, been completely dysfunctional.
The 1910 World Mission conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, is widely regarded as the start of the 20th-century ecumenical movement. The question raised there was how could divided Christians evangelise the world, when Christians were speaking with so many different voices? So the 20th century saw various attempts to bring Christians of different traditions together, and greater unity among Christians would lead to more effective mission.
To begin with the Anglicans tried to position themselves as a “bridge church”, an example of ecumenism. They positioned themselves between the Roman Catholics and Protestants, and pointed to the fact that for a long time they had been home to several different traditions — High Church, Low Church, Broad Church etc — which had somehow managed to muddle along together, so the Anglicans could provide a model of ecumenism. Some Anglicans even reached out to the Orthodox, especially those of the Church of England who welcomed refugees from the Russian revolution in the 1920s and 1930s.
Fifty years on things appeared less certain. In the 1960s some Anglican theologians began publishing works of theological revisionsim that enlivened theological debate at the time, and even got a secular-minded public interested for a while. Some called for “relevance”, but ultimately only succeeded in become even more irrelevant to the world around them, because at the root of their notion of “relevance” was the desire for the church to fit into and reinforce the world’s status quo.
From the 1970s onwards Anglicans became more and more introspective, squabbling about their own internal structures — whether they should ordain women, and what ministries they should be ordained to, and so on. As the article cited above put it,
the archbishop felt he could not leave his eventual successor in the same position of “spending vast amounts of time trying to keep people in the boat and never actually rowing it anywhere”.
At that time I was an Anglican, and thirty years ago I left, for that very reason. I could not face the prospect of spending the next thirty years of my life arguing with people in the boat about what the boat was and where and how it should be rowed, instead of actually rowing it anywhere.
It seemed that two broadly defined “parties” were emerging, but I didn’t feel at home in either of them. The idea of Anglicanism as a “big tent” and notions of being “inclusive” were a chimera and always had been.
It was actually nothing new. From an Orthodox point of view, the Orthodox who were most open to Anglicans were those who had found Anglicans who were most open to them. They rarely met Anglicans who weren’t interested in Orthodoxy — if they had, they might have had a different opinion.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Patriarchate of Alexandria was seriously considering recognising Anglican orders, on the basis that there was sufficient theological overlap to do so. Bishop Methodios Fouyas investigated it, but found that Anglicans spoke with so many different voices that it was impossible to determine what Anglican theology was. He detailed his findings in a book Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism, and that idea was dropped. In any case, Anglicans nowadays seem to be far more concerned about sexuality than about orders, and the debates seem to be far more acrimonious than they were 30 years ago, with white gay activist Anglicans in the West hurling racist insults at homophobic black Anglicans in Africa.
The division here is not a purely Anglican phenomenon, but is found in many Western Christian bodies; I’ve dealt with it more fully in another post, so will say no more about it here.
What does concern me here, however, is what this says about 20th-century ecumenism. For all the talk of unity, it seems that fissiparousness in Christianity is increasing, and wonder about groups like the World Council of Churches, which sprang out of the 20th century ecumenical movement. Is there any future for them, and what purpose do they serve. Will they accept all the broken pieces of the soon-to-be-former Anglican Communion, and try to bring about unity among them? Or what?