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The dissolution of the Anglican Communion and the end of ecumenism

18 September 2015

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?”

Archbishop of Canterbury plans to loosen ties of divided Anglican communion | The Guardian:

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.

AngCom2To 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.

AngCom1It 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?


4 Comments leave one →
  1. 18 September 2015 11:54 pm

    This Anglican was sad to hear this news, but what else can he do?

    Thanks for sharing your helpful insights.

  2. 26 October 2015 12:56 am

    Before the Oxford movement, things Anglican had sunk to similar lows as well. Maybe more in terms of form than doctrine, but the renewal that resulted then might offer some hope that those “progressives” who see “the long arc of history” might one day admit the “long arc” might be on a pendulum that swings both ways… and renewal comes when least expected. If there is truth that is Christ’s truth and not “my truth” or “my truth for now” then the standard of the day may pass. My guess would be that as long as there is a Queen or King in England… there is a chance of genuine renewal. It may take a genuine renewal in governance as well… and perhaps this may even free the church of a disinterested (or hostile?) state in a way that allows this to happen?

  3. 7 October 2016 7:13 am

    “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.” –

    I understand your statement very well. It is disheartening to be the only one in my parish who seems to care about what the Anglican Church is, and what it is not (although the latter part can be tricky as it eludes us all). I teach Sunday School, so I can say I’ve got a glimpse of our future parish – a protestant parish that will have no trace of a sacramental life, except for the physical symbols, the curriculum seems to be designed with that goal in mind.


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