This post was composed jointly with the Rev Peter Ould, who blogs at www.peter-ould.net
The incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, faces three great issues of church politics: whether, and if so how, to maintain the Anglican Communion internationally; whether, and if so how, to maintain unity in the Church in England, and whether the Anglican Church should continue to be the Church of England. Let us consider these in turn.
First, the international dimension. The Anglican Communion, the collection of 38 provinces and six extra-provincial denominations around the world, with 85 million members, is a key source of British soft power internationally. The largest province of the Anglican Communion is the Church of Nigeria, with around 18 million members. The wealthiest is the Episcopal Church of the United States of America (ECUSA). The key split, internationally, is between the Nigerians and the Americans.
Many senior priests and bishops in ECUSA have beliefs such that they may well not be confirmed Christians in Nigeria, let alone be accepted into the priesthood. Senior ECUSA bishops openly declare that the concept of Christ being divine is incoherent, accept little or no authority of the Bible, and have in some notorious cases (specifically that of John Shelby Spong, Bishop of Newark) suggested that orthodox monotheism is indefensible. Even the Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts-Schor,i has made remarks widely understood as declaring the bodily resurrection of Christ to be unimportant to the meaning of Easter. A number of formerly ECUSA parishes in the US have become part of what is called the “Anglican realignment” movement, severing ties with ECUSA and linking themselves to other parts of the Anglican Communion. In essence, the view of many African Anglicans is that it would be nice if there were an Anglican Church in the U.S, but ECUSA doesn’t count as one.
Much press discussion of this division focuses upon the issue of homosexual priests, but this is merely a flashpoint. Concerns about ECUSA go much wider — it is said to be not unknown for ECUSA cathedral bookshops to sell healing crystals or ECUSA clergy to ask one’s star sign.
Some African Anglicans fear that the Church of England may go the way of our ECUSA cousins, since some Church of England clergy joined Don Cupitt’s explicitly atheist “Sea of Faith” network and some parts of the English church seemed to yield to pressure to abandon Biblical teaching on homosexual relations. Coming from the conservative “open evangelical” tradition that he does, and having deep links to Nigeria through his reconciliation work at Coventry Cathedral, Justin Welby will probably initially carry the confidence of the African churches and their allies in the “Global South”. He will, though, have to decide what to do about ECUSA. Matters may well have reached the point at which the Church of England and ECUSA declare themselves to be in settled disagreements about fundamentals, and that the amicable way to proceed is to establish friendly relations as sister churches, rather than as churches aspiring to be in full communion as now.
Within the Church in England, Welby’s key challenge arises from the issue of women bishops. Contra the press, he faces no significant challenge on homosexual clergy, as the church is collectively quite content with the conservative position set out in “Issues in Human Sexuality” more than 20 years ago. The current committees examining the Church’s ongoing response to civil partnerships and general issues of human sexuality are very likely to reiterate this stance. The only significant “issue” that would arise in respect of homosexuality would be if, reversing his life-long conservative stance on the matter, he sought to change the Church’s teaching on the matter, but this seems highly unlikely.
Women Bishops is trickier. Next week the Synod votes on whether to accept them. If the measure passes, Welby will then have to consider how to handle the traditionalist elements who have already stated that certain provisions they have been offered, together with a Code of Practice, are not sufficient. It may not be possible to find a way to accommodate both parties. Expect a further exodus of some to the Roman Catholic Ordinariate setup last year to receive disenchanted priests and their congregations. An attempt to establish an “Anglican realignment” movement within Britain cannot be ruled out altogether. On the other hand, it is less certain than it seemed until recently that the Synod will pass the measure in its present form. In that case, Welby will have to deal with a large body of disenchanted members whose move to make the Church “more inclusive” will be delayed, perhaps for a decade. Either way he will face the challenge of conciliation and arbitration between deeply opposed and intransigent factions.
The third key challenge concerns whether we should remain the Church of England — in other words, should we continue to be the state church. This issue may come to a head, during Welby’s time as Archbishop, in the event of him having to choose whether or not to ordain a new monarch. A sine qua non for being a state religion is that the orthodox practice of that religion should be legal. If the orthodox practice of Anglican Christianity is illegal, and yet the Archbishop ordains the new monarch, the font of law, the Archbishop is thereby blessing the legal oppression of Christian practice.
A series of recent legal judgements have set out, explicitly and in terms, that it is no longer to be presumed in law that practices that the law recognises as orthodox Anglican Christian are legal. The most explicit of these was in the judgement on Hall & Preddy v Bull & Bull: “Whatever may have been the position in past centuries it is no longer the case that our laws must, or should, automatically reflect the Judaeo- Christian position.” The Church of England has protested against this development. But at the time of the next coronation — an event that seems likely to occur during Justin Welby’s tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury — matters will come to a head.
It is, of course, possible that there will be no next coronation. Perhaps the state will choose no longer to have a monarch. In that case, Establishment of the Church of England will end by default, since our Supreme Governor will no longer be monarch of England. And it is also possible that the next monarch of England, even if there is one, might wish neither to be Supreme Governor of the Church of England nor to be ordained by the Archbishop. Each of these circumstances would create its own moment of decision for the Church of England — what should it do next, then?
Either way, some decision would need to be taken, and the planning for and debate around that decision must take place on Justin Welby’s watch. In many ways, this last of the three great political issues he faces could be the most profound and long-lasting.