“I fear schism," Rowan Williams told the BBC , and with good reason. Today the annual meeting of the Anglican Communion officially begins in Tanzania, and it is not at all clear that the communion will last the week. No fewer than thirty-seven Anglican archbishops have assembled at a hotel in Dar-es-Salaam, charged with the task of deciding what to do about the communion’s recalcitrant American branch, otherwise known as the Episcopal Church. Archbishop Williams’ biggest problem is that not all the archbishops are on speaking terms with one another. "I fear the situation slipping out of my control," he went on to tell the BBC. Indeed, it may already have done so.
Archbishop Williams, in a sermon last summer titled "The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today," noted that Anglicans have uneasily coexisted for generations as three distinct groups in one church: evangelicals, catholics, and liberals . Part of being an Anglican, he argued, is believing that all three groups have something to learn from one another. Most Christians would agree with his point. But the practical difficulty of it is that the three groups increasingly live in separate thought-worlds, each with its own distinct vocabularies and ideas about what it means to be a Christian. These divisions, long simmering beneath the surface of the maddeningly diverse Anglican brew, have now come to the surface in Tanzania. If this week’s meeting results in serious schism¯which is a very distinct possibility¯it will be because the three camps finally prove unable to talk to one another, and hence go their separate ways.
The liberal camp is best represented by Katherine Jefferts Schori and her Episcopal Church , over which she presides as top bishop. In recent years, Episcopalians have made headlines for the ordination of Gene Robinson, a non-celibate gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire. This in fact is the presenting problem for Anglicans this week in Tanzania. Against the repeatedly expressed wishes of international Anglican bodies, Schori, along with most of the Episcopal Church, continues to defend Robinson’s consecration . But the problem, unfortunately, goes far deeper than that. In essence, the theological position represented by Schori has reached the point at which it no longer exists in the same thought-world as traditional Christianity.
Perhaps the best examples of this are Marcus Borg , an influential Episcopalian biblical scholar, and John Shelby Spong , the outspoken former bishop of Newark. Neither Borg nor Spong believe in doctrines such as the Resurrection, the Atonement, the authority of Scripture, or the divinity of Christ. Spong, in fact, does not believe in God . Most Christians think these matters are absolutely essential, but in the thought-world of theological liberalism they are not. Much more central, from this point of view, is the Church’s role as servant to the world. Rather than preach the repentance of sin and forgiveness of Christ, the liberal church primarily exists to help create the "kingdom of God" by advocating for social justice, inclusion, and so on. In Schori’s new book, A Wing and a Prayer , it seems that she does, in fact, affirm doctrines like Christ’s divinity and resurrection. But for liberals such as Schori, such matters are relatively unimportant. For Schori, disagreement on such issues is possible, even desirable, within the Church. The only nonnegotiable doctrines have to do with the Church’s new central mission, defined as matters like gay rights and the UN Millennium Development goals.
Time and again, Anglican evangelicals have accused Episcopalian liberals of defying Scripture, while catholics have accused them of defying tradition and church order. But since neither scriptural nor ecclesial authority are primary points of reference for Episcopalian liberals, such arguments have had no avail, nor will they ever. Understood this way, while Schori will begin tomorrow’s meeting as an Anglican primate, we can confidently predict that she will not stay for long. She and the liberals whom she represents live in another conceptual universe and so will soon be politely asked to return to New York where they belong. The details remain to be sorted out, but it is likely that most of the Episcopal Church will be demoted to second-rank Anglican status, leaving an orthodox remnant to form what eventually will become a new Anglican province in the United States .
Evangelicals comprise the second major Anglican group at Tanzania and in effect are currently led by the primate of Nigeria, Peter Akinola . Evangelicals have a long and proud history in the Anglican church, reaching back from John Stott to Charles Simeon to William Wilberforce, and most famously to John and Charles Wesley. In step with the heart of Anglican faith, they have for centuries faithfully preached the primacy of Scripture and the gospel of Christ’s grace. In recent times, however, they have made headlines more frequently for threatening to leave the Anglican Communion . In fact, paradoxically, it may well be Anglican evangelicals that pose the greatest danger to the long-term unity and orthodoxy, and thus the very existence, of the Anglican Communion.
Akinola and those who follow him are at present quite exercised by the actions of Schori’s Episcopal Church, and understandably so. Akinola’s evangelicals want the Episcopal Church to be strongly disciplined forthwith, and the sooner the better. In this they find no resistance, in principle, from Rowan Williams and the Anglican catholics. But unfortunately for Williams, Akinola has so far not shown a great deal of interest in preserving the communion’s historic unity. In fact, he has at every possible opportunity telegraphed his willingness to cut ties if his conditions are not met, not least at the present meeting.
Evangelical brinksmanship in Tanzania has currently reached its peak. Meeting in a hotel down the street from the official conference center, Akinola’s evangelicals have made public a number of pointed requests . First on their list is the dismissal of Katherine Jefferts Schori from the primates’ meeting, a not unexpected request. Second, and more surprisingly, is the dismissal of the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, who as Primate of England was invited by Rowan Williams to represent the Church of England, thereby freeing up Williams to act as the meeting’s chair. This new invitation apparently was perceived as a threat by Akinola, in part because it was not done in consultation with the primatial college and perhaps also due to mistrust of England’s position. Akinola, in an exceptionally sharp challenge to what he called Williams’ fait accompli, brought an extra Nigerian archbishop along as well . It is an unfortunate development, and not only because of the way in which it makes trust and cooperation between England and the Global South that much more difficult. Sentamu, a native Ugandan who has forcefully and winsomely stood for historic Anglican faith in his adopted England, is also a theological ally, and ought to be welcomed by evangelicals as such. One hopes that this will be realized sooner rather than later.
Details are currently a bit fuzzy on the remainder of the Global South primates’ requests, but reports are that they also want a new American province to be formed forthwith as an immediate replacement for the Episcopal Church . At present, it is unclear if this is meant literally. If so, and if Akinola brooks no dissent on this point or others, it may well result in full-blown global schism. Akinola has shown little patience for compromise in the past, and this may well be his final line in the sand, after which he and the Global South will depart permanently. But their proposal is, to put it mildly, dead on arrival. It would apparently require Episcopalian conservatives to, in effect, abandon the Episcopal Church by next week, bypassing established constitutional processes for creating a new Anglican province and preempting entirely next year’s pan-Anglican conference in London. For most American and English conservatives, most of whom want to work with rather than against the Archbishop of Canterbury, this will not wash.
Other reports seem to paint Akinola’s proposal in a different light, and hopefully they are correct. But if this is the line taken by Anglican evangelicals¯the continual proposal of impossible demands with no room for dissent¯then the result will almost surely be that their reach will exceed their grasp. By demanding too much, they will achieve nothing at all, thereby losing the single most promising opportunity since the English Reformation to ensure the long-term unity and orthodoxy of Anglican Christianity.
If Anglican evangelicals take the path forged by so many Dissenters before them, not least among them John and Charles Wesley, it will eventually result only in the endless multiplication of denominational factions, just like the Baptists, Congregationalists, and Methodists¯not to mention the Plymouth Brethren and the Independents¯of centuries past. The Reformation logic of faction leads only to more faction, and as the dismal present status of various denominational entities attests, it does not even necessarily lead to orthodox Christianity. An evangelical exodus would also almost assuredly tip the numerical balance among those who remain with Canterbury to theological liberalism, thus dooming those Christians for whom catholic church order is essential to a sorry fate.
The present hope is that Anglican evangelicals will realize that not only is the gospel necessary for the sake of the Church, but also that the Church is necessary for the sake of the gospel. Historically, evangelicals have not troubled themselves very much with ecclesiology, assuming that the teaching of Scripture is plain, and that the Church is essentially a group of like-minded Christians who band together in fellowship to share the gospel. Unfortunately, the problem with this has always been that people think that Scripture plainly supports all kinds of things, thus leading to a never-ending plethora of denominations. Christ’s body on earth is therefore increasingly fractured and broken, Christian witness is damaged, and our Lord’s prayer that we all may be one recedes ever further into the past.
It is here where the wisdom of the third Anglican group, the catholics, absolutely must be heard this week in Tanzania. These Anglicans, represented best by Rowan Williams and the American theologian Ephraim Radner , believe just as strongly as the evangelicals in the bedrock truths of Christianity, but also think that the Church itself is an essential part of God’s plan for us to discern truth. Being Reformation Christians, Anglican catholics know that sometimes the Church can be wrong, thus needing always to test herself by the standard of Scripture. But they point out that while Scripture itself may be clear, we Christians are sinful and perverse, so that we stand in need of the whole body of Christ to discover God’s will for his Church.
The hope of Anglican catholics, then, for today’s meeting is that Anglicans of all stripes will commit to live in unity under the authority of Scripture, prayerfully seeking the mind of Christ together as the body of Christ . While firmly supporting disciplinary action against the Episcopal Church, Anglican catholics hope to do so within the proper bounds of life together in ecclesial communion. One may hope that Anglican evangelicals will realize that the Gospel is served best in no other way. One may even hope that liberals who have not gone the way of Schori and Spong will do likewise.
At this critical moment in Anglican history, evangelicals and catholics have need of each other more than ever. Sadly, there is no guarantee they will embrace each other as brothers in Christ, or even that they will learn how to understand one another. After hundreds of years filled with faith and struggle, the beautiful dream of the Anglican Communion¯which sought truly to live out the maxim "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity"¯may turn out to be a dream that failed.
Jordan Hylden is a junior fellow at First Things .