As an Anglican reading Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church, I could not help but notice how frequently Douthat alludes to schism within the Anglican Communion as a fait accompli. As Anglicans look to two major Anglican conferences in the next two years—the Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem in 2018 and the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury in 2020—the divisions within Anglicanism will certainly be on display.
Anglicans have never had a Vatican II to argue about. The Lambeth Conferences rolled along comfortably since their inception in 1867, thanks to a détente among Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals, and Liberals—until Lambeth 1998, when things fell apart. The issue was homosexuality. The Communion bureaucrats had planned a Conference resolution affirming a three-way typology of marriage, abstinence, and committed partnerships, while throwing a bone to conservatives about “continuing dialogue.” They were thwarted by an alliance of Western and African conservatives, who managed to push through a Resolution on Human Sexuality that teaches a two-way typology and states that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Scripture” and “cannot be advised.”
The Communion Establishment was not amused, and the American Episcopalians immediately denounced the Lambeth Resolution and proceeded to elect and consecrate an openly gay man as bishop in 2003. A drama was then acted out, with—to borrow Douthat’s analogy—Archbishop Rowan Williams playing Pope Liberius to Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola’s Athanasius, and culminated in two Anglican conferences in 2008, one in Jerusalem and one in Canterbury.
The Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), held in Jerusalem and attended by 280 bishops and more than 1,000 participants, charged that the Communion had been infected by a false Gospel and the official “Instruments” of governance had failed to deal with the problem. GAFCON proceeded to adopt a confessional statement (the “Jerusalem Declaration”), which read, in part:
We acknowledge God’s creation of humankind as male and female and the unchangeable standard of Christian marriage [a phrase from Lambeth 1920] between one man and one woman as the proper place for sexual intimacy and the basis of the family. We call … for a renewed commitment to lifelong fidelity in marriage and abstinence for those who are not married.
The Lambeth Conference met later that year, minus about 200 GAFCON bishops. The Conference organizers intentionally substituted table-talk (“indaba”) for resolutions, interspersed with addresses from Archbishop Rowan Williams. In these addresses, Williams propounded the “branch theory,” whereby Rome, Constantinople, and Canterbury constitute apostolic sees. This apology for a kind of Anglican pontificate was a response to the supposed presumptuousness of the Global South Primates following Lambeth 1998.
In addition to its prophetic indictment and confession of faith, GAFCON formed an alternative Primates’ Council and invited the formation of an alternative jurisdiction in North America, the Anglican Church in North America, whose archbishop now sits on the Council. This Council includes nine Anglican Provinces, among them the two largest, Nigeria and Uganda. It has recognized Anglican jurisdictions in Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, and a missionary bishop to Europe, which includes the UK.
It is clear that the current archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is seeking to recover his role as “Focus of Unity” in the Anglican Communion. He is also set on replacing Lambeth 1998 with the three-way typology of sexuality as the Communion norm, with comfortable words of “walking together” with “good disagreement” for conservatives. He is prepared to deny the explicit teaching of Jesus in Scripture (Matthew 19:1–12), the tradition of the historic church, and the moral teaching of former Lambeth Conferences.
Welby faces challenges from both ends of the Anglican spectrum. The Episcopal Church USA has already legislated same-sex marriage in its canons and liturgies, and the Anglican Church of Canada will probably follow suit this summer. At the other end of the spectrum, it is likely that a large number of conservative bishops will attend GAFCON 2018 and forgo Lambeth 2020.
Archbishop Welby is working hard to demean GAFCON, calling it a “ginger group,” and to woo conflicted bishops from the Global South to another indaba-fest in England. Maybe he will succeed. Whatever happens in the greater providence of God, the nature of the Anglican Church and Communion will have been changed.
Stephen Noll is an Anglican priest and author of The Global Anglican Communion: Contending for Anglicanism 1993-2018.