Charity is not in Anglicans' lexicon

The eyes of the Anglican world, Christianity’s third-largest denomination, were last week focused on an agreeable Victorian Italianate mansion in Northern Ireland.

Anglicanism’s biggest cheeses — 35 of its 38 primate archbishops and presiding bishops — were sequestered inside, supposedly praying about the church’s future. Actually, they were squabbling over whether they can take communion together or, apparently, even be seen in the same photograph.

See how these Christians love each other! Charity seems to be entirely missing from their current lexicon.

The cause of the wrangling is the position of homosexuals within the communion. It is an issue that may split the church asunder by the end of this week. But this is about something much more important than gays. It is about power and authority, and how the church relates to modern life and those it hopes to proselytise.

Last week’s Church of England general synod provided several ripe examples of its difficulties with the 21st century. There was the debate on women bishops at which women clergy campaigning for change were likened to the Irish Republican Army. This was said by the Reverend David Banting, a vicar who leads a noisy, conservative evangelical pressure group called Reform. He nevertheless thought it prudent to announce first: “I delight in my wife.” Women clergy were also informed by another speaker that they did not really believe in God.

In this, and another debate on the Windsor report that was supposed to provide a framework for this week’s meeting, there were denunciations of the idea that the democracy of majority voting could decide such theological divisions. This is an argument that tends to be deployed when factions such as the conservative evangelicals think they are losing.

When they are in the majority, as they were seven years ago when the bishops of the Anglican communion voted by a large majority that homosexuality was incompatible with scripture, the majority decision becomes comparable to holy writ. That the accusations that democracy was an inadequate means of settling questions last week should be made at a meeting of the church’s elected synod was merely additionally piquant.

Homosexuality is an issue that plays into the church’s divisions in a particularly visceral way. The Bible’s injunctions against it — written in far different times for very different societies — excuse what in other circumstances would be simple homophobia.

But it is an issue that serves to unite conservative factions politically, both in English and American evangelicalism and the bishops of the developing world as perhaps no other, playing into cultural and political wars in the United States but also in parts of Africa, where homosexuality is still a crime, and where competition for souls with militant Islam is bloodily acute.

One of the small ironies is that African archbishops have accused the liberal US Episcopal Church, which precipitated the current crisis by electing the gay Bishop Gene Robinson, of trying to enforce a kind of decadent cultural imperialism.

The archbishops resent the money that the US church pours into their churches, claiming it is being deployed to make them accept homosexuality. They do not appear to notice the American conservative evangelicals, engaged in their own internecine struggle for control with their liberal church leadership, who are juicing up the global southern archbishops to outrage and intransigence.

The urgent desire for uniformity across Anglicanism’s 38 provinces and 78-million adherents in 164 countries is a comparatively recent development, sparked by the resurgence of evangelicalism and its struggle to wrest control of the church from cultural relativists and supposed liberals.

Previously, the churches lived with each others’ foibles and traditions while looking up to the mother Church of England and its totemic archbishop. Not any more. At a time when the world is coming into ever closer electronic communion, social mores are diverging.

With impeccable timing, this is precisely when Anglicanism decides it cannot live with diversity. And it does so in the most rancorous way possible, couched in the most virulent and personal terms.

This week’s meeting may — just — provide an agreed framework for future unity, but it looks increasingly doubtful. And, if it does, some fear for the future of Anglicanism’s traditional tolerance, with conservative archbishops in far-off dioceses effectively imposing a veto on progressive developments elsewhere, and the Archbishop of Canterbury held hostage in Lambeth Palace by whichever faction shouts loudest. — Â



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