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The End of Canterbury

Will the sun set on the Anglican communion?

Dec 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 14 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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The archbishop of Canterbury is going to resign next year. At least that’s the story making the rounds of newspapers in London, and the interesting part is not that the 61-year-old Rowan Williams should be willing to give up another decade in the job. Or even, if the Telegraph is right, that the clergy and his fellow bishops are working to push him out.

Photo of Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams

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No, the interesting news about the looming resignation is how little attention anyone appears to be paying to it. The Church of England just doesn’t seem to matter all that much, fading from the world’s stage only slightly more slowly than the British Empire that planted it across the globe. 

Theological consequences will follow the dwindling of Anglican identity—the claim, ever since Queen Elizabeth I, that the Church of England represents the great middle way between Protestantism and Catholicism. Ecclesiological consequences, as well, will follow the end of Anglican unity: the disappearance of a coherent, worldwide denomination, led by the archbishop of Canterbury, for those who hold a certain moderate form of Christian belief.

Christianity will survive in other forms, of course, both theologically and denominationally. In the long run, the great tragedy of the fading of Canterbury and the looming breakup of the Anglican communion may be the geopolitical consequences—fraying the already weak ties between the global South and Western civilization.

Anglicanism remains widespread, with 80 million members around the world, from the Episcopal Church in the United States to the followers of Henry Luke Orombi, archbishop of Uganda. England is still the largest Anglican province, with 26 million members, at least nominally. But far more Anglicans are in church on a Sunday morning in Kenya and Nigeria than in Britain, and the center of Anglican belief is now firmly in Africa—a major part, as Philip Jenkins noted in his 2002 book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, of the nearly complete conversion of sub-Saharan Africa to Christianity over the last 100 years.

The rise of the African church could have made Canterbury an important player in international relations—not exactly a rival to Rome (Catholicism’s one billion adherents make that unlikely) but at least a second European center with which Africans would have felt a relation and to which they could have looked for intellectual and ecclesial authority. 

Instead, hardly anyone notices when the archbishop of Canterbury is about to be replaced and the unity of Anglicanism is about to be shattered. The job of the archbishop of Canterbury has always been something of a high-wire act, delicately balanced between the Protestant impulses of the church on one side and its Catholic impulses on the other side. And, from time to time, various archbishops have lost their balance (notably when John Henry Newman slipped away to Catholicism in the battles over the Oxford Movement in the 1840s). 

This time, unfortunately, it is the wire itself that is breaking. What the archbishop of Canterbury needed to hold together was a church divided between such African heroes of the faith as the retired archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, and such established masters of the Anglican bureaucracy as the primate of the Church of Canada, Fred Hiltz. On issues from the legality of abortion to the installation of female bishops and, especially, church ceremonies for gay marriage and the consecration of openly gay priests, the difference between the conservative African churches and the radical Western churches—between, say, Nicholas Okoh, Anglican primate of Nigeria, and Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States—is unbridgeable.

The current archbishop is a cultivated, intelligent man: a published poet and literary figure with theological sophistication and a talent for administration. Rowan Williams never possessed either the international star-power of someone like John Paul II or the intellectual depth of Benedict XVI. Still, he has more or less succeeded in his decade-long attempt to hold Anglicanism together with a kind of quiet, British suasion.

He pursued that end, however, mostly by trying to make himself an utterly neutral figure, beginning his reign as archbishop, for example, by leaving the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, an important British pro-life group. And his Laodicean pose has led him into such inanities as his 2008 call to enact some form of the “unavoidable” sharia law in Great Britain—even while his fellow Anglicans in Nigeria were being attacked by Muslim mobs.

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