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.
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.
Pope Benedict’s 2009 offer of a Catholic home for traditionalist Anglicans is reported to have taken Williams by surprise, and he has found no answer to the administrative disaster of new conservative parishes being established in America—parishes that proclaim allegiance to conservative African bishops rather than to their local ordinaries. For that matter, the church-dividing question of gay marriage and an openly homosexual clergy has not been solved during the archbishop’s tenure. It’s only been repressed.
The moving force behind the rumor of Williams’s impending retirement seems to be Richard Chartres, bishop of London—an interested party, it should be noted, given that he is a leading candidate to succeed the retiring archbishop. A close friend of the royal family (he preached the sermon at the wedding of Prince William), Chartres is best known for his environmentalism and his attempts to forge new Anglican ties with the Eastern Orthodox churches. It’s a mystery how any of that is supposed to appeal to the traditionalist African churches, whose strongly missionary faith is locked in a struggle against the spread of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa.
The last full meeting of the Lambeth Conference—the once-a-decade meeting that brings together leaders from all the national churches to discuss and pass denomination-wide legislation—did not go well, back in 2008. African bishops pulled in one direction, holding separate meetings and hinting at schism, while the Western leaders pulled in the other direction, demanding that all churches in the communion embrace their views on human sexuality. That the church kept any unity at all was a tribute to the meliorating work of the of Canterbury. And with Williams no longer at the helm, little will be achieved at the next Lambeth Conference.
Little, that is, except the schism of Anglicanism. In all likelihood, the forcing of the issue of same-sex marriage will lead the African churches to withdraw from communion with the Western churches—while the churches of Europe and North America will denounce the African churches, choosing allegiance with standard-issue Western liberalism over the orthodox teaching of their own faith.
And thereby the world will lose one more of the old ties that might have bound it together. Freed from their African anchor, the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in America will move even further in a pro-Muslim, anti-Israel direction, providing yet more cover for fashionable liberal anti-Semitism. Let loose from their allegiance to Canterbury, the African churches will quickly move toward forming pan-African denominations that will feel entirely distanced from Europe and America—and will help build the belief the global South owes nothing to the West.
Joseph Bottum, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, most recently, of the memoir Dakota Christmas in Amazon’s Kindle Singles series.