The Anglican Communion: Why even bother anymore?

In the run-up to the Lambeth Conference 2020, there has been a great deal of consternation and hand-wringing among US Episcopalians about the actions, invitations, and statements from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

For those who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of Anglicanism, the Lambeth Conference is one of the so-called “Instruments of Communion” that connect the various churches that claim affiliation with the Anglican Communion. It is a conference of all Anglican bishops, held every ten years (although delayed this time because of strained relationships over full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the Church). All of the bishops gather to build relationships and attempt to make statements on various topics of perceived importance. Traditionally, one of the high points of the conference is tea with the Queen.

The last twenty years have seen increased conflict within Anglicanism over matters of sexuality. The conflict was exacerbated when Gene Robinson was ordained Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, the first openly gay bishop in a long-term relationship. That precipitated the departure of a number of dioceses and congregations and led to the formation of the Anglican Church of North America. More recently, the Episcopal Church authorized rites for same-sex marriages.

As preparations for Lambeth accelerate, the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that he would not issue invitations to the same-sex spouses of bishops, a decision that aroused the ire of many in the Episcopal Church and led to statements from the Presiding Bishop, the President of the House of Deputies of General Convention, Executive Council, and the House of Bishops.

Another of those “instruments of communion”–the Anglican Consultative Council–is currently meeting in Hong Kong. News was made when the Archbishop of Canterbury declared that the body couldn’t discuss his disinvitation of certain spouses because of British law. Unsurprisingly, this statement was met with outrage by all of the usual suspects.

In addition, Archbishop Welby has invited representatives from the Anglican Church of North America to attend as “non-member observers.” The invitation was met with derision from the leader of ACNA, Foley Beach who wrote in response:

For the Anglican Church in North America to be treated as mere “observers” is an insult to both our bishops, many of whom have made costly stands for the Gospel, and the majority of Anglicans around the world who have long stood with us as a province of the Anglican Communion.

At this point in my life and ministry, I find all of this more amusing than concerning. As a parish priest approaching ten years in my current cure, local issues far outweigh issues of national or international concern. In addition, my closest clergy colleagues are pastors of congregations of other denominations as we work together to address matters that cross denominational boundaries like homelessness, racism, and economic inequity. With the deep political and cultural divisions in our country, with white supremacy running rampant and resurgent anti-semitism expressing itself in killings in synagogues, with the brutal treatment of asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants, with climate catastrophe, whether the spouses of bishops are invited to a Lambeth conference seem of little importance in the larger scheme of things.

The Anglican Communion is a product of British Empire and colonialism. Its persistence is evidence of the continuing legacy of that history. American Episcopalian continued infatuation with it seems to be as much about the continued appeal of English culture and history, as well as the monarchy. Where our privilege is vanishing before the incessant tide of secularism and Christian nationalism, the fantasy that our church, as small as it is, has global significance because of the “worldwide Anglican Communion” is both persistent and attractive.

Still, I wonder whether it’s time to move on. The Episcopal Church’s relationship with the larger Anglican Communion seems more abusive than life-giving. We want to be accepted as full members. When the Archbishop of Canterbury or some other entity treats us as second-class, we react with outrage. What if we just went our own way?

The “Instruments of Communion” are products of the Age of Imperialism and Colonialism, and the post-World War II efforts to build certain kinds of international institutions. Many of those institutions are showing signs of collapse–the European Union is one prime example.

My question is: In the absence of such formal structures, what might relationships among Anglicans look like? I suspect very much like they look right now on the ground, with work being done by individuals, ecclesial entities, and dioceses across the globe, building relationships of trust and support that are informal but sustaining. Globalization means many things, but one of its products is the ease with which we can connect across the globe via social media and shared interests. Maybe instead of spending all of our energy licking our wounds over our treatment in the run-up to Lambeth 2020, we should work at building those other relationships that aren’t dependent on the Archbishop of Canterbury, gatherings of bishops, or instruments of communion.

Furthermore, in the face of reports that membership in religious bodies has hit an all-time low in the US, maybe it’s time for us to get over the presence of ACNA. There’s a new ACNA congregation in my neighborhood, which I discovered by the postcards they send out before Christmas and Easter. Initially, I felt some anger at the thought of invaders encroaching on our territory. This past Easter, as I was driving home and saw their sandwich board out at the street, I felt gratitude for their witness and prayed silently for their success. With an overflowing crowd at Grace that day, and feeling the exhaustion after Holy Week, I know we can’t reach everyone who is desperate for God’s love in our city, and if my ACNA nieghbors can reach some, I welcome their presence.

IfIs the Anglican Communion whimpering to its end?

News reports today suggest that the Lambeth Conference, the meeting of Anglican Bishops from across the world that is scheduled to take place in 2018, has been postponed indefinitely. Although there’s no official word from the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Anglican Communion Office, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefforts Schori of the Episcopal Church reported at the recent House of Bishops meeting in Taiwan that Archbishop Welby had informed her of the postponement.

The Lambeth Conference meets every ten years and has previously been postponed twice because of World Wars I and II. This time, the postponement is not due to world war but to conflict within the Communion itself. In fact, more than 200 of the 700-plus bishops boycotted the 2008 gathering.

Lambeth is understood to be one of the four “Instruments of Communion” that bind the Anglican Communion together (in addition to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primates Meetings, and the Anglican Consultative Council. Jefforts Schori was quoted to say that Archbishop Welby told her that the next Lambeth Conference would not to be preceded by a Primates’ Meeting at which “the vast majority of are present.” Whether such a meeting is possible in the current climate remains to be seen.

If true, this seems to me a very big deal indeed. I’m rather surprised PB Jefforts Schori’s comments were not picked up and explored earlier. The Anglican Communion is knit together by means of very weak threads and the postponement of Lambeth can only mean further disintegration. In the meantime, other bodies are being created that bring together like-minded groups intent on creating their own version of Anglicanism.