The Anglican Communion at a Crossroads

The Crisis of a Global Church

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Christopher Craig Brittain, Andrew McKinnon
  • University Park, PA: 
    Pennsylvania State University Press
    , April
     2018.
     264 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780271080901.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Friendly and mild-mannered, Gene Robinson doesn’t seem like a rabble-rouser. And yet, when he was elected Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire in the summer of 2003, the ensuing controversy was fierce enough to prompt a realignment of the continental Anglican Church. Because Robinson was openly gay and in a relationship with a man, and because no Anglican Bishop had ever been both of those things at the same time before, a significant faction of theological conservatives decided to leave the Episcopal Church in the United States (TEC), formally establishing the rival Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) in 2009. Though Robinson retired from his post in 2013, the aftershocks of his election continue to rattle the Anglican Communion. 

In The Anglican Communion at a Crossroads: The Crises of a Global Church, theologian Christopher C. Brittain and sociologist Andrew McKinnon undertake an interdisciplinary examination of Anglican dynamics in the years since the Robinson controversy. Historically rooted in the Church of England, Anglicans now comprise a sprawling global community with provinces on six continents. (The term Episcopalian has traditionally referred to Anglicans within the United States and since 2009 only to a subset of these.) Citing the vast scope and diversity of the body, Brittain and McKinnon are primarily interested in the ties that somehow manage to bind—even when stretched by controversies (and the ongoing debates over LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriage have been more controversial than most).

Indeed, the authors note that in recent years homosexuality has emerged as a “presenting symbol” within global Anglicanism. It is an issue that speaks to fundamental commitments within the tradition and so deepens divides between while fostering realignments among three primary factions—Anglo-Catholics, evangelicals, and liberals. If the first “emphasize the church’s traditions,” the second “prioritize scripture and the Reformation,” and the third “emphasize reason and adaptation to modern society.” To subscribe to any one of these is not to discount the value of the others so much as to privilege a particular source of authority when making judgments and arbitrating disputes. Not since the ordination of women have the three faced a comparable challenge, and this time the divisions are even more pronounced. 

This is in part because sexual matters have historical-cultural implications that often run deeper—or at least wider—than doctrine. In the United States, official recognition of LGBTQ sexualities within the church has arrived alongside the broader recognition of LGBTQ sexualities within the culture at large. Since 2000, public opinion has shifted dramatically in favor of same-sex marriage, for instance, and the courts have honored that shift via a series of increasingly consequential rulings. So whatever arguments may be applied to thetheologicalquestion today, the cultural context imposes itself upon the ecclesiastical proceedings. For those living outside of the United States and so beyond the limits of that social evolution, the implications are sharper still.

Influential in the West, the conservative backlash is even more centrally positioned in the Global South, though at this point the meaning of both terms is far more socioeconomic than directional. In 2008, disillusioned church leaders from Africa joined with conservatives from England, the United States, and Australia to form the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) as a base of opposition to liberal ascendance in the West. In many cases, the opposition of African parishes to LGBTQ inclusion is rooted in cultural traditions that either condemn or discount homosexuality and for whom New England social politics are, in a word, foreign.

Liberal Anglicans in the US or England who see inclusion as a higher point on the progressive climb run the risk of condescending to those in African, Asian, or Latin American churches who view it as a deterioration of important values. In these cases, hermeneutical questions are necessarily displaced by certain basic realities of colonial history. When the Communion’s center of gravity shifted toward Africa, the numerical majority began to assert itself against the traditional hegemon.

As Brittain and McKinnon recount dozens of interviews and analyze their content, the book finds its central interest in the quality and capacity of Anglican discourse. Asked why or how the disparate factions, provinces, and churches find a way to remain in fellowship despite what seems a glaring semi-estrangement, a number of bishops referred approvingly to global “bonds of affection,” mutually felt and facilitated by endless debate. 

Whether reporting on organizational structures at the national and global levels or doing a deep dive into parish politics locally, the authors return again and again to the various ways that Anglican belief, practice, and identity are formed and reformed by ongoing discussions between the major players and their parishioners. Though critics often boil down large religious questions to simple matters of interpretation, Brittain and McKinnon are unwilling to do so. They recognize that traditions are created, maintained, and altered through deliberation over time. 

This frame makes for a fascinating read, regardless of your personal faith or politics. From a left-liberal perspective, the text offers no shortage of eye-rollable statements from conservative bishops with regressive commitments. And yet it is impossible to experience these without considering them in their very complicated context, as tiny links in a massive network that sprawls in space and time and coheres within either only to the extent that negotiation allows. A tradition is a formidable thing, certain to contain a diversity of elements that may be prioritized or not. Those who desire a more open and inclusive practice will be inevitably countered by those who value fidelity to the more restrictive past, and perhaps neither posture is simply wrong. It’s a matter of emphasis—the tradition changes slowly as different elements are emphasized. Anyone who doesn’t approve of the change is free to say so, and will. If that effort fails, they can always leave. But as Brittain and McKinnon note, most stay. 

At present, the fate of the Anglican Communion remains in doubt. When the North American church split, Archbishop Justin Welby sided with TEC and has stated that the ACNA is not a part of the global Communion. But the African bishops do recognize ACNA, and GAFCON has demonstrated a willingness to boycott international meetings in protest over the Communion’s acceptance of LGBTQ ordination. With the 2020 Lambeth Conference looming in the near distance, tension builds. Interested parties await the release—in one form or another—of nearly two decades of slowly building pressure. The future will depend on what the bishops are prepared to say, how well they say it, and whether the love they share can survive the principles that, in some cases, they don’t.

If you’re somehow invested in the future of global Anglicanism, this may be the book for you. If you’re invested in the future of LGBTQ inclusion in religious movements globally, it’s probably a safe bet also. If you’re invested in both, it’s a sure thing; if neither, then not. But I suspect that all students and scholars of religion will find plenty here to chew on. In my experience it is best to chew slowly, with coffee.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eric C. Miller is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher Craig Brittain is Dean of Divinity and Margaret E. Fleck Chair in Anglican Studies at Trinity College, University of Toronto. His publications include A Plague on Both Their Houses: Liberal vs. Conservative Christians and the Divorce of the Episcopal Church USA, Religion at Ground Zero: Theological Responses to Times of Crises, and The Weight of Objectivity: Critical Social Theory and Theology.

Andrew McKinnon is Senior Lecturer of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen.

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