Some twenty years ago, I remember Dick Lucas describing how he, John Stott and others had tried repeatedly to mobilise African bishops in preparation for successive Lambeth Conferences. The English evangelicals, he said, patiently explained to the Africans the importance of the political process. The Africans nodded, then, when asked their opinion, smiled broadly and gave their testimony.
That was then. This is now. After years of domination by a post-colonial Anglo-Saxon hegemony, identified in a recent article by Dr Michael Poon, the Anglican Communion is facing the new Realpolitik of the Global South coalition.
The threat to exclude, or at least minimise the presence of, the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church and the Archbishop of York represents both the unpleasant nature of the present situation and the demise of the forces which have brought it about.
Constitutionally, the English have an inherent dislike of confrontation and clarity in matters of religion. Our is an ‘inclusive’ church, not because we have a doctrine of inclusion, but because we have a dislike of exclusion. In Rowan Williams, it must be admitted, this is given a more theological definition, but for the most part, it is simply an aversion to the kind of plain speaking in matters of religion which exclusion requires. (Of course Williams is Welsh, but his theological stance entirely suited him for his most English of appointments.) In contrast with a certain high street bank, we are the Church that doesn’t like to say ‘No’.
We are, however, part of a Communion which contains many who have said ‘Yes’ to a breadth of theological and moral persuasions which is only temporarily sustainable alongside the old traditions. It is clear from the experience in the USA and Canada that if the former orthodoxy is reduced to the status of an option within an ostensibly ‘inclusive church’, the pressures that brought about this change will soon drive orthodoxy to the margins.
The English, and to a certain extent the Welsh and the Irish, believe they can maintain the interim situation between the old and new orthodoxies indefinitely, and identify this as the Anglican ‘Middle Way’. Both the North Americans and the Africans, however, along with their own allies, are firmly convinced this neither can nor should be done. Each believes there must be, and therefore desires, a decisive outcome.
For those who dominate TEC and the Anglican Church in Canada, the full inclusion of lesbian and gay sexualities now, with some yet-to-be-decided provision for bisexuals in the future, is a matter of justice directly comparable to the ending of slavery or the emancipation of women. Equally, for those in the Global South coalition, such an inclusion is an outright denial of what it means to be ‘church’.
The last Lambeth Conference illustrated what this meant. The final shape of Resolution 1.10 was clearly not what had been intended at the outset by those who were nominally in control of the agenda. Equally, the huge vote in favour was not what had been anticipated. Yet the outcome was never going to be a ‘victory’ for Conservatives. On the contrary, it was obvious that the Americans and their allies would go home, lick their wounds, and prepare for a comeback. The road for the Americans led directly to the election of Vicky Imogene Robinson. The road in the UK led to the campaigns by LGCM, Changing Attitude, Inclusive Church and others.
The irresistible forces and immovable objects involved are now meeting in Dar es Salaam. The outcome will not be pretty. Past failures by the central English institutions to act with resolve have left both sides nursing hurts and grievances and neither in a real mood for true compromise. However, where once the Anglo-Saxons held the aces, rather as European armies had the Maxim gun, now a new political awareness, coupled with sheer weight of numbers, has given the former colonial churches new power. There seems little doubt they will use it, and sadly there is equally little likelihood they will use it entirely with finesse.
Revd John P Richardson