Thinking Anglicans

Archbishop Major?

The Economist has on 14 August, published in its regular Bagehot column, a piece titled Archbishop Major which asks With the Anglican Communion on the verge of schism, can Rowan Williams learn anything from John Major?

Note: Back in July, the Economist wrote about the Jeffrey John affair, and quoted Peter Akinola of Nigeria as saying: “I cannot think of how a man in his senses would be having a sexual relationship with another man. Even in the world of animals, dogs, cows, lions, we don’t hear of such things.” The Economist then said:
“Why should the Archbishop of Canterbury pay any attention to such on outburst? First, the Nigerian Primate has powerful allies, both at home and abroad. Social conservatives in the Church of England, who are fast becoming expert organisers, had by June 25th set up a new network, Anglican Mainstream, to lobby against the appointment of gay clergy…
“The second reason why… has to do with the increasing centralisation of the Anglican communion… George Carey… has bequeathed… an institution in which decisions taken in one diocese are subject to global scrutiny and comment, and in which the head of the church is expected to answer for the whole.”

This new article is available electronically only to those who subscribe to the magazine, and I cannot reproduce it here in full without breaching copyright. But there is a summary below.

I think the comparison with Major has some merit, although obviously RW and JM are leagues apart, not least in IQ. Certainly, the claim that there is no chance of a “miraculous reassertion of the good manners and tolerance that have been the traditional hallmarks of Anglicanism” seems pretty accurate to me when reviewing the recent remarks of African and American conservative anglicans.

The article compares RW’s situation to that facing John Major when he was prime minister, and sees a parallel between the substantial, well-organised minorities who opposed JM then on the European single currency and who oppose RW now on homosexual clergy. In both cases, says the Economist, “their views on a particular issue were so strongly held that group loyalty and obedience to properly constituted authority could be ignored”.

Liberals, they say, are convinced that left to his own devices, his attitude towards sexuality would be as inclusive as their own. But, says the Economist, that is not what will happen.

Socially conservative evangelicals distrust him, but they think he is frightened of them and can be bullied into appeasement. The shameful treatment of the openly homosexual (albeit celibate) Canon Jeffrey John suggests they might be right. …Threats by evangelical churches to withhold their dues if Dr John was not forced to step down were taken seriously in Lambeth Palace. As a supporter of Dr John observed: “Rowan was taken aback by the size of his mailbag”.

Turning to the Primates meeting in October, the Economist says:

Perhaps Dr Williams has a clear idea of what he wants to achieve with this summit of the 38 Anglican primates. But he has admitted in the past to being not much good at strategy. According to those close to him, he seems to be hoping for a miraculous reassertion of the good manners and tolerance that have been the traditional hallmarks of Anglicanism. Fat chance. Too many people are spoiling for a fight.

Anglican Mainstream, a conservative pressure group that emerged from the campaign against Dr John, has been busily pumping up the indignation of evangelical primates from “the global south”, such as the outspoken Archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, and the Archbishop of the West Indies, Drexel Gomez. They and the ambitious Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, argue that the American church should be declared to be in impaired or broken communion following Mr Robinson’s appointment. There is also much talk of precipitating a “realignment” of the church if no action is taken against the Episcopalians, which many take to be a threat to remove the Church of England from its position of leadership within the Anglican Communion, or just plain schism.

The liberal position is then summarised this way:

The liberals are determined that Dr Williams should use the two-day primates’ meeting to confront what one describes as “the blackmail and coercion; the appalling interference in the work of independent provinces”. They point out that if any English province intervened in Nigeria there would be hell to pay. Respect for cultural differences, they claim, should be a two-way street. Given that very nearly all the money that sustains the church in Africa and Asia comes from England and, above all, America, the liberals say that “realignment” is a bluff that Dr Williams should call.”

In conclusion, the Economist says that RW will (like JM) become an object of contempt for his refusal to allow the Anglican Communion to destroy itself.

He will appear weak by seeking compromise and will disappoint and infuriate nearly everybody. But he may well be right to do so. Great institutions with long histories should try not to destroy themselves over transient issues, however important they may seem at the time or however keenly differences may be felt by individuals. After a while, the Tories realised that their obsession with Europe was not shared by the electorate. The same applies to the Anglican Church’s current obsession with homosexuality. It is simply not something that most people in the pews care very much about, whether they live in Oxfordshire or Gambia. It will pass. Dr Williams can at least take some comfort from that.