The gatehouse of Lambeth Palace, the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. (Photo Credit: Peter Jordan, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
This week’s suspension of the Episcopal Church of the USA from the Anglican Communion is a surprising move because it is so un-Anglican. Part of the historic Anglican mentality is to maintain corporate unity at all costs. Incredible theological sleight of hand, “re-interpretation” and ecclesiastical double think has been used down the decades to keep Anglicans together—some who believe in women priests and some who do not, some who believe in the sacraments and some who do not, some who believe the Bible and some who do not. Now, it seems the elastic cord that has held them all together has been stretched to its limit and snapped.
Without doubt the Anglican bishops’ decision was driven by the increasingly vocal and visible African contingent. Young, articulate, orthodox and angry, the African Anglican bishops are not only not willing to compromise over same sex marriage, they are also not willing to leave the Anglican communion over the issue. After the Episcopalians voted to accept same sex marriage, the Africans lecture to the them would have been, “You are the ones who have departed from the Scriptures and from the timeless teaching of the Christian Church. We’re not leaving. You must leave.”
As Catholics view this debacle there are several signals we would be foolish to ignore. First, the Africans are here to stay and they mean business. The North-South clash over issues of human sexuality is as vocal, visible and vibrant in the Catholic Church as it is in the Anglican. Who can forget Cardinal Kasper’s arrogant dismissal of the Africans last Spring, and the Africans assertiveness when sidelined from the synod on the family? The African Anglican victory will doubtless strengthen the resolve of not only the other Anglican African bishops, but also their Catholic brothers in the ongoing battles for the family.
Secondly, the Africans’ victory in this matter will re-orient those in the North who adhere to Biblical Christianity. Historic Christians in both the Anglican and Catholic churches will look to the Africans as the defenders of orthodoxy. Weary of bishops who seem timid and spineless in the North’s culture wars, the Africans will appear to be the saviors of historic and Biblical Christianity. The Anglican Church of North America is already aligned with African bishops. As the lights go down on the Francis papacy, Catholics of the North may well look to the continent of Africa for the next successor of Peter.
Finally, there may be an ecumenical kickback from the Anglican decision. One of the problems that have bogged down Anglican-Catholic discussions is the fact that the ecumenical blabfests have been dominated by theologians from the North who are notoriously ambiguous in their thought and language. Too often “progress” has been made by both sides watering down their language sufficiently and making statements ambiguous enough that both sides can agree. The Africans bring a certain edge and clarity to discussions which are lacking in the more nuanced North. Ecumenical discussions are bound to take a fresh turn with the increasing dominance of the Africans.
Finally, this decision is the first solid sign that the long-predicted shift in global Christianity’s center of gravity from the disenchanted, decadent and declining North to the vibrant and growing South is now upon us.