Anglican Communion on the Brink of Formal Schism

Deep divides between member churches of the Anglican Communion, over homosexuality and other issues, could precipitate its breakup as early as this week.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (photo: Edward Pentin/

CANTERBURY, England — The Anglican Communion stands on the verge of formal schism this week, as its leaders began meeting Monday to discuss the issue of homosexuality and other matters in Canterbury, England.

The five-day meeting, called by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, is seen as a last-ditch attempt to keep the ecclesial community together following a long-running dispute over homosexuality and deeper differences over how Anglicans should interact with today’s largely secular, post-Christian society.

The global summit of 38 primates of the Anglican Communion, which claims to have 85 million followers worldwide, is usually held every two years, but it hasn’t convened since 2011, principally because of the dispute over homosexuality. This week’s meeting will also discuss other issues such as religious violence and climate change.

Since 2003, when Episcopalians (the American branch of Anglicanism) made an active homosexual bishop, divisions have deepened between largely Western Anglicans, who would like to see greater acceptance of homosexuals in the church, and those, mostly in Africa and Asia, who argue it is contrary to Scripture and 2,000 years of Christian teaching. Tensions increased last year when the Episcopal Church moved towards solemnizing same-sex “marriage.”

Pressure has also been building in the run-up to this week’s meeting with more than 100 Anglicans, including the dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, sending a letter to the archbishops of Canterbury and York urging repentance for treating homosexuals as “second-class citizens.”

“The time has come,” they wrote, for Anglicans to acknowledge that they have failed in their duty “to care for LGBTI members of the Body of Christ around the world.” The Anglican Communion, they added, needed to “apologize” for not “challenging ill-informed beliefs about LGBTI people.”

The signers of the letter said they understood there are “differing ways of interpreting the Scriptures” but urged the primates to be “prophetic” and “Christlike” in dealing with “our LGBTI sisters and brothers who have been ignored and even vilified for too long.”

The Anglican bishop of Oxford, the Rt. Rev. David Ison, even argued for change by seemingly equating those opposed to acceptance of homosexual practices with ISIS. “The sexuality divide focuses the big question facing the whole of humanity,” he told Christian Today. “How do we treat people who are different from us? The forces of Daesh (ISIS) in Syria seek to eradicate difference and make everyone else like them, through violence and the threat of death.”


Vocal Opposition

But other Anglican leaders have been equally vocal in their opposition to the move. As the Anglican Communion cannot excommunicate people or provinces, bishops in favor of Christian tradition have formed a group, the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), which is threatening to break away entirely unless “godly order” is restored.

Reports say Anglican archbishops from Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, South Sudan, Rwanda and Congo will probably stage a walkout within a day or two of the inauguration of the summit. They are calling on British and U.S. prelates to publicly give up their support for same-sex “marriage” and actively homosexual bishops.

The Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Anglican bishop of Rochester, England, said he does not agree with the argument that there can be “different interpretations of Scripture” on the issue. “The Bible is clear on many things, including its teaching on human sexuality, and the Church has upheld that teaching for 2,000 years,” he said.

Of the 38 Anglican provinces, only eight are in favor of acceptance of same-sex unions: the U.S., Canada, Scotland, Wales, New Zealand, South India, South Africa and Brazil.

Since becoming archbishop of Canterbury in 2013, Welby has tried to keep some semblance of unity, most notably by appointing a Nigerian, the Most Rev. Josiah Atkins Idowu-Fearon, general secretary of the Anglican Communion. Unity in the Episcopal Church has also been helped by having an African-American evangelical, the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, as its presiding bishop since last November, although some do not believe his election will be of help. Furthermore, Welby has already said he thinks it might be a good idea to effectively dissolve the Anglican Communion and replace it with a much looser grouping.


Vatican Perspective

The Vatican, meanwhile, is watching events in Canterbury closely. It argues that, for dialogue between Rome and Canterbury to effectively continue, the Anglican Communion must stay as one, but it recognizes that its dispersed authority model makes that an almost impossible task. It is perplexed at Anglicans’ wish to allow local and regional bishops to decide on doctrinal matters without seemingly having a sense of what is owed to the communion as a whole, but recognizes that Welby is not, as he has said himself, an “Anglican pope.”

Some see the problems affecting the Anglican Communion as similar to those facing the Catholic Church and all Christian denominations. Father Ed Tomlinson of the Anglican Ordinariate of Tunbridge Wells in England has argued that what is dividing the body of Christ is a more fundamental issue than just homosexuality. Rather, he contends, it is being caused by “modernists” who have “lost their faith but do not wish to lose their Christian culture and identity.” The miracle that is needed, he believes, is for the Church to “wake from slumber, stand for truth and refute error.”

For Lord Christopher Monckton of Brenchley, author of Anglican Orders: Null and Void?, the only doctrine in the Church of England "is the doctrine that there is no doctrine."

He told the Register Jan. 11 that since Anglicans began "openly to defy" their belief in "even the sola Scriptura to which they once clung — for instance by manufacturing a homosexual 'bishop' in contravention of the biblical teaching that homosexuality is wrong because it is medically dangerous to its practitioners — they abandoned even scriptural doctrines and thereupon ceased to be a 'religion' in any recognizable sense."

He said that is why the churches in Africa, which still adhere to the scriptural doctrines, "no longer recognize Anglicanism as their own."

"The Anglican religion is no longer anything much to do either with England or with religion," he said. "It has a questionable past, an uneasy present and no future."

For now, the Vatican is hoping and praying that Welby can hold the Anglican Communion together, but if there were to be a definitive split, it would try to continue dialogue across the divisions, speaking to both parties if necessary.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.