There is this old saying that wits have long used to describe life in the modern Anglican Communion: "The Africans pray, the Americans pay and the British write the resolutions." Readers will also see variations on that final clause such as, "the British make/set (all) the rules."
But you get the point. Of course, the archbishop of Canterbury is also supposed to be the person -- as the first among equals -- who gets to call the most important meetings (while setting the rules for what goes on).
But what if (a) the Americans were to face an incredible budget crunch, in an age of imploding membership demographics, and (b) the Africans were no longer willing to pray (or more importantly, share the Sacraments) with Western progressives who have an evolving view of key elements of the Creed and centuries of Christian moral theology?
At that point, there could be a big -- actually, "historic" is the operative word -- story in the world's third largest Christian communion. Here is Godbeat veteran Ruth Gledhill, writing at ChristianToday.com:
The next Lambeth Conference, the ten-yearly gathering of more than 600 Anglican bishops from around the world, is in jeopardy because of the row over homosexuality that is dividing the Church.
The Anglican Communion, the body that represents the episcopal leadership of millions of Anglicans worldwide led by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, is split by the battle between its conservative and liberal wings over gay relationships and gay ordination.
The last meeting in Canterbury in 2008 was marred by boycotts by African and other Global South bishops who objected to the consecration of the openly gay bishop Gene Robinson in the United States. Other bishops and archbishops who did attend however were incensed that Bishop Gene was not himself invited out of an attempt to appease the conservative wing.
Of course there is way more to this war than battles over gay rights (see GetReligion posts on "Anglican Timeline" syndrome), but it is almost always the marriage-and-sex angle that grabs the mainstream headlines.
The origin of this report is somewhat awkward for your GetReligionistas, since the news reached the mainstream press through the work of our Media Project colleague, the Rev. George Conger -- acting in his long-standing role as a commentator on Anglican news and trends.
The news was, in a way, hiding in plain sight in recent remarks -- posted online by Episcopal News Service -- made by U.S. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. Lambeth Palace immediately denied her bombshell. Thus, the media plot thickens.
Well, it thickens everywhere except in the United States, where this story is getting very little coverage. Religion News Service columnist David Gibson did, in this week's Wednesday edition of the digital digest from that wire service, point toward a report in The Irish Times, a short news story that basically echoed Gledhill's work (but without a hat-tip to Conger).
Here's a key development in Gledhill's story, one combining sexual politics and red ink. Once again, the presiding bishop is speaking:
Whenever the next Lambeth Conference occurs "it will have a rather different format," she predicted. For instance, it is likely that spouses will not attend "simply because of scale issues and regional contextual issues. Bishops' spouses fill very different roles in different parts of the communion and the feedback from the last one was that it did not serve the spouses particularly well."
Removing the popular bishops' spouses agenda would at least resolve the "issue" of married gay bishops. The Church of England bishops along with the majority of Anglican bishops worldwide remain resolutely opposed to allowing gay clergy to marry, even though gay marriage is now legal in secular law in Britain and elsewhere. In his new book the Bishop of Buckingham Alan Wilson claims that one in ten of Church of England bishops are secretly gay. The campaigner Peter Tatchell told Christian Today this week that he intends to out some of these if they do not out themselves.
Will the Africans come to Lambeth to pray? Don't count on it.
Stay tuned. And let us know if you see reporting in mainstream American media (think New York Times) on this truly global story, which has an obvious hook in New York City.
IMAGE: From the Episcopal Church photo library.