Though U.S. media often downplay foreign news, astute religion writers will be closely watching London next week and Moscow in the longer term.
London: Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has called a Jan. 11–16 meeting with 37 fellow “primates” who head the national branches in the Anglican Communion.
Some analysts consider it a make-or-break moment on whether this global body of as many as 85 million adherents can hang together. Most stateside journalists won’t make the trek to England but will want to develop Yankee angles with the assistance of The AP, Reuters, YouTube, British news dailies and Anglican websites, official and otherwise.
This is the latest and possibly the culminating event after years -- decades really -- of wrangling over biblical authority and interpretation, especially whether to accept partnered same-sex priests and bishops, and gay marriages. The fight pits the liberal Episcopal Church in the U.S., led by brand-new Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, and Archbishop Fred Hiltz’s Anglican Church in Canada, over against large and growing national churches in Africa and the “Global South.” Welby’s own Church of England is stuck somewhere in between.
Welby hopes he can maintain some titular leadership as the “Communion” evolves into a looser federation to allow leeway on faith disputes. But doctrinal conservatives seem prepared to reject such schemes and walk away. Already they have formed the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (“GAFCON”) as an alternative international body that claims to represent the majority of world Anglicanism’s membership, especially in terms of believers currently active in pews.
GAFCON is chaired by the archbishop of Kenya along with primates from the provinces of Congo, Nigeria, Rwanda, South America, Sudan, and Uganda, plus Archbishop Foley Beach of the Anglican Church in North America -- a schism from the U.S. and Canadian denominations -- who’s supposed to be present for at least some of the London discussions.
Several GAFCON archbishops boycotted both the prior gathering of primates in 2011, and the“Lambeth Conference” of all Anglican bishops in 2008. Normally the next Lambeth confab, the first to be chaired by Welby, would occur in 2018, but plans are on hold, pending whether the Communion hangs together next week.
In a warning shot before the gathering, the GAFCON primates declared that “we cannot rewrite the Bible to suit the spirit of a secular age.” They said conservative leaders have agreed to attend but “their continued presence will depend on action” by Welby and a majority of primates for “robust commitments to biblical teaching and morality.”
That warning was further interpreted in a Jan. 2 piece by Jonathan Petre, religious affairs correspondent for London’s The Mail on Sunday. He reported that “insiders” say eight to 12 archbishops are prepared to quit the meeting and hold a separate session nearby unless the liberals “repent” -- an impossibility -- or are dismissed from the fellowship by their colleagues. High stakes.
Now, late reports are saying that Uganda's Archbishop Stanley Ntagali plans to boycott the London meeting and future world gatherings unless Anglican leaders restore "godly order." Ntagali also stated that he and his GAFCON colleagues are no longer "in communion" with the U.S. and Canadian churches.
Moscow: In the longer term, religion scribes should keep a close eye on the great Orthodox Church of Russia, particularly in light of escalating troubles between that nation and the United States. Two informative church surveys well worth a close read have been offered by Fred Weir in the Jan. 4 Christian Science Monitor, and by Sergei Chapnin for last November’s issue of the journal First Things. In essence, both writers say the church has evolved into a political prop for the regime of the nation’s quasi-dictator Vladimir Putin, who appears to be a sincere believer in aspects of Orthodoxy rather than merely a cynical manipulator of the church.
Weir says “the Orthodox Church sees itself as the spiritual generator of public policy and the ideological bulwark of the state,” compensated in return by the state’s blessing, prestige, and funding. To Chapnin, no return to the pre-Communist past is feasible, and the promising reforms and democracy of the post-Soviet years are also now dead. Thus in both internal and external policy, Putin-era Russian Orthodoxy is “neo-imperial,” in fact “neo-Soviet" and hostile to the churches and governments of the West.
Much to ponder.