The new Anglicanism

“What do think will happen” a longtime Episcopalian asked me in Charlotte, N.C., “now that Archbishop … er … “ … Continued

“What do think will happen” a longtime Episcopalian asked me in Charlotte, N.C., “now that Archbishop … er … “

“Rowan Williams,” I said.

“ … yes, Rowan Williams, has decided to retire?”

The question took me aback. I rarely hear Episcopalians talking about the Archbishop of Canterbury, the London-based head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church as its U.S. branch.

Many Episcopalians pray for the 61-year-old prelate every Sunday, but as Canterbury has gotten more conservative and more solicitous of arch-conservative Anglican bishops from the Third World, Anglicans in developed nations choose to walk their own progressive path.

That separateness was accentuated in 2010, when, in an act of extraordinary rudeness, Williams’ office asked the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church not to wear a miter, the pointy hat that symbolizes a bishop’s authority, while preaching in London.

Why? Because the presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, was a she. Later, she called the request “beyond bizarre.”

Two years earlier, the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops from around the world wouldn’t even open its doors to the Bishop of New Hampshire, one of the giants of the Episcopal Church, because Gene Robinson — while safely a he — was a gay he. He’s not the first gay bishop by any means, but he’s the first to be honest about it.

Although anti-female and anti-gay tensions at Lambeth are said to have subsided in recent years, I told my questioner that Williams’ retirement after 10 tears in office probably would start a new war.

Look for right-wing clerics like those of Uganda and Nigeria to seize the moment to marginalize women, gays and denominations that affirm them. As Anglican numbers dwindle in the West and soar in Africa, the communion’s racial balance is shifting, and with it the balance of power.

It’s likely, I said, that the new archbishop will be a man of color, perhaps John Sentamu, the Ugandan-born Archbishop of York. The question is whether he will pursue a conservative agenda centered in gender and sexuality, or lead the church to tackle issues that truly matter: rampant greed, predatory corporations, widening gaps between haves and have-nots, and the terrifying rise of religious extremism, including church-backed legislation in Uganda to make homosexuality a capital crime.

What will come of this war? My crystal ball is hazy on such matters, but I said Episcopalians aren’t likely to turn conservative. Nor, in my opinion, do we have any appetite for continued battles over gender and sexuality. We are looking at income inequality, joblessness, and growing intolerance as far more worrisome than the she-ness or gay-ness of church leaders.

If the global communion turns to the right and demands that we adopt bigotry as policy, I said we probably will just walk away. It’s just as likely that African bishops will lead as movement to kick us out.

Will walkout or eviction happen? Probably not. It is the Anglican way to find compromise, the cherished “via media.” But I doubt that American bishops will again look the other way if some of their colleagues are treated rudely at Lambeth. After a muted protest in 2008, I suspect they will show more spine next time.

At the pew level, meanwhile, where my questioner probably isn’t alone in not knowing the Archbishop of Canterbury’s name, Episcopalians are talking more about growth, new life, young leadership and casting their lot with the 99 percent.

And that, it seems to me, is precisely where we should be.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter (at)tomehrich.)

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  • Lairbe

    To suggest that the Third World Anglican are walking ‘their own progressive path’ is a gross misrepresentation of reality. From the perspective of ‘progressive’ Episcopalians the path of Third Wold Anglicans is often a path of regression. As for the way things will go one needs to keep in mind that the two most important elements of any religion is power and gold…

    Unfortunately the numbers are on the side of the Third Wold Anglicans so they have the power – and under the worst circumstances mob will rule.. Fortunately most of the Gold which keeps the Anglican Communion going comes from “The Episcopal Church” which is the American element of the World Wide Anglican Communion. Should the Third World decide to kick us out of the World Wide Anglican Communion they will loose access to our Gold (which funds their missions). Given these realities someone will probably come up with a compromise. Hopefully that compromise will not throw women, gays and other minorities under the bus.

  • JoannaCP

    What other man of color could get the job? The Archbishop of Canterbury is the Primate of All England and is usually a senior bishop in the UK. There is no way somebody from outside the UK is going to be parachuted in.

  • blgriffith

    Of course, this commentary is biased. As a priest (who happens to be gay,) I have to say that over the last 10 years I have found Rowan Williams to be one of the few international Anglican leaders who has acted as an Anglican should – in a manner that is comprehensive to both the liberals and conservatives, rejecting none and attempt to keep all together. A lot of people don’t like Williams primarily because, IMHO, he refuses to bring down a hammer on the heads of the accuser’s opponents.

    As the ABC, he must represent the entire Communion whether he personally likes it or not – liberals and conservatives alike. While many have not liked him doing so, he simply continues to invite people to the table and those who wish to absent themselves, do. Bishop Robinson was not invited to Lambeth because he was and is the focus of so much of the angst. That may not have been fair to Robinson, but neither did the ABC invite all the irregular bishops appointed to the U.S. territory by overseas provinces. Woman bishops are not recognized as bishops in the Church of England – accordingly our Presiding Bishop is not considered a bishop in England. Thus, to wear that which signifies one to be a bishop is not consistent. I’m not defending the request/demand by the ABC, but it is understandable, strange, but understandable. (Of course, many say this was more about politics than anything else.)

    It is no secret that the Williams is not particularly fond of the American way of doing things, since we are so unilateral in most of what we do. Yes, we have the gold (though dwindling), but what we’ve witnessed over the past decade are people around the world standing up to the “arrogant-Americans” and saying, “We are not going to stand for this… you will not run over or rule over us any longer. Keep your gold.” We, as Americans, don’t know how to handle developing-world people standing up to us – we don’t like it. This is a foretaste of what will begin happening in the international political realm when other countries finally stand up to the U.S. and say, “No more!” It will be ugly.

    If tradition holds out, the next ABC will come from the Evangelical wing of the Church of England. It may well be that those who so despise the current ABC because he does not overtly support a liberal agenda may well eat their words in the years to come.