Last week, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) gathered in Rome for a further round of ecumenical discussion. Now that the Anglicans have female bishops, gay bishops, and are well along the path toward same-sex marriage, is there any point?
Cynics would argue that the ecumenical blabfest is mere window dressing. One critic likened it to those endless rounds of détente during the Soviet era in which both sides shook hands and smiled for the cameras, but were really waiting to see which side would cave first.
Pope Francis thinks otherwise. While recognizing the “grave obstacles to unity” erected by the Anglicans, in his opening remarks he told the delegates not to give up hope.
“The cause of unity is not an optional undertaking and the differences which divide us must not be seen as inevitable …. Despite difficulties, we must not lose heart, but we must trust even more in the power of the Holy Spirit, who can heal and reconcile us, and accomplish what humanly does not seem possible.”
Not only does unity seem impossible at this point, but movements within global Anglicanism itself are moving towards schism instead of unity. Earlier this month, the leaders of an organization named GAFCON met in London. GAFCON stands for Global Anglican Future Conference. Spearheaded by African Anglican bishops, GAFCON now includes representatives from North America, Australia, and South America.
Protestant-Evangelical in complexion, GAFCON was formed in reaction to the liberal drift within established Anglicanism. As the Episcopal Church of the USA and the Church of England moved to ordain female bishops and embrace the LGBT agenda, bishops in the developing world first protested, and then began to form their own parallel church. Tiptoeing around the troublesome word “schism,” the GAFCON bishops insist that they remain the authentic and emerging voice of Anglicanism, and their organization simply provides member churches an alternative to the worldwide Anglican Communion.
The Anglican Communion has been the historic global confederation of Anglican Churches. Headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the bishops of the various national and independent churches met once a decade at the Lambeth Conference. However, the last Lambeth Conference in 2008 was boycotted by the founders of GAFCON, who held an alternative global conference in Jerusalem one month before Lambeth. In a significant move, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby announced last September that the next Lambeth Conference scheduled for 2018 was to be canceled. It must be assumed that the absence of the African bishops makes the global conference an absurdity. Furthermore, Welby’s cancellation of Lambeth indicates genuine awareness that the Anglican Communion as a worldwide body is on its last legs.
With its African leadership, GAFCON represents the future of the Anglican Church. The Episcopal Church of the USA, under the leadership of presiding bishop Katherine Jeffers Schori, has suffered a disastrous decline. Using strong-arm tactics to bully disenchanted Episcopalians into line, Schori has overseen plummeting numbers and falling revenues. Meanwhile, the Church of England, following the Episcopalians’ enthusiasm for liberal causes, has shared the Episcopal Church’s drastic fall in worshippers. The Episcopal Church membership has dropped from 3.6 million in the 1960s to fewer than 1.4 million today; Church of England attendance has halved in the past 40 years.
Meanwhile, as John L. Allen Jr. reports in “The Future Church,” Christianity in Africa is burgeoning, and the Anglican Church accounts for a significant part of the growth. The Pew Forum reports that at the beginning of the 20th century, Anglicans from sub-Sahara Africa made up only 0.4 percent of Anglicans worldwide. Today they comprise more than 45 percent. When that is contrasted with the fact that the Episcopal Church makes up less than 4 percent, one can understand the disenchantment of African bishops at the hugely disproportionate presence that North American Anglicans have at the global Anglican table.
Unless there is some unexpected turnaround in the Church of England and the Anglican churches of the developed world, GAFCON is the Anglican Communion of the future. If so, what does this development mean for Anglican-Roman Catholic ecumenism?
First, it should be recognized that the old form of Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue is finished. Started during the fresh optimism of the 1960s, ecumenism between Anglicans and Roman Catholics included convergence on liturgical matters running parallel with regular discussions among theologians on both sides. The problem with this model is that the Anglican theologians were invariably from the more Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican Church. They were also almost exclusively drawn from the Church of England and the Episcopal Church. The Africans were scarcely included. Like Cardinal Walter Kasper, most members of the Episcopal and Anglican churches didn’t think the Africans were worth listening to.
As the Anglicans on both sides of the Atlantic proceeded with their progressive agenda, discussions with the Catholic Church became increasingly strained. Despite diplomatic noises from both sides, it is generally agreed that the Anglicans have introduced such “grave obstacles to unity” as to put any real ecumenical hopes on hold. Pope Benedict XVI did not improve matters by erecting the Anglican Ordinariate — a structure within the Catholic Church that provides disenchanted Anglicans a semi-detached home within Catholicism.
The interesting connection here is that African Anglicans and Catholics are unhappy with the mainstream Anglicans in the UK and the USA for the same reasons. If ARCIC is to have any relevance, then the discussions must shift their focus from New York and Canterbury to Nigeria and Kenya. The present ARCIC discussions are old, stale, and stalemated. The pope is right to encourage hope because the future could be bright if African Anglicans and Catholics took charge of the discussions.
Such an advance will not be easy because the majority of African Anglicans hold to a Protestant Evangelical theology. Where the English colonized they also evangelized, and in the 19th century, it was mostly the Evangelicals in the Church of England who sent out missionaries. The majority of African Anglicans are therefore low-church Protestants and carry with them the usual misunderstandings and prejudices against Catholics that accompany Evangelical Protestantism.
However, there is also a positive reason why Western style ecumenism doesn’t work in Africa: It’s not needed. Under threat from Islam, Western decadence and materialism, pagan tribal religions, and tyrannical political regimes, African Christians are in survival mode. Catholic, Anglicans, and other Christians are surrounded by a range of enemies, and where persecution and martyrdom are imminent there exists what Pope Francis calls “the ecumenism of blood.” African Catholics and Evangelicals probably feel no need of formal theological ecumenical talks because they are already brothers and sisters in arms — supporting one another against their mutual foes.
In his address to the members of ARCIC, Pope Francis also recognized this factor. He acknowledged a bond of unity among Catholics and Anglicans that goes beyond theological and historical division: the witness of the persecuted.
“The blood of these martyrs will nourish a new era of ecumenical commitment, a fervent desire to fulfill the last will and testament of the Lord: that all may be one. The witness by these our brothers and sisters demands that we live in harmony with the Gospel and that we strive with determination to fulfill the Lord’s will for his Church. Today the world urgently needs the common, joyful witness of Christians …. Together let us invoke the gifts of the Holy Spirit in order to respond courageously to ‘the signs of the times’ which are calling all Christians to unity and common witness.”
We should, therefore, expect to see a new kind of Christianity emerge from Africa and the rest of the developed world. These Christians will have loyalties to formal institutions and take the name “Catholic” or “Anglican,” but there will be far more that unites them through a shared culture, shared challenges, and shared spirituality than divides them. The historical reasons for the Protestant-Catholic divide are, for the Africans, the stuff of centuries-old European history.
Their church is young, growing, and under threat, and they have far more pressing problems to worry about.