As I travel this summer, I am thinking often of a man named Howard Johnson. He was the canon theologian at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in the 1950s and early 1960s. From 1959 to 1961, he took a leave of absence and – at the prompting of the Presiding Bishop’s Council on Anglican Relations – he visited every province of the Anglican Communion in one long journey – 730 days of non-stop travel. When he returned, he wrote a book about it called Global Odyssey and spoke widely about his travels.
At the 1963 Anglican Congress in Toronto, he had this to say:
We Anglicans stumbled into universality – prodded, I believe, by Providence. But our consciousness of ourselves has not yet caught up with the reality of ourselves. In actuality we are a multiracial, multilingual, multicultural body, but in awareness we are still parochial and provincial.
I used to think this was still true. Certainly the vast majority of Episcopalians and Anglicans I have met – especially in the U.S. – identify first with their local parish, second with their diocese, third with their national church, and fourth with the Anglican Communion. Many never make it beyond the parish level.
But then I came to Nigeria. I continue to be amazed at how many Nigerian Anglicans know about and are interested in ongoing conflicts in the Anglican Communion. I’m not talking about bishops and archdeacons here. The parishioners I’ve spoken with know something about it as well. Obviously, it’s impossible to draw sweeping judgments on these things when I will only ever met a small handful of the members of the Anglican Church of Nigeria but I thought one young man’s comment was telling the other day. When I asked him what he knew about the American church, he said, “I know there are some in the church who obey the Scripture and some who do not. We have sent bishops to help those who obey Scripture and have not turned it upside down to suit them.” The impressive weekly diocesan paper carries quite a bit of news on global Anglican affairs. One archdeacon I met has read reports from the Episcopal Church’s General Convention and the Lambeth Conference going back to the late 1950s. How many American priests have done that with their own Convention reports, let alone the reports of the Church of Nigeria?
As I’ve noted, all the church signs here identify the churches as, for instance, St. Paul’s Church, Diocese of Owerri, Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion). No one has been able to tell me why they say “Anglican Communion,” instead of just “Anglican Church of Nigeria” but it’s the way it has always been and means many Anglicans here are, by default, reminded of the existence of the Communion every time they go to church.
There’s also a strong effort to raise young people in a particularly Anglican identity. That same young man used words like “preferment (of archdeacons),” “translation (of a bishop),” “collation (of canons),” and knew about the Lambeth Quadrilateral. He learned these things in his youth group. The mind boggles. How many American Episcopalians know these sorts of things?
Those who care more deeply about an issue, it is clear, usually triumph in the end. Right now, Americans – and broadly “liberal” Anglicans in general – are completely ceding the playing field. This is in keeping, of course, with Americans’ generally narrow-minded approach to the world that can’t see why everything that’s important isn’t found right at home. But given this context, it’s not surprising that the forces that tend towards disunity and fracture are doing so well.