In February, the Anglican Church in Tanzania elected a new chief bishop (or primate, as Anglicans call them). It was a close election, in which the incumbent was narrowly defeated. Jacob Chimeledya, a diocesan bishop, won.
So far, so good. Different provinces have different rules for primates. Some are elected for a single, fixed term (the United States, Sudan), some are appointed for life (England), and some are allowed to run for a second term when the first ends, like Tanzania.
Unfortunately for Tanzanian Anglicans, a handful of conservative Anglicans got a bee in their bonnet about the election. It turns out the defeated incumbent was a more reliable supporter of their causes. So—briefly—they began to raise holy hell, denouncing the election in just about every form imaginable—despite the fact that none of those raising these charges appears to have been on hand for the election, nor had any special insight into the local dynamics that produced the outcome.
The vitriol became so significant that the Tanzanian provincial secretary was forced to issue an unprecedented statement explaining the election. For me, the key paragraph was this:
The internet can be used to develop relationships, but it can also be used to spread gossip and destabilize the church. None of those writing these false stories sought to confirm them with us. It is very sad that someone who did not attend the election would spoil what was confirmed by all our bishops as a fair and transparent election.
This has not stopped the vitriol, which continues in various corners of the Internet to this day.
The question this raises for me is this: is this what we really want to be as a world church? A global group of people on a perpetual witch hunt, determined to find enemies where none exist, see every situation through the lens of what matters most to us, and create conflict as a means of perpetuating our existence? That may be fine for a cabinet or Supreme Court nominee on Capitol Hill, but surely the church can model something a little different?
(Not incidentally, the faux-controversy over the election shows the mistake of placing so much emphasis on primates’ meetings, as Anglicans have increasingly done in the last decades. Primates are important—but not that important.)
In this context, Justin Welby’s attendance at the enthronement of now-Archbishop Chimeledya seems to me one of the most significant acts of his young archiepiscopacy. His presence said, essentially, “I believe you. I am with you.” In a needlessly controversial situation such as this, the power of that affirmation cannot be underestimated. Wouldn’t it be great if Tanzanian Anglicans heard a little bit more of that from their sisters and brothers around the world, rather than the vitriol and invective to which they have become accustomed?