Minority Report: Anglican Communion edition

Some years ago, Tom Cruise starred in a movie called Minority Report. The plot revolves around three human “pre-cogs” who can tell when a murder is about to happen. Cruise and company swoop in, arrest the murderer before he or she can commit his crime, and save the day. Things begin to unravel when—to give away the ending—it turns out that three pre-cogs are not always in unanimous agreement but that the dissenting, minority reports are suppressed.

The phrase “minority report” has been stuck in my head lately—but in the context of the church in 2013, not Tom Cruise in 2054. A clear majority of Anglicans are female—yet three weeks worth of reporting in The Church Times about the GAFCON II conference in Nairobi quoted precisely one woman and allotted her one word: an unnamed Ugandan priest was to said have voted “No” on the final communique.

This is not to pick on either GAFCON or The Church Times. The four Anglican Instruments of Communion—the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primates Meetings, the Lambeth Conference, and the Anglican Consultative Council—are all dominated by men. (In part, this is because they are dominated by bishops, who tend to be male.) The people who are the primary drivers about debates about global Anglican futures tend to be male as well.

Anglicans have been led to believe that there are two sides in debates about our future: the liberals and the conservatives, each presenting unified and diametrically opposing views. But just as Cruise et al. had to learn that the unanimity of their pre-cogs was not what it seemed, so too Anglicans have to learn that we are dealing with more diversity than we may have imagined. Part of the purpose of my writing a book about the Anglican Communion that tries to move beyond bishops and describe life at the grassroots level in different parts of the world was to demonstrate that the loudest voices in the Communion are rarely the most representative—no matter how strenuously they claim they are.

All of this is to say something obvious: the church has a long way to go before we start reflecting the reality of the body of Christ in which we are joined.

This is not to say that the wounds of the Anglican Communion would be healed if we put women in charge. As I show in Backpacking through the Anglican Communion, my experience does not show that women somehow believe in unity and reconciliation in a way that men do not. But it is to say that the model of communion that has been put forth in the last several years has been one that has privileged a handful of voices and disregarded (suppressed?) a huge number of others.

So when we read reports foretelling the death of the Anglican Communion that are authored solely by men, we should label those minority reports—for that is precisely what they are.

“I’m not dead yet.” -The Anglican Communion

I have been staying up late several nights this week finishing the proofs of my new book about the Anglican Communion. It is a book that argues that not only is unity in a world communion possible, it is a vital part of that communion’s witness to the world.

Then I woke up this morning to read that Andrew Brown (“England’s most sanctimonious atheist,” in the words of one Church Times letter to the editor) thinks the Anglican Communion is dead.

Wow. Poor timing on my behalf.

But then I started reading the article and wondered just what grounds Brown had for making his case.

We might notice that his article commits more or less all the errors I outlined in a previous post about writing about the Anglican Communion—he doesn’t travel anywhere, he relies mostly on bishops and men as sources, etc., etc.

He writes, for instance of the Church of Nigeria, that it doesn’t matter how “many Anglicans there are there and however sincerely they seem to hate gay people.” I read that and I think, “Has he ever actually been to Nigeria? Are we talking about the same church?” Were people who write about the Anglican Communion to start moving from behind their computers and instead spend their time and money visiting with Anglicans, I think the story they would find is different. Instead, everyone sits comfortably in their prejudices and certainties and shows little desire to change that situation.

On the other hand, perhaps the Anglican Communion is dead. Perhaps the days when our understanding of the Communion was constituted almost solely by what bishops and other men had to say are coming to an end. Perhaps we can now start listening to the voices of the young, the female, the non-ordained and see that they are hardly in lockstep agreement with what their bishops have to say.

The core of my faith is the belief that death is not the end. Maybe we can pray that the death of our current forms of relationship will lead to a resurrection in newness and fullness of life.


But it’s going to take a willingness to move beyond the same old ways of doing business.

Backpacking Through the Anglican Communion: A Search for Unity

Exciting news! It’s time to raise the curtain on Book #2!

IMG_1594My next book, Backpacking Through the Anglican Communion: A Search for Unity, draws on the tens of thousands of miles I’ve travelled in recent years to show what Anglican life is like at the grassroots level around the world—in places as diverse as Nigeria, Ecuador, England, and China. Some of those travels first appeared in partial form on this blog; many of them did not.

More than a simple travelogue, the book also challenges the dominant narrative of disunity that so colours debates about the future of global Anglicanism. I show how the loudest voices in the Anglican Communion are rarely as representative as they think. In fact, when conversations about divisive issues—sexuality, Biblical interpretation, authority—are undertaken in a spirit of mutuality and vulnerability, they deepen—and not fracture—relationship.

IMG_3661IMG_2946Finally, the book is an argument that unity actually matters and that in our globalizing and fracturing world, Anglicans have an incredible opportunity to witness to the world—an opportunity we are singularly failing to grasp at this moment in time.

Backpacking Through the Anglican Communion: look for it in early 2014 from the Church Publishing family. And if you live outside the U.S. and want it published where you live, let me know so we can start talking about it now. Contact details are here.

The “threat” of the “new churches”

The Anglican province of West Africa has recently reorganized itself, and has a new archbishop and primate, Solomon Tilewa Johnson. In an interview, he identified two challenges for the church: poverty and “new churches.”

The Archbishop was referring to the fact that traditional Churches on the continent of Africa have been increasingly concerned about losing particularly younger worshippers to newer, more charismatic Churches, or losing them from church altogether.

The author of the article in the Anglican Communion News Service subtly opined that this latter threat was “surprising.” But if you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know it’s not.

After a trip to Nigeria 18 months ago, I asked, “What is Peter Akinola afraid of?” I saw, in my travels, the incredible growth of neo-Pentecostal churches and the way in which the growth of those churches threatened established denominations (Anglicanism chief among them) and made Anglicans become more like Pentecostals in theology, worship practice, approach to Scripture, and much else.

I returned from that trip, thought some more about it, and wrote a paper in which I argued that the Pentecostal explosion and its influence on Anglicans was one of the most under-reported stories in the Anglican Communion. That paper (which is a lot longer than a blog post) was published in the Journal of Anglican Studies, but is available for free online.

So I appreciate the frankness and honesty with which Archbishop Johnson raises the issue. It is clearly one that needs thoughtful reflection and consideration—what does it mean to be Anglican? Is the church designed to give people what they want or challenge them with a new way of living?—and it is encouraging to see a leader addressing the issue so openly.

UPDATE, 27 March 2013: This post is attracting quite a lot of attention lately, which is great. If you’re interested in reading my article in the Journal of Anglican Studies about “Anglocostalism,” you can find it by clicking here.

History repeats itself, first as tragedy then as…


Ten years ago, when Rowan Williams was new to Canterbury, there was a huge fuss over the new bishop of Reading. His name was Jeffrey John and while he was eminently qualified for the post, he was a gay man in a public, partnered relationship. (This is a commendable openness: it is widely known there are several gay bishops in the Church of England who chose not to be public about it.) Although he said it was a celibate relationship, the furore over his appointment was intense and led Rowan to lean on John to resign before he was consecrated, which he did. He’s now the dean of St. Alban’s. But the incident damaged Rowan’s standing with liberals and gave greater credence to conservatives who thought they couldn’t trust him because he’d let the appointment go forward in the first place. It’s probably safe to say it was not the tone Rowan wanted to set at the beginning of his archiepiscopacy.

Now, a decade on, the Church of England’s House of Bishops has decided that gay men in civil partnerships (this includes Jeffrey John) can be bishop, so long as they remain celibate. Leaving aside how nonsensical a policy this is, it raises the prospect that in the first months of a new archbishop of Canterbury’s term, Jeffrey John could again be appointed bishop. Indeed, there’s talk that John could be appointed Bishop of Durham, which will be vacant when Justin Welby is translated to Canterbury.

Bishops from some other Anglican provinces are already indicating their displeasure with the new policy. If John is appointed, it seems likely there will again be a furore in the Anglican Communion. It also seems that Justin Welby will have less ground than Rowan did to reverse the decision (if he wanted to): the public nature of the recent change means it would be humiliating for the church to reverse itself. (Not that the C of E is above regularly humiliating itself.)

But I’d like to think the impending John appointment is an opportunity. I’ve already written how I think it will take someone like Justin Welby to begin to heal the wounds of the Anglican Communion. This, surely, would be the moment to do so. He could embrace this move, which the House of Bishops has authorised and which, it is clear, a majority of English Anglicans are little fussed about, but at the same time draw on his relationships in the Anglican Communion to patiently explain the move. It would be a double acknowledgment: first, that this is where the Church of England is at this point in its history, and, second, that not everyone is at the point and that someone like Justin Welby has the position with which to address those concerns. I’m not saying it will result in magical healing overnight, but it could be a genuinely honest step forward. Surely, that’s better than all the games we’ve been playing?

“Anglocostalism” in Nigeria and Obstacles to Anglican Unity

One of the most important developments in the world church in the last few decades has been the rise of neo-Pentecostalism, sometimes called the “Born Again” church. These denominations, particularly prevalent in Africa, are marked by their concern with spiritual healing, the preaching of the prosperity gospel, fixation on a world of good and evil forces, and much else.

What is perhaps less remarked upon is the way in which these neo-Pentecostal churches have influenced the historic mission denominations, including the various provinces of the Anglican Communion. This is one of the main things I learned on my travels in the church in Nigeria last summer. (The observations prompted the post, “What is Peter Akinola Afraid Of?”)

The Journal of Anglican Studies has just published my article, “‘Anglocostalism’ in Nigeria: Neo-Pentecostalism and Obstacles to Anglican Unity,” which takes a close look at how what it means to be Anglican is changing in Nigeria.

Here’s the article’s abstract:

In the last several decades, the religious landscape in Nigeria has been transformed by the rise of neo-Pentecostal or ‘new generation’ churches. These churches teach a gospel of prosperity, advance an oppositional view of the world, focus on a supernatural arena of spiritual forces, accord a unique weight to the Bible, and practice a charismatic worship style. One result of the presence of these churches has been to change the face of Anglicanism in Nigeria. Concerned about the possibility of diminished influence and prestige, the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) has responded to neo-Pentecostal churches by adopting more of its rivals’ beliefs and practices. This paper argues that this changing environment explains, in part, Nigerian opposition to efforts at global Anglican unity and argues that it is impossible to address the future of the Anglican Communion without first understanding the on-the-ground religious context in Nigeria.

It’s an academic article, which means it’s a bit longer than a regular blog post, but I hope you’ll have a read through. Already, in the few weeks since the article went online, I’ve been pleased with the e-mail conversations this article has generated with people in the Nigerian church. I’d be happy to expand those conversations to folks elsewhere.

As I have travelled in the world church, I’m repeatedly reminded of just how little we know about each other around the world. This article—and others like it, still in the pipeline—are efforts to help increase that sense of mutual understanding.

Anglican Communion awareness increasing?

The Episcopal News Service has a lengthy article today that follows up a lot of the questions raised at General Convention about the Church’s huge cuts to funding for the Anglican Communion Office. It also makes some grand claims about the nature of the Anglican Communion nine years after the election of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire.

Here’s the article’s lede:

The world’s 80 million Anglicans are much more aware today than they were 10 years ago that they belong to a global communion, a realization that has led to a flourishing of international relationships between the Episcopal Church and other provinces, dioceses and individuals.

Although the article claims to be concerned with Anglicans all over the world, the only evidence it musters is in the Episcopal Church. This is a hallmark of one of the most depressing of all American characteristics, namely the willingness to generalize from quite particular experience. To write an article like this merely reinforces what many people around the world already think: Americans are self-centred, solipsistic, and parochial.

The thing is, our brother and sister Anglicans around the world have known and cared about the Anglican Communion for a lot longer than many Americans have. When I traveled in the church in Nigeria (where 1 in 4 of those 80 million Anglicans live) last summer, one of the aspects of the church that was most noticeable to me was the way Nigerian Anglicans cared about being part of the Communion. The official name of the church is Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion). When you leaf through a diocesan newsletter, there’s plenty of material about other Anglicans around the world. In a remote diocese in South Sudan a few years back, I was asked what I thought about Rowan Williams’ decision to deny Katharine Jefferts Schori her mitre on a visit to England. In a remote Bible college in a China, I was once asked about the Anglican Communion. It’s the Americans who have woken up and smelled the Anglican Communion coffee in the last decade. The rest of the world, at least, was already aware.

My sense of the last decade is that the American church, particularly its liberal wing, has been rushing to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of understanding itself as part of a global Communion. For a variety of reasons—including prioritizing domestic concerns, feeling unsure about how to relate to newly-independent churches, and so forth—the Episcopal Church began a fairly large retreat from its global commitments in the late 1960s all the way through the 1990s. This, in many ways, set the stage for the “crisis” of the last decade.

In 1963, Anglican lay people, priests, and bishops from around the world got together for an Anglican Congress in Toronto. One of the speakers was a man named Howard Johnson, who, a few years prior, had completed a two-year tour of every province in the Anglican Communion. At the Congress, 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.

My sense is that Johnson’s observation is still largely correct. It is true, however, that the election and ordination of Gene Robinson means that Episcopalians now know more than they used to about the Anglican Communion whether they like it or not. But has that had the positive impacts the article claims? On that question, I think, the jury is still out.

The Episcopal Church: The Diocese of Texas of the Anglican Communion

Without much surprise, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention today passed its budget for the next three years. And, as presented on Tuesday, the budget sharply cuts funding for the church’s connection to the Anglican Communion.

While I find the decision disappointing—as I have noted here and here—it was not surprising. What was heartening was that the cuts to funding the Anglican Communion Office were so notably criticized on the floor of the House of Deputies. (I missed the budget debate in the House of Bishops.) I heard one delegate make the point I have made before, namely that how can we expect dioceses to give the full asking to the churchwide budget, when the church doesn’t give the full asking to the Anglican Communion Office?

I’ve heard a couple of figures on this but it seems like the Episcopal Church is currently giving between a third and a half of the asking to the ACO. That puts the church in Diocese of Texas territory: wealthy, well-resourced (comparatively) but unwilling to share any of those resources with the other institutions of the church to which it belongs. There’s been a lot of talk at Convention about the hierarchical nature of the church: as far as General Convention is concerned, the hierarchy stops with it. You give us your money, it says to the dioceses, but we’ll keep it for ourselves. Can you blame other dioceses for saying the same thing to the church?

When we start squabbling over resources like this—pointing out how much some dioceses give but not others, arguing over apportionments, etc.—it’s a sure sign of an institution in decline. If we can no longer meet our commitments, something needs to change. I, for one, am hopeful that the new structure super-committee that has been created by this Convention can discern ways for the church to remain a full, active, and engaged member of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church around the world to which we belong.

Small enough to drown in a bathtub

The anti-tax activist Grover Norquist has often been quoted as saying that his goal is to get government small enough “so that it can be drowned in a bathtub.” He—like many other ideological conservatives—have a common strategy in Washington: de-fund a program/agency/department, watch it falter because of the de-funding, and then use that as proof that it doesn’t work and needs to be eliminated.

I thought of that this evening as I reflected on the Episcopal Church’s proposed budget and its cuts to Anglican Communion programs. Places like the Anglican Communion Office are sponsoring really important work for the world church: the Continuing Indaba, for instance, or the Bible in the Life of the Church project. Repeatedly, however, the Episcopal Church has turned its back on these programs and deemed them not worthy of being funded. As a result, the staff of the ACO valiantly struggle along, doing their best on the barest of shoestring budgets. Because these projects are so under-resourced, they fail to have the full impact they could. People then say they’re not working and further cuts are made.

General Convention today passed a resolution piously spouting off about its commitment to the Anglican Communion. Really, though, it seems like it wants to drown the Communion in a bathtub.

Putting your money where your mouth is… or not

The Program, Budget and Finance committee released its proposed budget for the Episcopal Church for the next three years. The combined effect of its funding decisions will be to significantly weaken the church’s relationship with the Anglican Communion.

In line 193, there is the not unexpected slashing of the support given to the Anglican Communion Office. I’ve written before about what a bad idea this is so I won’t repeat it here. Deputies have been complaining all Convention about dioceses that don’t pay the full asking to the churchwide budget. What about provinces of the Communion that don’t pay the full asking to the Communion-wide budget?

The budget also cuts more of the (very modest) funding given as support to other provinces of the Anglican Communion while maintaining or increasing the funding given to Province IX (quite dramatically) or domestic dioceses.

In budget times as tough as the church is facing right now, any new line item is worthy of particular scrutiny. In line 251, PB&F proposes funding the Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion (at almost half of what was cut from the Anglican Communion Office). CUAC is a fine organization. But what makes it so worthy of funding from the Episcopal Church when so many other places are being cut. My guess? CUAC has a pretty good lobbyist at General Convention and the ACO, sadly, does not.

It seems there is a very easy amendment to make to this budget to cut the new funding for CUAC in order for the church to move closer to its ACO obligations.

The budget slashes funding for the ministry of communication. Episcopal News Service is heavily cut. It looks like there’s a lot less money for web sites and the like. I find this tragic. Communication is what keeps us one body in Christ in this age of mass media. If you don’t have a good web site in this day and age, you’re nothing. Cutting this funding will only further balkanize and divide the church. (It’s instructive that on line 10 the budget dramatically reduces what it expects to earn in income from ads on the ENS web site. Perhaps if we had more reporters, more people would go to the web site, we’d get more advertisers, and the income would go up?)

The thing is, there’s plenty of “news” out there about the Episcopal Church in the form of virulent “news” outlets like Virtue Online (which was called out by Gene Robinson the other day). By choosing not to engage in this ministry, the church is ceding the discourse to organizations like Virtue Online, which are, sadly, too influential in the Anglican Communion.

Finally, it is interesting that in line 36, the budget asserts that the presiding bishop’s assistant for Anglican Communion Affairs can be eliminated (excuse me, “sunsetted”) “in light of normalized relations within the Anglican Communion.” It’s an interesting comment on where budget-planners think the state of the Anglican Communion is and perhaps explains some of these mistaken decisions.

The budget was released on the same day the House of Deputies passed resolution D008 which “commits” the Episcopal Church to the Anglican Communion. Just so long as we don’t have to spend money on it, it seems.

If the Episcopal Church doesn’t want to be part of the Anglican Communion, I wish it would just say it, rather than speaking out of both sides of its mouth.