Religion Unplugged believes in a diversity of well-reasoned and well-researched opinions. This piece reflects the views of the author and does not necessarily represent those of Religion Unplugged, its staff and contributors.
After a half-century of decline, the U.S. Episcopal Church has 1.5 million members, and its average weekly attendance was just above 500,000 before COVID-19 and 300,000 afterward.
After decades of explosive growth, the Anglican Church of Nigeria claims about 18 million members (others say 8 million), and the Center for the Study of Global Christianity near Boston estimates it has 22 million active participants in worship.
Caught in the middle of these two trends is the Most Reverend Justin Welby, by Divine Providence the 105th Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of All England and the “first among equals” among bishops in the 42 churches in the Anglican Communion. While his own flock claims 26 million baptized members, about 600,000 attend weekly services.
Now, Global South church leaders — representing about 75% of Anglicans who frequent pews — have decided that it’s time to start cutting ties between the “Canterbury Communion” and the rest of the Anglican Communion.
“We have no confidence that the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the other Instruments of Communion led by him … are able to provide a godly way forward that will be acceptable to those who are committed to the truthfulness, clarity, sufficiency and authority of Scripture,” warned the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), which met April 17-21 in Kigali, Rwanda. GAFCON IV drew 1,302 delegates from 52 nations, including 315 bishops.
Meeting together, leaders of GAFCON and the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches proclaimed that “they can no longer recognize the Archbishop of Canterbury as an Instrument of Communion, the ‘first among equals’ of the Primates. The Church of England has chosen to impair her relationship with the orthodox provinces in the Communion.”
While this gathering in Africa drew little or no coverage from Western news organizations, Lambeth Palace released a brief response, noting that the Kigali Commitment statement echoed many previous claims about Anglican governance.
“As the Archbishop of Canterbury has previously said, those structures are always able to change with the times,” said the statement. However, Welby “said at the recent Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Ghana … that no changes to the formal structures of the Anglican Communion can be made unless they are agreed upon by the Instruments of Communion” controlled by Canterbury.
The bottom line: Welby insists that bishops in England’s former colonies have not been granted the power to change structures created by the Church of England.
Meanwhile, Anglicanism’s First World churches have a disproportionately high number of active bishops and large trust funds built on generations of wealth. Global South Anglican flocks are rich in converts, children and, in many battle zones, martyrs. While clashes over LGBTQ issues have made headlines, Anglicans have increasingly become divided by colonial history, economics, culture, demographics and radically different approaches to doctrine.
Conservative Anglicans remain committed to a 1998 resolution on marriage and sexuality approved during the last Lambeth Conference attended by most Global South bishops. The Lambeth 1:10 text stated that “homosexual practice” is “incompatible with Scripture,” while also urging Anglicans to “oppose homophobia.” This passed with 526 votes in favor, 70 opposed and 45 abstentions.
While Welby has acknowledged that Lambeth 1:10 remains an “official” Anglican teaching, bishops, clergy and laity of the Church of England’s General Synod voted 250-181 to allow priests the option of performing blessing rites for same-sex couples already married by the state, while declining to allow formal same-sex marriage liturgies.
The archbishop of Canterbury is attempting a classic Anglican maneuver in which the words of core doctrines remain unchanged, but bishops have the option to offer local pastoral policies that change what doctrines mean in real life, according to Gavin Ashenden, a former Anglican chaplain to the late Queen Elizabeth II. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 2019.
Thus, Welby will argue that Canterbury has not crossed a “red line” into heresy. At the same time, Global South Anglicans face years of complex paperwork and politics — think colonial ties — because “English canon lawyers wrote most of the constitutions” that define their churches, wrote Ashenden in a Catholic Herald essay.
“The word on the street,” he added, “is that having recently spoken very publicly about his vulnerability to despair and depression, … Welby will enter into a long and peaceful retirement; but only after he has claimed his place in history by crowning the new King.”
NEXT WEEK: Global South Anglicans strive to move beyond arguments about sexuality.
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.