Cover image for The Anglican Communion at a Crossroads: The Crises of a Global Church By Christopher Craig Brittain and Andrew McKinnon

The Anglican Communion at a Crossroads

The Crises of a Global Church

Christopher Craig Brittain and Andrew McKinnon


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ISBN: 978-0-271-08089-5

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264 pages
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The Anglican Communion at a Crossroads

The Crises of a Global Church

Christopher Craig Brittain and Andrew McKinnon

“A fascinating read, regardless of your personal faith or politics.”


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Worldwide debates over issues of sexuality and gender have come to a head in recent years in mainline and evangelical churches, with the Anglican Communion—a worldwide network of churches that trace their practice to Canterbury and claim some 85 million members—among the most publicly visible sites of contestation. This thorough and compelling analysis of the conflicts within the Communion argues that they are symptoms of long-simmering issues that must be addressed when Anglican bishops and archbishops meet at the 2020 Lambeth Conference.

To many, the disagreements over such issues as LGBTQ clergy, same-sex marriage, and women’s ordination suggest an insurmountable crisis facing Anglicans, one that may ultimately end the Communion. Christopher Craig Brittain and Andrew McKinnon argue otherwise. Drawing on extensive empirical research and interviews with influential Anglican leaders, they show how these struggles stem from a complex interplay of factors, notably the forces and effects of globalization, new communications technology, and previous decisions made by the Communion. In clarifying both the theological arguments and social forces at play as the bishops and primates of the Anglican Communion prepare to set the Church’s course for the next decade, Brittain and McKinnon combine sociological and theological methodologies to provide both a nuanced portrait of Anglicanism in a transnational age and a primer on the issues with which the Lambeth Conference will wrestle.

Insightful, informative, and thought-provoking, The Anglican Communion at a Crossroads is an invaluable resource for understanding the debates taking place in this worldwide community. Those interested in Anglicanism, sexuality and the Christian tradition, the sociology of religion, and the evolving relationship between World Christianity and churches in the Global North will find it indispensable.

“A fascinating read, regardless of your personal faith or politics.”
“The interviews and the authors’ wide knowledge of the literature on church conflict, globalisation, and related issues combine to produce a book that clearly lays out the roots of the discord within the Anglican Communion and challenges some tired explanations for the conflict.”
“This timely, lucid, and admirably balanced book should be required reading for all those who care about the Anglican Communion. The debate about same-sex relationships is correctly perceived as the presenting issue of deeper tensions, which are then explored from a variety of perspectives. I recommend it warmly.”
“Americans seeking to understand the conflict raging within the Episcopal Church will gain perspective from this valuable book. It’s not just a battle in the ‘culture war.’ Homosexuality is the ‘presenting symbol’ of broader struggles within a 500-year-old, increasingly transnational institution. Making use of sociological theory, religious history, and interviews with church leaders around the world, Brittain and McKinnon assess the fate of Anglicanism in the context of its current crisis.”

Christopher Craig Brittain is Dean of Divinity and Margaret E. Fleck Chair in Anglican Studies at Trinity College, University of Toronto. His publications include A Plague on Both Their Houses: Liberal vs. Conservative Christians and the Divorce of the Episcopal Church USA, Religion at Ground Zero: Theological Responses to Times of Crises, and The Weight of Objectivity: Critical Social Theory and Theology.

Andrew McKinnon, a sociologist of religion, is Senior Lecturer of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen.




1. The Cultural Logic of Symbols and Anglican “Orthodoxy”

2. Globalization, Communication, and the Redistribution of Religious Authority

3. The Global South and the Communion: Africa as the New Anglican “Center of Gravity”

4. Local Disagreement in the Midst of a Global Dispute: The View from the Pews in the Diocese(s) of Pittsburgh

5. National Strictures, Global Structures, and the Ties That Bind

6. Authority, Practice, and Ecclesial Identity

7. Anglican Identity in the Twenty-First Century

Conclusion: The “End” of the Communion?




From the Introduction

Since the middle of the 1990s, the global fellowship of Anglican churches worldwide, known as the Anglican Communion, has been caught up in an increasingly intense conflict that has taken as its focus disagreement over the place of gays and lesbians in the church. Perhaps the most memorable scene to date took place on the lawn at the University of Kent in August 1998, where the decennial Lambeth Conference, which gathers bishops of the church from the four corners of the globe, was being held. As a group of fellow bishops nervously looked on, and an army of press passes scouted for a good hook and compelling visuals, Bishop Emmanuel Chukwuma of Enugu Diocese in Nigeria attempted to exorcise a “demon of homosexuality” from the Reverend Richard Kirker. Bishop Chukwuma declared loudly to a journalist that the book of Leviticus demands the death of anyone caught in a homosexual act. This prompted Kirker, general secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, who had been passing out leaflets, to ask the bishop, “Would you be prepared to stone us to death?” James Solheim, director of news and information for the Episcopal Church, recounts what followed:

The bishop tried to lay his hands on Kirker, “In the name of Jesus, I deliver him out of homosexuality,” he said as he attempted to grab the general secretary. “I pray for God to forgive you, for God to deliver you out of your sinful act, out of your carnality,” the bishop shouted as a crowd gathered. Kirker responded, “May God bless you, sir, and deliver you from your prejudice against homosexual people.”

“You have no inheritance in the kingdom of God. You are going to hell. You have made yourself homosexual because of your carnality,” the bishop said.

With sweat pouring from his face, the bishop screamed again and again for repentance while his wife stood nearby murmuring “Alleluia.” The bishop said, “We have overcome carnality just as the light will overcome darkness. . . . God did not create you as a homosexual. That is our stand. That is why your church is dying in Europe—because it is condoning immorality. You are killing the church. This is the voice of God talking. Yes, I am violent against sin.”

When Bishop David Russell of South Africa tried to intercede, pointing out that Archbishop Desmond Tutu “supports the inclusion of homosexuals in church,” Chukwuma marched off muttering, “Desmond Tutu is spiritually dead.”

The press reported extensively on the scene, captured by BBC camera crews; the media played the clip repeatedly, in the UK and around the world. It was the very definition of a public relations train wreck.

It is all too easy to take this scene as a small-scale model of the recent conflicts in the global Anglican Communion as a whole, even if such a telling would oversimplify to the point of distortion. While different storytellers may be inclined to use different emphases and different vocabulary to describe the characters, Chukwuma and Kirker can easily be made to stand in as representatives of currents within the Communion at large. Kirker might be variously described as a gay man from the Global North, a Christian, a sinner, a liberal, a revisionist, a heretic, a prophetic voice, a sign of acquiescence to the spirit of the age, or an advocate of Jesus’s radically inclusive love. Chukwuma could likewise be variously described as a church leader from the “majority” or “mainstream” of the Anglican tradition, a pseudo-Pentecostal, a bulwark of the faith, an opponent of neocolonialism, a bishop of the Global South, a defender of the Bible’s authority, a remnant of orthodoxy, a homophobe, or a fundamentalist. While the nouns and adjectives employed vary, the sense of “two sides” contesting for the soul of the Anglican Communion abides, and such ways of framing the situation are repeated over and over again in one bad-publicity headline after another. In our view, these terms are much too simple, and they very often represent a rush to judgment. Academics and church leaders alike have often told us that one or more of these terms tell all that is required to explain why the conflict has emerged in recent years; there is little more to say. We disagree.

The sources of contemporary tensions in the Anglican Communion, and what they mean for members of this global family of churches, are the subject of this book. In the polemical context of the global Communion’s present conflict, there is a tendency among many commentators to point the finger at those they deem responsible for all that plagues the Anglican Communion. In our research, we have made every attempt to stand back, as much as we can, from polemics and position taking. As researchers from two different disciplinary backgrounds—theology and sociology—we have taken as our starting point a principle once encouraged by the former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He suggested that “one of the first tasks we need to pursue in the current climate is simply to look at what Anglicans say and do.” In this study we have sought to understand the conflict through careful observation and attentive, open-ended qualitative interviews. Our only disagreement with the archbishop’s statement has to do with his inclusion of the word “simply,” for we have found the task of organizing, conducting, transcribing, and analyzing more than one hundred interviews with members of the Anglican Communion from most regions of the globe anything but a simple undertaking.

Our research has led us to conclude that the Communion’s struggles are the result of a complex interweaving of many factors, including the forces of globalization, the rise of new communications technology, and the impact of decisions made in different periods of the Anglican tradition’s history. We argue that despite the messy polemics, and the church leadership’s unsuccessful repair attempts, the global church is not necessarily at an end. It is clear, however, that different groups of Anglicans conceive of the “end” of their Communion—in terms of its purpose, meaning, and future direction—in quite different ways. For some, the global church ought to be a “big tent” that embraces diversity in recognition of the plurality of a world created by a triune God. For others, the Communion should operate like a family—with intimate and familiar relationships that nurture close collaboration and mutual responsibility. Still other Anglicans begin with the assumption that member churches should in the first instance gather around common beliefs and practices rooted in holy scripture. That different Anglicans orient themselves to the Communion’s current conflict from such distinct starting points goes a long way toward explaining why resolution and reconciliation have thus far remained elusive.

While disputes over the legitimacy of LGBTQ clergy, along with the acceptability of same-sex marriages in the church, are certainly a major element of the disagreement in contemporary global Anglicanism, this study will show that such matters are better understood as “presenting symptoms” of wider and more general tensions. This book attends to the many differences and disagreements among Anglicans; however, we also demonstrate that such diversity does not necessarily signal the inevitability of schism and fragmentation. We suggest that much depends on how one tells the story of the conflict, on how the present situation in the global church is framed.

Following a brief overview of the history of conflict over these “presenting symptoms,” the remainder of this introduction turns to a brief summary of some basic details of Anglican ecclesiology and governance for those less familiar with the complicated internal workings of the Anglican Communion. We then summarize our approach to our field interviews.

Homosexuality and the Church: A Brief History of the Anglican Disagreements

The Lambeth Conference of 1998, where Kirker and Chukwuma encountered each other on a hot August day, resulted in many resolutions, most of which have been largely forgotten. What has been remembered is Resolution 1.10. This has come, at least for some, to signify the “official teaching” of the Anglican Communion and the very mark of orthodox belief for Anglicans, even though such resolutions have no such formal status. In practice, those who so understand it typically remember that Resolution 1.10 identifies “homosexual practice as incompatible with scripture”; they are often less likely to recall the part of the motion that “calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals.” An earlier version had gone further and condemned “homophobia,” but an amendment proposed by Bishop Taita Taveta from the Province of Kenya changed this to the fi wording of “irrational fear of homosexuals.” In practical terms, Lambeth 1.10 states that the bishops “cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions,” which is far from an unequivocal condemnation but also indicates that the church’s leaders disagreed among themselves on the question. The final clause of the resolution also “recognised the significance of” the Kuala Lumpur Statement on Sexuality, a hardline conservative document that took the church’s position on the matter as settled and beyond discussion or legitimate disagreement; the conference did not formally “endorse” such a position. It was clear, however, that there were in reality a variety of views in the room that day. A preliminary indication of this was the tally of the vote itself, in which 526 voted in favor of the final motion, with seventy opposed and forty-five abstaining. About a hundred bishops at the conference seem not to have voted.

Those conservatives who had been organizing for several years to arrest what they identified as a liberal drift in the United States, Canada, and the UK declared it a victory. Not all the bishops of the church felt that justice had been done, however, or that the conference had upheld a Christ-like perspective in such a resolution. There was nothing like unanimous agreement that “homosexual practice is incompatible with scripture.” The day had left both those in favor of recognizing and accepting gay and lesbian clergy and laypeople, and of blessing their relationships in the church, and those who were merely uncomfortable with the tone and spirit of some of the statements in a state of shock. Many no doubt worried about how the news would be received by the faithful among whom they ministered, and among those whom they hoped to reach. Some of those on the losing side of the vote quickly cobbled together “A Pastoral Statement to Lesbian and Gay Anglicans from Some Member Bishops of the Lambeth Conference,” released by Bishop Ronald Haines of the Diocese of Washington, D.C., the same day. “We pledge that we will continue to reflect, pray, and work for your full inclusion in the life of the Church,” the signatories declared. Within three days this letter had been signed by 142 bishops, including eight primates; by the end of the week, it had gained a further forty bishops from around the world, though signatories from Africa were notably absent (excepting only Botswana and eastern Zambia in central Africa and a number of bishops from southern Africa). There was clearly no consensus on the matter, though a majority position had been demarcated. In some respects, the vote may have served to exacerbate tensions—it certainly did not resolve them. In any case, resolutions passed at the Lambeth Conference have traditionally been only advisory and not binding on the different national and regional churches that make up the Anglican Communion. Homosexuality, however, had become the symbol that marked a divide within the Communion.

The role of African church leaders in this conflict has often been noted, and their conservative opposition to the “sin” of homosexuality in the church is frequently taken as a given. Some attribute this opposition to the greater faithfulness to the message of “biblical” Christianity on the part of African leaders. Others observe that such opposition derives from the fact that homosexuality is unknown or simply unacceptable in African cultures. The church in Africa is treated as a constant, faithful to the “original” Christian teaching in matters of both faith and sexual morality; what has changed are the beliefs of Christians in the Global North and the growing acceptance of homosexuality in North America and Europe. Such an account is far too simple; as we discuss in chapter 3, there has been a great deal of social change in the West, but dramatic transformations have also affected African societies and the churches in these regions, and these form no small part of the story in the global Communion.

(Excerpt ends here)