In the wake of the decennial Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, the distinguished British magazine The Economist muses about why the Anglican Communion is in such trouble compared to other churches:
“Most churches are riven by tensions: it is not so long ago that the Roman Catholic Opus Dei glared at liberation theologists, and Moscow’s Orthodox still squabble like mad with Constantinople’s. But Anglicans lack the glue that binds those churches together: the power of the pope to impose discipline on straying Catholics; the body of undisputed theology that unites Orthodox believers even when they quarrel. Anglicanism works through relationships, a sense of belonging to a family with a shared inheritance. That now has waned. Despite the apparent reprieve, this year’s Lambeth conference could well be the last of its kind.”
There’s a lot going on in the Anglican Communion and I don’t pretend to understand it all. But one thought has occurred to me: We’re seeing something at a huge scale that I’ve seen much closer to home.
Christians, like people in general, get together and stay together for one or more of various reasons. They like each other and want to spend time together. They have a common concern and can pursue it better together than separately. They are compelled to congregate by an authority they each recognize. There is some powerful ulterior motive, such as financial advantage, to be gained. Or the choice is between associating with this lot versus other, even less desirable, people.
Anglicans no longer have a common concern sufficient to get together and stay together. They believe radically different things about every major point of Christian doctrine, and the argument over homosexuality is really just the last bit of theological and ethical consensus giving way. They believe radically different things about what the church is and what it is for. They believe radically different things about what should be done to heal this division. And they believe radically different things about where the church’s best future lies. What remains that they agree on now is utterly insufficient to justify the pain of constantly encountering what they disagree on.
Anglicans do not have an authority that compels them to get together. The Economist means that they lack a pope. But they have no other, Protestant authority, either. They disagree about the value, function, and teaching of church tradition. They disagree about the authority and interpretation of the Bible. They disagree about what they believe the Holy Spirit is saying today. So they lack even the grounds upon which to argue about this or that question, whether homosexuality, or the authority of bishops, or even whether and why they should remain in communion with each other.
What about an ulterior motive? The great Canadian church historian John Webster Grant used to observe, in his deadpan way, that a lot of ecumenism is prompted by money. His own United Church of Canada came together in the 1920s largely because its constituent denominations found it ridiculous to support each their own tiny churches dotting the vast Canadian prairies.
The Anglicans can afford to split up. The liberal churches are nicely endowed in Britain and North America (where most or all of them are located) while the more conservative churches generally have the support of enthusiastic and growing congregations who can endure whatever temporary hardship is imposed by the loss of church property. (I’m not implying, by the way, that they ought to lose their property. Heretical bishops that want to clutch the buildings of congregations they have alienated by their declension from the faith merely add to their eventual woes before the Last Judgment.) So there is insufficient financial incentive to stay together.
Finally, there seems to be no external threat, at least in the West, sufficient to warrant Anglicans remaining together as the least bad of the range of alternatives. In countries facing a powerful countervailing force, such as militant Islam or Communism, Christians might decide to remain together, disputes and all, for fear of what might happen if they don’t. But the Anglican Church in the (North-)West has become so comfortable in mainstream society that the genuinely anti-Christian forces of secularism, consumerism, and hedonism seem vague and unthreatening—although, of course, they aren’t.
That leaves mere affection and affinity. And there’s precious little left of those.
So the worldwide Anglican Communion is disintegrating just like a typical church “small group.” Once the common concern for worship or education or evangelism or other ministry disappears, there’s no other reason to keep meeting. Appeals to “fellowship” and “community” might keep it together a few more weeks or months, but pretty soon people ask out loud just why they’re bothering to meet together when they can enjoy fellowship and community with people who actually share their most important concerns and will enjoy working with them to further those concerns.
Jesus called Christians together in order to worship, to build each other up in the faith, and to serve a needy world. He never said that getting together for the sake of getting together was enough.
And it isn’t . . . as the Anglicans worldwide are now proving.