Hullo Brian, hullo Sue. You know, in a very real sense, sometimes I think the Anglican Communion is a bit like the Fourth International. I don’t mean in the theological sense, though I once heard Chris Bailey call Cliff Slaughter a mediaeval scholastic, which I thought was a bit hard on mediaeval scholastics. If St Thomas Aquinas could have travelled through time to a WRP dialectics class, one suspects his first instinct would have been to point and laugh.
No, I was thinking in terms of a disparate group of people who on the face of things don’t have a great deal in common, and are held together mostly by tradition and sentiment. A more exact parallel would be with the USec of the 1970s, a church divided into two hostile factions, barely on speaking terms with each other. In that case, things were complicated by the fact that the European sections had the majority but the Americans had the money. In the Anglicans’ case, the Africans have the numbers while, again, the Americans have the money.
Things have come to a head with the opening of the once-a-decade World Congress, sorry, the Lambeth Conference, a giant knees-up for the Communion’s bishops. And at the eye of the storm is Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, who comes across in his TV appearances as a very nice, intelligent and witty man. Just the sort of bishop you’d like to have. Unfortunately, Bishop Robinson is openly gay, as opposed to the legions of closeted gays in the Anglican ministry, and the macho men of the Nigerian and Ugandan churches, who are locked in fierce competition with Muslim proselytisers, have taken exception.
In a vain effort to smooth things over, the Archbishop of Canterbury, affable John Peel lookalike Dr Rowan Williams, rather ostentatiously left Bishop Robinson off the invitation list for Lambeth, which puts Gene in the good company of Bishop Kunonga of Harare, a staunch supporter of Uncle Bob’s firm-but-fair regime in Zimbabwe. Alas, Rowan’s efforts were to no avail, as the Africans aren’t bothering to turn up anyway.
The other big issue, at least for the Brits, is the consecration of women bishops. This is really a rerun of the hoo-hah a lot of years ago about women priests, which actually managed to cause a minor schism in Ireland. That said, I haven’t heard tell of the Church of Ireland (Traditional Rite) for years, and fear they may have gone the way of the Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist).
On the face of it, there really shouldn’t be an issue. If you’re willing to accept women as priests, there’s no obvious reason why they shouldn’t be bishops. But that would be to underestimate religious people’s ability to get upset over the strangest things. And also the Anglican knack for turning a relatively simple question into an enormously complicated fudge.
Last time around, I was tickled by the proposal for the brilliantly titled “flying bishops”, who would, it was foreseen, cater for those parishes unwilling to accept Dawn French as their vicar. Sad to say, the flying bishops never really got off the ground, as most people who cared strongly on this point upped sticks and defected to Rome. This time around, and sticking with the superhero motif, the C of E tops are mooting “superbishops” to attend to the recalcitrants. I suspect that the superbishops too will be, in the good old Yiddish phrase, nisht geshtoygn un nisht gefloygn.
This is the background to last month’s GAFCON conference in Jerusalem, which has effectively seen the creation of an international opposition tendency, consisting of those traditionalists who object to swishy poofs, uppity women and the modern age in general. Prominent in their platform is an ambitious plan to set up a parallel section in North America, shadowing the liberal leadership there. So far, the Africans have been careful not to push things to an outright schism, perhaps being mindful that the Americans and Canadians bankroll many of their missionary and humanitarian enterprises. But one senses that Archbishop Akinola of Nigeria and his chums might just be painting themselves into a rhetorical corner.
Would that Joe Hansen were alive at this hour. He would have loved this.