Anglican Balkanization

By Adrian Worsfold

Like other leading modern theologians of the first half of the twentieth century, Paul Tillich had difficulty relating Jesus as the Christ to history and also found culture problematic, compared with those nineteenth century liberals that the moderns reacted against. Whereas Karl Barth developed what was identified as a narrative theology, or “history-like” – but not of this world, Tillich early on had an aesthetic theology for his Christology. He wanted a historical rooting, but realised history could not deliver – but the analogy with art did the job. There is form, and content, and something that hits us from the art itself, which he called Gehalt and cannot be fully translated, but it means something like dynamism or power or impact.

The Lambeth Conference in 2008 can be seen on similar lines to Tillich’s theology. Its form was all important, because there could not be a repeat of the bad feeling of the 1998 Conference that some likened to the Nuremberg rally.

Its form was the Indaba groups, except they weren’t. A real Indaba group has a group of elders come together to solve a problem. They listen hard, certainly, and take a lot on board that may not be their own view and their own position. They thrash out the problem, and it comes to a resolution that they all own. Lambeth had cut down indabas where there was no time to thrash things out and no resolution. Nevertheless, the form was to allow bishops to get to know each other, starting with a retreat, and keeping up the atmosphere of mutuality for as long as possible.

Then there was the content. The content was the difference of stance between one end of the Anglican Communion and the other. It was unlikely to be bridged, and probably will not be bridged. GAFCON has happened, a new province in North America of GAFCON is due to be formed, and it will be primariy interested in its own survival and growth. The drive in North America and elsewhere towards inclusion is powerful, because it is that connection between Christ and culture (H. Richard Niebuhr) that Anglicanism produces in its Churches. Rowan Williams would centralise, via several Instruments and some new ones (this Pastoral Council will prove most contentious as it will do the work of the Covenant even before one), and he talks quite openly of the Anglican Communion being more like a Church.

Then came the Gehalt: and what was it? Well, some of it centred around the lecture of the Chief Rabbi, who did give some bishops an impetus for Communion, the ‘good feeling’ that allows many to keep talking. That largely comes from the form. Yet the Chief Rabbi was quite clear, whatever his own good feeling about his upbringing via Church of England involvement in schools. He spoke of the difficulty today with Covenants of Faith: due to differentiation and specialisation (I would put it) religious bodies are in effect dividing, so they cannot be made; however, Covenants of Fate involve people of difference coming together to serve the world in need. An example was the bishops and others walking in London to push for reduction in world poverty.

The problem with the Gehalt was, at first, the noises off. We had strategically timed statements and press conferencing from GAFCON. Then we also had the statements from Michael Poon and Terry Wong of the Global South – non-GAFCON people who were most unimpressed. There was a bit of a slide – not much – towards 1998 pressures towards the end of this Lambeth Conference too, and it seems that Rowan Williams’s own push towards centralisation and asking the same people to do the sacrificing for the sake of his Communion-into-a-Church did once again annoy. The Canadians felt they were relatively unheard, and as nothing in content had changed, the Americans started to feel somewhat cheesed off at the end.

The Gehalt just may not last very long. The form may have been good, but the best Gehalt comes from the content. In the end, the upshot of Lambeth in centralising terms was where it was at the beginning. Rowan Williams is still actually pushing his agenda, and this Windsor Continuation Group will be all the busier.

For this reason my thoughts have ended up being the same as they were. A sufficient number Churches in the West at least will not be able to accept either centralised meddling or a Covenant that intends to discipline or produce a two-speed communion. The Global South outside of GAFCON may have all the works: Covenant, Catechism, co-ordination, and the GAFCON group can knock up its own Covenant, if it sees the need to put others on the spot, quickly. There won’t be a centralised Communion: it will balkanise.

Lambeth had a good flow of information outwards: officially and via blogs. Two quotes sum it up for me, one from a blog and one from the Concluding Presidential Address of Rowan Williams. The first is from the blog of my nearest bishop, David Rossdale, the Bishop of Grimsby:

In my Indaba, one thing about which there was unanimity was that our attitude to homosexual people must be positive, generous and full of Christian love. There, however, the unanimity ended. In my Bible Study group there had been a recognition that we are each trying to be faithful to God and to our understanding of the nature and authority of scripture. By the time we came to the Indaba I detected the underlying presumption that a ‘real Christian’ is essentially fundamentalist when it comes to using the Bible.

Rowan Williams put it: the Zimbabwean woman beaten by police in her own church, in the manual scavenger in India denied the rights guaranteed by law; in the orphan of natural disaster in Burma, in the abducted child forced into soldiering in Northern Uganda, in the hundreds of thousands daily at risk in Darfur and Southern Sudan, in the woman raising a family in a squatters’ settlement in Lima or Buenos Aires. This is the Catholic faith: that what is owed to them is no different from, no less than what is owed to any of the rest of us.

No mention of the gay person beaten up in Nigeria, no mention of asylum granted to Davis Mac-Iyalla; rather these are the excluded people that a Communion becoming a Church is based upon: and for me, this stinks.

I hope that Western Anglicans reject this Catholic fantasising and have nothing to do with it, and build their relationships on informal friendlinesses where possible, where a Covenant of Fate brings people necessarily together. That would be an Anglican Gehalt worth having.

Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a masters degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

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