Asking the folks in the pew about “The Crisis”

Without admitting to resemble that remark, debates are dominated by those with the loudest voices. A recent academic paper notes there are plenty of loud voices in the Anglican Communion around the subject of homosexuality. Robert M. Vanderbeck, Gill Valentine, Kevin Ward, Joanna Sadgrove and Johan Andersson of the University of Leeds examine “the nature of the purported ‘crisis’ from the perspectives of Anglicans in local parishes in three different national contexts: England, South Africa, and the United States” including parishes that are pro-gay, ambivalent and anti.

An extract:

Before exploring the multiplicity of ways in which meaning was (or was not) attributed to the Communion, it is important to recognise how knowledge about current events within Anglicanism varied widely within and across the case study sites. Simply put, many parishioners had marked uncertainties about the nature of the Communion to which they belonged, and they often openly discussed these uncertainties. While particular contours of the sexuality debates were commonly known across contexts (such as the existence of a ‘gay bishop’ in the US, something widely reported in the media in all three national contexts), the nature of the Anglican polity proved the source of a number of questions and misunderstandings. As one respondent in the English parish COE-1 remarked, “I never quite know (where) the authority structure lies in the Anglican church.” At a fundamental level, although parishioners often articulated feelings of sadness in relation to the damaged relations within the Communion (as we elaborate below), there was often ambiguity about who even composed the Communion. While many respondents discussed how ‘African’ bishops were championing a ‘traditional’ position on homosexuality—with Archbishop Peter Akinola being the figure most commonly invoked, either by name or simply as the ‘bishop from Nigeria’—relatively few respondents (including in the South African parishes) had detailed awareness of which specific African provinces were involved. Provinces in Asia, Latin America, Australia, and New Zealand were rarely invoked in the interviews and did not seem to be imagined as significant actors in the conflict (this in large part seems to echo the common framing by the popular media of the sexuality debates as a struggle between African and North American provinces).

Parishioners not infrequently asked questions about the emerging scenarios for ‘schism’ and how their parish might be affected (‘What would a split entail?, I mean what, how?’, as one respondent from ACSA-2 asked). In the South African parish ACSA-1, the relatively recently appointed vicar had felt the need upon his arrival to give his parishioners lessons regarding the episcopal ‘authority structures’ of Anglicanism given his perception that they knew little about the Anglican polity (although, as he discussed, these lessons were prompted more by insecurities about his own authority within the parish – given that the congregation had deposed a number of prior vicars – rather than concerns about the state of the Communion). Even in the three parishes with the clearest investments in the trajectory of the sexuality debates (COE-1, TEC-1, and TEC-2), respondents sometimes expressed guilt or regret for not understanding more about the perspectives of people in other parts of the Communion. As Charlotte (a heterosexual member of TEC-1 who was studying for ordination) noted when discussing the reactions of other provinces to recent moves by TEC, ‘I haven’t followed it deeply and I’m embarrassed that I haven’t deeply followed it.’

We call attention to this realm of uncertainty not as a way of critiquing the geographical or religious knowledge of respondents, but rather for two specific reasons. First, although not uniformly the case, these expressions of uncertainty gesture towards the relative lack of immediacy that relationships in the Communion (as compared to those in their local parishes or, in some cases, dioceses) held for most respondents. Events in the Communion of course had implications locally, but parishioners rarely engaged with issues at the Communion level as such, with these engagements being seen primarily as an activity for bishops. Second, feeling uncertain about the lives of Anglicans in other provinces contributed to the ambivalences that a number expressed when discussing emerging divisions within the Communion.

Hat tip to Thinking Anglicans.

Past Posts