By Jim Naughton
The Global South Steering Committee has released a statement announcing, in essence, that it has the right to ordain bishops in whichever Anglican provinces it chooses, and that its surrogates are entitled to the property of their theological adversaries. They offer no greater justification for this than “because we say so,” but that’s worked well enough for them so far.
The group’s membership includes Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies, chair of the committee that is drafting the Anglican Covenant. The covenant, if adopted in its current form, would place unprecedented authority in the hands of the Primates. The recklessness of Gomez and his primatial allies indicates how dangerous that can be. Today the United States, tomorrow, Canada, eventually…
Yet, while this group is gifted at portraying itself as ever on the march, it is now on the defensive.
Rowan Williams, who has been loath to alienate Peter Akinola, the archbishop of Nigeria who leads this faction, has finally risked doing so by inviting all of the diocesan bishops of the Episcopal Church, save Gene Robinson to the Lambeth Conference in 2008, but withholding invitations from bishops of the Church of Rwanda’s Anglican Mission in America and Akinola’s Convocation of Anglicans in North America. In doing so he made it clear that the Akinolists efforts to delegitimize the leaders of the Episcopal Church in his eyes has failed.
The Akinolists’ position was further weakened when Williams agreed to meet with the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops in September to hear its views on the current situation, and perhaps to entertain an alternative response to the recommendations made in Dar es Salaam.
The Global South group is eager to make the outcome of this meeting moot. Hence, it has declared that it must ordain new bishops because the Episcopal Church’s response to the Dar es Salaam recommendations has been insufficient. This before Williams has spoken with the House, and before the Episcopal Church’s response has been fully rendered.
But what has it accomplished? Their statement is ostensibly concerned with Episcopalians unhappy with the Church’s stance on homosexuality, but it is unlikely to have much impact on the Episcopal Church directly. There are several clusters of breakaway parishes in the country, but no sensible church administrator would suggest they need anything like the number of bishops that the Akinolists are creating to minister to them. By the time the Global South group is finished using Episcopal ordinations as a political gesture, the breakaway movement in the United States may have the lowest bishop-to-parishioner ratio in Christendom.
The surrogate bishop strategy is one more (last?) effort to make Rowan Williams do Akinola’s will by threatening to break up the Communion unless his demands are met. Williams has knuckled under to this sort of tactic before. He has allowed himself to be humiliated, and facilitated the humiliation of the Episcopal Church, by acquiescing time and again in the strategy that Akinola has advanced. .
But this time the humiliation would be much greater, both for Williams—who would be withdrawing invitations to what is nominally his party—and the Episcopal bishops who had their invitations withdrawn. And the humiliation might no longer serve the cause of unity, because the damage to Williams’ credibility would likely be fatal. The archbishop may also be aware that Akinola’s behavior in Dar es Salaam–where he interrupted the proceedings to consult in person and by cell phone with advisors–has alienated many of the Primates.
At one point it seemed likely that if Williams and the other Primates were forced to choose between forcing out the North American churches or facing a walkout by the African ones, that they would side with the Africans. But Africa is not Akinola. His faction is smaller than it originally appeared, and the archbishop’s autocratic nature has given people a frightening look at what a Communion in which he was ascendant, might look like. The repudiation of his leadership by the Christian Association of Nigeria has made it clear that his influence is on the wane, even in his own country. Now it is he who seems isolated within the Communion. .
None of this tells us how Williams will respond to the latest round of brinksmanship. When one strips away some of the woollier theological talk about the nature of communion, one finds a man who deeply committed to maintaining the strongest possible links between churches in wealthy western churches and those in impoverished African ones. And there is no doubt that the actions of the Episcopal Church, and the reaction of several African provinces, have damaged those links.
Whether those links can be be repaired by acquiescing to Akinola, however, is an open question, one being discussed right now in Spain, where Trinity Church, Wall Street, has called together bishops from the Episcopal Church and numerous African provinces to examine how they might continue as partners in mission despite theological differences.
Here is a small wager that the outcome of that meeting may tell us more about the future of the Communion than the latest missive from Akinola and his allies.
Jim Naughton is editor in chief of The Episcopal Café.