Reading those Anglican tea leaves

By W. Nicholas Knisely

This week has turned out to be much “newsier” than your humble news team at Episcopal Cafe expected. The first hint that something big was developing came late on Monday with a story in the Telegraph by Jonathan Petre about a broad-based, conservative primate led rejection of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s leadership. Over the next twelve hours or so the blog-sphere was lit up with speculation about what Petre meant, what sorts of sources he had and, since pretty much everyone dismissed the story as inaccurate, what the “leakers” that had approached Petre were hoping to gain by planting the story.

By the time I woke up out in the Pacific time-zone the next morning, the rest of the story had broken. The Archbishop of Kenya announced his plans to consecrate the Rev. Canon Bill Atwood as a suffragan bishop of the Anglican Province of Kenya to serve the needs of what he would refers to as the orthodox Anglican remnant in the North American Anglican Provinces. This move was met with a bit of head scratching at first and with serious concerns about the implications. Yet, within hours the announcement from Kenya was welcomed by the Archbishop of Nigeria and his associated CANA network. Over the next day or so announcements were made by the various groups around the Communion who have decided that the North American Anglicans were in need of serious reform and pastoral care.

I followed the developments as closely as you’d expect. (I got to be a member of the news team here at Episcopal Cafe because of my, um… obsessive interest in Anglican news.) Once the story’s outlines began to become clear, I spent more than a few hours wondering what was really going on behind the scenes. Mostly I’ve been trying to think what can be intuited by the way the story was greeted when it first broke and then how it was later spun during the rise and fall of the news cycle. I shared my ponderings with the folks here on the news team, and our esteemed editor-in-chief has asked me to share them with y’all.

First a disclaimer. I have *no* inside knowledge of what’s going on. I have been blessed to know people on both sides of the debate over the Communion in the American church and I count many of them as friends and mentors. But because I am a self-proclaimed centrist, nobody trusts me enough to take me into their private councils. (And now that I’m a “member of the press”, I’m often viewed with even more suspicion.) So what I’m about to suggest is really just my own speculation. It may or may not have any real basis in fact. But still…

What has really struck me was the way that the conservative side of the Anglican blog-sphere reacted to the news of the Telegraph story. The reaction was uniformly negative and dismissive. The team here at Episcopal Cafe agreed with the other bloggers in saying that there has been a track record of secular reporters misunderstanding the implications of Anglican rumors and we cautioned taking the news too seriously. One blogger who is part of a CANA congregation was more than dismissive of the intial report and went so far as to question the motives of the people “leaking”. Other major conservative sites like Stand Firm treated the news the same way – saying in essence that it made no sense to them, and that they didn’t think it was accurate.

When the story was fully revealed by the announcement made on the Church of Kenya’s website, the conversational tone turned to confusion and concern. The concern was mostly that this unexpected move by Kenya was going to further fracture what tenuous unity there was on the “conservative” side. The movement was in danger of becoming the 2007 version of what happened to the Continuing Anglican Churches in the USA following the 1979 General Convention. Later in the day the announcements began to flow in welcoming the development. First came the pronouncement by CANA, which was followed by announcements from around the Communion and the Anglican Networks in the US welcoming the news. What had at first seemed unexpected became over the next day according to news releases and blog reactions part of a coordinated strategy.

So, is it actually part of a coordinated strategy? My first thought was “no”. The announcements had a feeling of people making lemonade of the lemons they had been given. There was the lack of any apparent advance knowledge by the American allies of the CAPA Primates. But as I looked more carefully at the wording in the announcements, especially the ones from the African provinces, I was struck that they were more nuanced than I first thought – and didn’t seem like they were thrown together.

Perhaps the African primates have decided to take coordinated action and this development is part of that decision. But what then should we make of the fact that their American allies seemed surprised at the news story? Could it be that the Primates have decided to take action on their own, an African plan if you will, rather than a Communion-wide response?

It also occurred to me that the fact that there were now three or four Primates who had created personal prelatures amongst the conservatives in North America means that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the other primates to bring pressure on their brothers to stop these initiatives. Each seemingly independent initiative would have to be dealt with individually, and given the other pressing business of the Communion, expending that sort of time and energy is not likely. Perhaps what is apparently uncoordinated is being done that way by design.

I have also noticed that the African Primates seem to be more than a little impatient with their American allies. They have been made promises that whatever money they turned down for relief and development from the American church would be replaced by gifts by those separating from the Episcopal Church. This has not happened. In addition it appears that the American folks are looking for a solution that is Canterbury centered, and that is becoming less a concern for the sub-saharan African Primates. The tone of the last couple of CAPA conferences has been that African Anglicans should work together to find an African based solution to the present crisis. Perhaps that is what is happening? And perhaps Jonathan Petre wasn’t so far off base in his reporting?

In other words, we could be seeing the first signs of a totally sub-saharan African based response to the present stresses in the Anglican Communion. It appears now that this group of Primates is working to have the broadly based invitations to the North American bishops withdrawn. And if the Archbishop of Canterbury won’t do that, then they are willing to walk on their own away from an England-dominated Communion.

What new implications would a strong and coordinated, completely non-western based strategy bring? Philip Jenkins talks about the rise of African Christianity and how it is fast becoming the leading voice of a global Church. Could we be seeing a thread of this tapestry in these very events?

The Very Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely is Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix Ariz. He serves as Chair of the Standing Commission on Episcopal Church Communication and was originally trained as an astronomer. His blog is Entangled States.

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