The U.S. Episcopal Church is paying the price for its decision last year to endorse same-sex weddings. Last week the Church’s governing body censured the Episcopalians for their stance on the issue, a reflection of the growing influence of African bishops, says Bowdoin College Associate Professor of Religion Elizabeth Pritchard.
Meeting at their headquarters in Canterbury, England, global leaders, or primates, representing the Anglican Communion’s 38 autonomous provinces, voted by a two-thirds majority to restrict the role that its American branch can play in strategic decision-making, doctrine or policy. These sanctions as many are calling them, are to last three years. Bishop Michael Curry, head of the Episcopal Church, said: “For fellow disciples of Jesus in our church who are gay or lesbian, this will bring more pain.”
Professor Pritchard, who’s on academic leave this year, says this is a significant development, but not an unexpected one. “There’s a dynamic shift happening in global Christianity,” she says, at the heart of which is the religion’s changing geographic power base away from the West. In 1900, Pritchard notes, 83 percent of Christians lived in Europe, “but by 2050, some 75 percent of Christians are projected to be in Latin America, Asia and Africa.” And as the Church shifts, she explains, it’s becoming more conservative.
This trend is mirrored by the Anglican Church, which is the biggest Protestant denomination in the world, and the third-largest Christian body, after the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. For example, says Pritchard, “of the approximately 85 million Anglicans worldwide, about a quarter of them live in Nigeria,” while less than two million of them can be found in America, “and that number’s shrinking,” she adds. Although the U.S. remains significantly more religious than Europe, Pritchard explains, the Episcopal Church continues to lose members and money. “The real power is shifting towards where the numbers are, where the church is growing.” Which means, to a large extent, Africa, where 60 percent of all Anglicans are now reported to be living, and where attitudes towards same-sex relationships are markedly less tolerant: in many countries homosexuality can lead to imprisonment.
“Athough this issue goes back to the 1970s,” says Pritchard, “the division sharpened in 2003, when the Episcopal Church ordained its first openly gay bishop Gene Robinson,” marking what she calls the “Anglican re-alignment.” On the one hand, says Pritchard, you have the Episcopalians arguing that theirs is the true Christian message – one of love and inclusion. While on the other, you have the largely African Anglicans, who are adopting a more “bible-centric, literalist approach, and describe the actions of the US church as ‘heresy.’ ” Even some American Anglicans found the Episcopalians too liberal for their liking: In 2009 they established the breakaway Anglican Church in North America, which according to its website now unites 112,000 members across the continent.
So where does this leave the global Anglican Communion going forward? Pritchard describes the latest development as “another fault-line in what really is a chasm that’s opening up in the Anglican communion.” For global Anglican leader Justin Welby, these are tough times indeed, she says. The former oil industry executive, who became the Archbishop of Canterbury three years ago, is sympathetic to the Episopalian cause. He apologized to the LGBT community after the primates’ vote, and also told journalists that he would love to see a change in the way the Anglican church treats same-sex marriages. “Nevertheless,” says Pritchard, “Welby’s primary aim is to keep the Communion together despite the varying stances within it.”
With the U.S. church not likely to change its position, and with other branches of the Anglican Communion (in Scotland, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand for example) also leaning in that direction, Pritchard says there will be some hard negotiations ahead. Pritchard sees a loosening in the organization of the Anglican Communion into more of a federated structure as one possible outcome: “There has been some talk, from the Anglican Church of South Africa for example, that maybe some provinces should be allowed to go their own way on certain issues while still remaining part of the same Communion.” While many African bishops may be loath to be part of the same organization as the Epispocal Church, which in their eyes is heretical, the pull to unity could be stronger still. “Being part of the global Anglican organization benefits churches in places like Africa,” says Pritchard, “where among other things they face powerful rivals in Islam and Pentecostalism”