|Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, meet in November 2010|
Photo: Richard Pohle
Five years ago today, Pope Benedict XVI met with Archbishop Rowan Williams for evening prayer at Westminster Abbey in London. The meeting was more than ecumenical. Benedict was also on a pastoral mission to the Catholic bishops of the UK. He urged them, no commanded them, to accept with welcome the Anglicans entering the Catholic Church through the personal ordinariates he would soon create. Five years later, yesterday, Archbishop William's successor (Justin Welby), officially announced what is effectively the end of the worldwide Anglican Communion as we know it. Internal divisions over doctrinal matters have made any kind of cohesive religious union impossible on any kind of substantial doctrinal level. Instead, Archbishop Welby has summonsed all of the Anglican primates of the world together (whether officially united with Canterbury or not) to discuss the possibility of forming a 'new communion', based on lesser doctrinal standards. What he proposes is effectively a loose federation, or affiliation, that is united more by history than by concrete doctrinal or moral standards. In effect, what he is proposing is little more than an ecumenical umbrella, not far off from the Worldwide Council of Churches. Yet there is something much more profound in Archbishop Welby's proposal. It is a tacit admission of what many of us have known for years. Anglicanism, as we know it, is gone. It's over. The Anglican Communion has been shattered and cannot be repaired.
The Communion was formed as a result of the British Empire, in which England's form of Protestantism (which was very catholic in appearance) was spread throughout all of the regions of the world controlled or occupied by Britain at one time or another. In this way, Anglicanism contributed greatly to the evangelism of the new world and the third world. Worldwide, the Anglican Communion boasts of a membership of approximately 80 million, but this number is disputed among those who claim that actual membership is artificially inflated in liberal provinces like the United States. Each province of the Communion is governed by an archbishop called a 'primate', and generally speaking, each province is part of this Communion by virtue of its communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury of the Church of England.
Here a footnote should be added. Legally speaking, the 'head' of the Church of England is the British monarch (today that's Queen Elizabeth II), but that being said, the Archbishop of Canterbury has always served as its spiritual director. In contrast, the monarchy has no role over the other provinces of the Anglican Communion. It is limited to the Church of England alone.
Over the years a threefold division (or rift) developed within the Anglican Communion, which eventually resulted in its fracture and now the current state of official collapse. In the developed world, the trajectory of the Communion was clearly high church Anglo-Catholic, meaning it became more Catholic in appearance and doctrine. While as in the developing world, Anglicanism took on a more Evangelical (Protestant-like) character. This division was a minor one at first, because it reflected style more than doctrine or moral practice. However, in the latter half of the 20th century, a much more serious division erupted. We could say it all began with the 1930 Lambeth Conference, in which artificial contraception was approved by the hierarchy of the Communion. However, the effects of this would not be seen for some forty years. By the late 1960s, through the 1970s, the wave of Modernism, which had been sweeping the religious world, hit the Anglican provinces in North America hard. This created a trend within the Anglican Communion throughout the developed world. The Episcopal Church in the United States led the way with innovations such as; revisions to liturgy, ordination of women to clergy, consecration of female bishops, acceptance of abortion and feminism, acceptance of homosexuality, ordination of open homosexuals as clergy, consecration of open homosexuals as bishops, acceptance of same-sex 'marriage', etc. Naturally, this caused the second rift, effectively dividing the Communion into three parts. The Evangelical Anglicans, the largest branch of Anglicanism in Africa, Asia and South America, now constituted one division. Meanwhile, traditional high church Anglicanism in the developed world was divided between Anglo-Catholics (those who held to traditional Catholic beliefs on morality) and Liberals (those who held to Modernist views on religion and morality). Liturgically speaking, there was often little to distinguish between the two. Practically speaking however, they couldn't be further apart.
The divisions became most evident by the 1998 Lambeth Conference, and many within the Anglican Communion (myself included) saw at that point the proverbial 'writing on the wall'. (By 2000 I had left The Episcopal Church USA to join the Catholic Church). By 2003, The Episcopal Church USA consecrated its first openly homosexual bishop. The action resulted in the largest exodus from The Anglican Communion since the American Revolution in 1776 - 1783. Other Anglican jurisdictions had already pealed away decades prior, but the homosexual consecration of 2003 resulted in the largest division ever. While some Anglicans converted to Catholicism, Orthodoxy or Lutheranism, a good number of them formed their own province called the Anglican Church in North America, which encompassed disaffected Episcopalians and Anglicans from the United States and Canada. The 2008 Lambeth Conference was a disaster, in which the Evangelical-style Anglicans from the developing world decided to boycott and held their own conference in Jerusalem, called the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON). With no resolution in sight, and the situation continuing to deteriorate, the 2018 Lambeth Conference was cancelled by Archbishop Welby in 2014. Yesterday, September 16, 2015, Archbishop Welby announced that a special meeting will be held in January of 2017, which will discuss the creation of a new kind of 'communion', that will be considerably less doctrinal in nature, and more historical in character. In effect, the death certificate of the Anglican Communion has just been issued. It's official now.
The demise of Anglicanism, as we know it, has been a long time coming. In a way, it's been a lot like watching a horrific train wreck in slow motion. It is however, logical.
What precipitated this was the issue of authority, or more specifically, the lack thereof. Within Anglicanism there existed no authority structure that could correct errant provinces whenever they threatened the unity of the Anglican Communion. In effect, the Anglicans lacked a pope. Former Archbishop Rowan Williams made this analysis during this term in office, and actually made the suggestion that the Anglican Communion consider adopting something like this, giving the Archbishop of Canterbury's office the authority to do just that. The idea was quietly dismissed by the rest of the Communion. What Williams was recommending was effectively an Anglican papacy, and most Anglicans had no desire to reinvent the wheel this way. Even if Williams' idea had been accepted, and implemented, it is still debatable if it would have worked. A powerful Archbishop of Canterbury might have been able to stall the eventual collapse of the Anglican Communion, but probably couldn't have prevented it. There is, after all, the whole issue of apostolic succession, which some might dispute.
Without real apostolic authority, Christianity crumbles. Many Protestant denominations have discovered this over the centuries, and many more will discover it over the remainder of this century. Evangelicals, of all stripes, boast in the Bible as their only authority. This claim tends to work for a short while, and sometimes results in phenomenal growth, but that growth is short lived, and quickly fades away in subsequent generations. Lack of apostolic authority gives rise to schisms which demolish Christian unity. The Evangelical Anglicans (GAFCON) will soon discover this for themselves, probably within about 20 years or less, unless they find a way to tap back into the Catholic notion of apostolic succession and authority.
Among those Anglicans that left the Anglican provinces of the UK, US, Canada and Australia; a small contingency understood this. They understood that Anglicanism's problems began long before the Modernist wave of the late 20th century, and long before the Lambeth Conference of 1930. They understood that Anglicanism's real problems began in the 16th century, under King Henry VIII and his daughter Queen Elizabeth I. It was the Church of England's schism with the Pope of Rome that set it up for failure. So in a very real sense, the whole Anglican Communion was built on a foundation of sinking sand. It was only a matter of time before it would collapse.
These few Anglicans in America forged out on their own, and petitioned Rome for full reunification under the apostolic authority of the pope. In 1980, Saint John Paul II granted this, creating the Anglican Use - Pastoral Provision in the United States. The Anglican Use of the Roman Rite became a prototype for the Personal Ordinariates that Pope Benedict XVI set up in 2011 and 2012, following the publication of their apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus in 2009. In this, Pope Benedict XVI created jurisdictions within the Catholic Church, allowing the Anglican Patrimony to grow and flourish indefinitely, under the doctrinal and moral protection of the papacy, that will prevent heretical or schismatic prelates from ever tearing them apart. Now with the death of the Anglican Communion having been officially pronounced, it should be apparent to anyone with eyes to see, that the future of the Anglican Patrimony lies squarely within the Roman Catholic Church.
There is nothing this proposed new Anglican affiliation can protect any more. What Archbishop Welby is putting forward is a way for Anglicans to still say they're together, sort of, but only by a common historical background. Whatever doctrinal ties this new affiliation might propose will have to be extremely limited, and really no more significant than the doctrinal ties we see in other ecumenical forums, such as the World Council of Churches. The provinces of the former Anglican Communion will never be able to agree on moral issues again. Indeed, if anything can be agreed upon at all, the end result will be Anglican provinces that overlap each other, and Anglicans can pick and choose what type of Anglican they want to be, by picking and choosing what overlapping province to affiliate with. Such competing provinces, with no doctrinal or moral unity, will create an affiliation that really doesn't mean much in a practical sense. In fact, the only affiliation that will really matter, to the average layperson, will be the affiliation one has with one's local parish and denomination. Because you see, that is exactly what Archbishop Welby has proposed -- multiple denominations under a common 'Anglican' umbrella. There is no way the Anglican Patrimony can be preserved internationally under these circumstances. Perhaps local provinces (denominations) will be able to preserve some elements of the Anglican Patrimony, on a local level, but any kind of a meaningful international Anglican ethos will be gone. In a very real sense, it already is. Distant history may very well record that the man who saved the Anglican Patrimony for future generations was none other than a Catholic pope -- Benedict XVI.
Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com.' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.
Read Shane's Books
Become a Benefactor of this Internet Apostolate