First, a brief history lesson: the Church of England was created when King Henry VIII split the Church in England away from the Roman Catholic Church. It’s important to understand that Henry only wanted to get rid of the rule of the pope and the College of Cardinals when he created this “new” church. So while he wanted to get rid of the church’s “foreign” leadership, he didn’t want to change much about the church’s theology or organization.
When Henry died, his son Edward VI took over, and during this time the Church of England became much more Protestant. But then Edward died, and Bloody Mary took over, and the Church of England rejoined the Catholic Church. But then Mary’s sister, Elizabeth, became Queen and the Church of England finally settled somewhere between Catholicism and Protestantism.
Around this time, the Age of Exploration took off, and soon English people were traveling the world, opening trading routes in some places, and making colonies in others. And of course, they brought the Church of England with them. Over the next two centuries, most of these colonies would get their independence and the English would go home… but the Church stayed, and so what had been the “Church of England in America” became the “Episcopal Church”, the “Church of England in Canada” became the “Anglican Church of Canada” and so on.
These churches are collectively known as the “Anglican Communion”. And for decades, they all existed happily with each other. Towards the end of the 1960s, however, the Episcopal Church in the United States (TEC) has become progressively more and more liberal. In 2003, TEC nominated Gene Robinson, a practicing homosexual, as Bishop of New Hampshire. And this created a giant mess for the Anglican Communion.
Although each national church is independent of the others and can act in (almost) any way it sees fit, the consecration of Gene Robinson alienated most of the Global South, the staunchly conservative members of the Anglican Communion in Africa and Asia. And this is a problem because the Global South constitutes a large majority of the Anglican Communion. Where TEC has less than 2 million members, the Church of Nigeria has 40 million… and they’re not happy with TEC.
If this were the Catholic Church, the pope would step in and issue an verdict one way or another, and his word would be law. Sadly, the Anglican Church doesn’t have that. The closest that Anglican Church has to that is the Archbishop of Canterbury, who doesn’t have any actual authority, but is given significant moral authority under the doctrine of prima inter pares (“first among equals”). And it’s time that Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, did something.
He’s spent the past several years “reflecting” and “discussing” the issue with leaders on both sides. But when his head wasn’t buried in the sand, he was usually busy eating cucumber sandwiches with the Queen instead of tackling the most important issue to ever come across the desk of any of the past Archbishops of Canterbury. Rowan has been so busy walking the tightrope these past few years that he’s seemed to have lost sight of one important thing: while he may, in his heart, wish for gay clergy and gay weddings in every corner of the Anglican Communion, he can only wish that at the risk of his own power.
Rowan Williams cannot, on one hand, let the US church do whatever it wants, and then on the other hand, criticize the Global South churches for trying to “fix” the problem on their end. And if the US church can do whatever it wants, why cannot the Global South churches do the same? Why is it OK for TEC to totally disregard the Windsor Report, but it’s somehow a problem when the Nigerian Church sends conservative bishops to the United States to minister to those whom TEC has left behind?
You see where I’m going with this? By not saying or doing something right now, Williams risks having “his” Anglican Communion be only the CoE and TEC, while the rest of the Anglican Communion joins with the ACNA. Rowan can either be the biggest bishop of the smallest church, or do something to reassert his authority. As much as he’d like to dither about, the time for that has long since passed.
And indeed, Rowan’s own time might have passed. There’s word on the street that people “high up” in the Church of England – the people that actually attend church, and the people that actually have money – are fed up with the Archbishop being pushed around by TEC. They’re sick of ++Williams being a whipping boy for “That Woman”, and they’re starting to put quiet pressure on the Queen and government to get Rowan to resign. I have no idea if that will happen, although it probably should.
If only he’d actually done something years ago.