Leaders of the worldwide Anglican Church are facing what many believe is their biggest challenge yet thanks to the American Church's decision to appoint an openly gay bishop earlier this year. Just last week the Archbishop of Canterbury, who heads the international Anglican Communion, called an emergency meeting in London to discuss the Church's stance on homosexuality. It's not the first issue to challenge the Anglican Church, but it's proving to be the most divisive.
The 37 primates who attended the emergency meeting represent nearly 70 million Anglicans in more than 160 countries. At last week's meeting, the primates decided to form a commission that will consider whether the Anglican Communion can continue, in spite of deep disagreements among members over the role of gays in the Church. The primates also released a statement, saying they deeply regretted the American Church's decision to appoint Reverend Gene Robinson as bishop. They warned that if the appointment is consecrated on November 2, as planned, the action could permanently destroy the unity of the world-wide Anglican Communion.
"Anglicans around the world have always considered themselves to be part of the 'church universal', said Reverend Ian Douglas, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "And to have a rupture, or a loss of that connectivity would be a great sadness."
Reverend Douglas' research focuses on the Anglican Church's missionary efforts, which have proved to be quite successful in recent decades. There are now more than 38 million Anglicans living in Africa. That compares to just 26 million in England, where the denomination was founded more than four centuries ago. Professor Douglas says disagreements like the one plaguing the Church now are an inevitable consequence of Anglicanism's evangelical success.
"The church has historically rested in a kind of English and American cultural sameness, if you will, that speaks English, might take tea in the afternoon," he said. "Today, Anglicanism is located in a radical plurality of cultural contexts, and that challenges the assumptions, the norms of that old church that rested in one cultural worldview."
Ian Douglas says it would be simplistic, and even insulting, to present the disagreement over homosexuality as a fight between "the West and the Rest." Many Anglicans in the United States, after all, are dismayed by their Church's decision to appoint Gene Robinson as bishop. Nevertheless, the strongest and most unified opposition to Reverend Robinson's appointment is coming from Anglicans in South America and Africa. And Ian Douglas says it would be naďve to think that the Anglican Communion is immune to the growing resentment against America's world-wide dominance in the post-Cold War era.
"It is affected by geopolitical realities, so that many Christians around the world feel like 'There goes the United States again,'" he added.
It's not clear that Gene Robinson knew he might become a part of the "great debate" over America's hegemonic influence in the world, when he agreed to be the state of New Hampshire's next Anglican bishop. But he did know his appointment would generate controversy. Just a few weeks before American Anglicans approved Gene Robinson's appointment, a British Anglican priest who's gay announced he wouldn't be accepting his appointment as the Bishop of Reading. Jeffrey John cited the "damage" his consecration might do to the "unity of the Church." So far, Gene Robinson has not indicated that he's willing to make a similar decision.