Of all the issues that might divide worldwide Anglicanism, the world’s third largest Christian denomination, in the early years of the 21st Century that of homosexuality ought to be the most inconsequential. It is, after all, an attraction that affects only a small minority of the small minority of people who choose to be practising Anglicans in the western world, though they are human beings who wish to express their allegiance to their faith, despite all the disapproval that it shows them.
Those singled out for particular anathema, furthermore, are precisely gay men and women who wish to serve their faith more directly by becoming ordained – often to work in the most difficult circumstances – but also to register publicly their abiding commitment to another human being. Despite all the hostility and periodic persecution that religious and secular societies have directed towards homosexuals over prolonged periods – although, despite some claims, official attitudes have fluctuated and been by no means uniformly condemnatory during the last 2,000 years – the proportion of the population who experience same sex attraction has apparently remained stubbornly much the same.
Gays have refused to go away, though many of them have tried to sublimate their affections, or to bury them deep underground, forcing them so far into the closet, as the saying goes, that they are almost in Narnia. Very often, that enforced unhappiness and personal diminishment has seemed organised religion’s preference, a sort of institutional hypocrisy.
So if such policies have endured, why is it now that conservative factions are threatening to split the church? They blame the gays for being increasingly aggressively assertive, murmering darkly about a gay conspiracy, though there is precious little evidence for that – indeed, it could be argued that in the Church of England at least gays are under more attack now than they were 20 years ago. It should be noted that those who wish to exclude others, who claim the church is split and who insist they are out of communion with other parts of the worldwide communion are exclusively conservative. By verbal gymnastics, they also claim that they themselves are somehow being persecuted and excluded by malign though ill-defined liberal forces.
The causes of the current controversies were exacerbated by several largely unconnected and accidental events: the appointment of an Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, known in his previous, academic, incarnations to be sympathetic to gays, followed within a year by the appointment to the suffragan bishopric of Reading of the canon theologian of Southwark, Jeffrey John, who had argued in favour of more accepting attitudes towards gays and who, under media and evangelical pressure, was forced to disclose that he himself was gay; and thirdly, the election – by democratic vote of his diocese - of the openly gay, partnered, cleric Gene Robinson.
All three men faced ruthless campaigns against them by evangelicals, who were none too scrupulous about the tactics they used and the untruths they spread. The three events in close conjunction convinced them that a concerted push was under way for gays and the appointments signified a seachange within the Anglican Church. Even so, their response, far from being entirely rational, bordered on the hysterical. Dr Williams was harangued, berated and denounced as a heretic, Gene Robinson, his partner and the US presiding bishop had to wear bullet-proof clothing at his consecration and Dr John was forced to relinquish his appointment by a disconcerted Archbishop of Canterbury, following protests from evangelicals. What suprised the conservatives, at least in England, was the paucity of outside support they received, especially from the media: an isolation they took as confirmation of the depravity of the world and a confirmation of their own rectitude.
Perhaps, in the developed world, such a clash was inevitable as secular attitudes to homosexuality changed, no thanks to the Church. Almost for the first time, religious morality has not prevailed in secular law. In Britain at least, measures to allow civil partnerships and to legislate against discrimination have been widely accepted, no political party has any intention of reversing them and there is no prospect of turning back the clock.
This has inevitably made some in the churches, but particularly the Church of England, with its establishment status and its uneasy historical alliance of low-church evangelicals and high-church Anglo-Catholics (a declining part of the church since the ordination of women), nervous and insecure. There is a sense among some conservative evangelicals that any accommodation with such measures will undermine Biblical belief and authority and that if they are allowed to stand within the church, all will be lost and anything will go. They may be aware that the British Social Attitudes Survey of 2000 showed that whereas older Anglicans are more likely to regard homosexuality as wrong than the general public, younger Anglicans, around the age of 18, are less likely to have such views then their contemporaries. So there is nothing less than a struggle for the future soul of the church going on. Evangelicals tend to say that, as a rising force in the CofE, their views should prevail.
In North America the situation is somewhat different. Historically, the US Episcopal Church has been liberal in social attitudes. It led the way to women’s ordination in the 1970s and has now been more openly welcoming towards gays than ever before. These developments have perturbed and disenchanted conservatives for many years and have already split some of them off. They tend to say that, as a minority, their views should have respect.
But on both sides of the Atlantic, these factions have identified homosexuality as an issue which can united their constituencies in a way that the earlier debate over women’s ordination could not – after all, many evangelicals have met women and some have even married them. It is evident from their remarks that, although they disavow any prejudice, many of them have a visceral dislike of what they take to be homosexual practice and a prurient interest in its mechanics – and they expect their followers do too. One leading evangelical said to me that gays were the “presenting issue” and that something else could have been chosen to assert their influence over the church, such as ecumenical services, or divorce – these are issues to which they may return.
While there are interesting differences in liturgical practice between the main conservative groups on both sides of the Atlantic – some English conservative evangelicals would have nose-bleeds at the High Churchmanship of many American conservatives (and indeed the various American groups are split over tactics and personalities) – both have found it expedient to make common cause in their fights against their hierarchies. For English conservatives the battle is to assert control for their highly congregationalist, distinctly non-traditional brand of Anglicanism as against other brands of evangelicalism, let alone the wider, less ideologically-driven Church of England, as has been seen in the takeover of Wycliffe Hall, the Oxford theological training college. For Americans, it is perhaps a more overtly political struggle, about claiming a “purer” and less socially and theologically liberal version of orthodoxy as pursued by the overwhelming majority in a church with which they have felt disenchanted for decades.
Isolated and on their own – as they have been for many years – such factions would have had limited influence but together and particularly by calling in the Third World to redress the balance of the Old, they have formed a formidable and effective alliance. The support of the equatorial African church has been crucial in the campaign and it has been mobilised – indeed regularly juiced up to outrage – through the instant communication offered by the Internet. Whereas the concept of the Worldwide Anglican Communion was little heard even two decades ago, except as a warm, fuzzy feeling of international brotherhood, in the last 10 years it has been held up as an iconic symbol of unique authority. African primates need no longer feel they are patronised and ignored by white men in clerical garb and have become more assertive and outspoken in their condemnation of homosexuality, which they see as a white decadence, so much so that some of their remarks have combined abusiveness, bigotry and ignorance as well as being deeply unChristian. Meanwhile, white bishops have been afraid of confronting them, partly because of liberal post-colonial guilt, partly to avoid upsetting local conservatives and partly out of a sense that the Africans are a rising force within the Church. The conservatives have naturally done nothing to disabuse them of these notions. Actually what has happened is that the Africans have swapped one client status for another. After all, as one conservative evangelical once wrote, rather a black African leader than a white, gay, one, even if the former looks like the church janitor.
Thus, gatherings of Anglican leaders have become highly politicised events. What were once opportunities for prayer, reflection and an opportunity to meet, have become international gatherings reported by media and surrounded by lobbyists. Third world bishops are given mobile phones so conservatives can keep track of them, even if they are sequestered in private, and leaders such as Peter Akinola, the primate of Nigeria, slip out for regular consultations. In the February 2007 primates’ meeting in Tanzania, such furtive meetings could not be hidden and the archbishop, inconspicuous in full tribal costume, could regularly be seen to be making his way to an upper room to take advice from the conservative lobbyists gathered there. One senior Anglican engaged in the primates’ talks said that it was noticeable how much firmer and less willing to compromise the archbishop always was on his return. Two of those he was consulting: Martyn Minns, evangelical, British-born rector of one of the breakaway churches in Virginia, and David Anderson of the American Anglican Council, have become bishops in the African church. When the rest of the world’s archbishops gathered in Zanzibar for Sunday eucharist in the cathedral, built on the old slave market, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade, Akinola and his contacts stayed away.
Such an insurgency could not have been achieved without money and there is some evidence that the American conservative factions and, through them, the Africans, have been supported financially by wealthy American conservatives, who have also supported other campaigns against what they see as the wicked forces of liberalism. The amount of international travel the conservative lobbyists and their primatial contacts are able to undertake is quite considerable: Akinola seems to pop up almost as regularly in America as Abuja. British conservative organisations, such as Anglican Mainstream receive American money and the Rev. Anderson of the AAC was formerly the vicar of Howard Ahmanson, the Californian Real Estate heir, and his wife Roberta, who have funded a number of fundamentalist causes and organised courses for conservatives.
Now is the hour, they believe. If the opportunity is missed it may never come again. They see a conjunction of a cause and an opportunity and they believe they have an Archbishop of Canterbury in Rowan Williams who can be subverted or bypassed – “he’ll do as we tell him,” as one African primate was overheard telling his colleagues at a meeting in Dromantine in 2005. In England, the majority of congregations has not yet woken up to the push to create a very different church to the one they are used to. In America, there are signs that the Episcopal Church leadership is tiring both of the insurgents and of the worldwide communion. Whatever emerges in the coming year, it is unlikely that Anglicanism will ever be the same again. The bonds of affection are broken, the curtain is torn, can some form of divorce be indefinitely postponed?