Reading those Anglican tea leaves


By W. Nicholas Knisely

This week has turned out to be much “newsier” than your humble news team at Episcopal Cafe expected. The first hint that something big was developing came late on Monday with a story in the Telegraph by Jonathan Petre about a broad-based, conservative primate led rejection of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s leadership. Over the next twelve hours or so the blog-sphere was lit up with speculation about what Petre meant, what sorts of sources he had and, since pretty much everyone dismissed the story as inaccurate, what the “leakers” that had approached Petre were hoping to gain by planting the story.

By the time I woke up out in the Pacific time-zone the next morning, the rest of the story had broken. The Archbishop of Kenya announced his plans to consecrate the Rev. Canon Bill Atwood as a suffragan bishop of the Anglican Province of Kenya to serve the needs of what he would refers to as the orthodox Anglican remnant in the North American Anglican Provinces. This move was met with a bit of head scratching at first and with serious concerns about the implications. Yet, within hours the announcement from Kenya was welcomed by the Archbishop of Nigeria and his associated CANA network. Over the next day or so announcements were made by the various groups around the Communion who have decided that the North American Anglicans were in need of serious reform and pastoral care.

I followed the developments as closely as you’d expect. (I got to be a member of the news team here at Episcopal Cafe because of my, um… obsessive interest in Anglican news.) Once the story’s outlines began to become clear, I spent more than a few hours wondering what was really going on behind the scenes. Mostly I’ve been trying to think what can be intuited by the way the story was greeted when it first broke and then how it was later spun during the rise and fall of the news cycle. I shared my ponderings with the folks here on the news team, and our esteemed editor-in-chief has asked me to share them with y’all.

First a disclaimer. I have *no* inside knowledge of what’s going on. I have been blessed to know people on both sides of the debate over the Communion in the American church and I count many of them as friends and mentors. But because I am a self-proclaimed centrist, nobody trusts me enough to take me into their private councils. (And now that I’m a “member of the press”, I’m often viewed with even more suspicion.) So what I’m about to suggest is really just my own speculation. It may or may not have any real basis in fact. But still…

What has really struck me was the way that the conservative side of the Anglican blog-sphere reacted to the news of the Telegraph story. The reaction was uniformly negative and dismissive. The team here at Episcopal Cafe agreed with the other bloggers in saying that there has been a track record of secular reporters misunderstanding the implications of Anglican rumors and we cautioned taking the news too seriously. One blogger who is part of a CANA congregation was more than dismissive of the intial report and went so far as to question the motives of the people “leaking”. Other major conservative sites like Stand Firm treated the news the same way – saying in essence that it made no sense to them, and that they didn’t think it was accurate.

When the story was fully revealed by the announcement made on the Church of Kenya’s website, the conversational tone turned to confusion and concern. The concern was mostly that this unexpected move by Kenya was going to further fracture what tenuous unity there was on the “conservative” side. The movement was in danger of becoming the 2007 version of what happened to the Continuing Anglican Churches in the USA following the 1979 General Convention. Later in the day the announcements began to flow in welcoming the development. First came the pronouncement by CANA, which was followed by announcements from around the Communion and the Anglican Networks in the US welcoming the news. What had at first seemed unexpected became over the next day according to news releases and blog reactions part of a coordinated strategy.

So, is it actually part of a coordinated strategy? My first thought was “no”. The announcements had a feeling of people making lemonade of the lemons they had been given. There was the lack of any apparent advance knowledge by the American allies of the CAPA Primates. But as I looked more carefully at the wording in the announcements, especially the ones from the African provinces, I was struck that they were more nuanced than I first thought – and didn’t seem like they were thrown together.

Perhaps the African primates have decided to take coordinated action and this development is part of that decision. But what then should we make of the fact that their American allies seemed surprised at the news story? Could it be that the Primates have decided to take action on their own, an African plan if you will, rather than a Communion-wide response?

It also occurred to me that the fact that there were now three or four Primates who had created personal prelatures amongst the conservatives in North America means that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the other primates to bring pressure on their brothers to stop these initiatives. Each seemingly independent initiative would have to be dealt with individually, and given the other pressing business of the Communion, expending that sort of time and energy is not likely. Perhaps what is apparently uncoordinated is being done that way by design.

I have also noticed that the African Primates seem to be more than a little impatient with their American allies. They have been made promises that whatever money they turned down for relief and development from the American church would be replaced by gifts by those separating from the Episcopal Church. This has not happened. In addition it appears that the American folks are looking for a solution that is Canterbury centered, and that is becoming less a concern for the sub-saharan African Primates. The tone of the last couple of CAPA conferences has been that African Anglicans should work together to find an African based solution to the present crisis. Perhaps that is what is happening? And perhaps Jonathan Petre wasn’t so far off base in his reporting?

In other words, we could be seeing the first signs of a totally sub-saharan African based response to the present stresses in the Anglican Communion. It appears now that this group of Primates is working to have the broadly based invitations to the North American bishops withdrawn. And if the Archbishop of Canterbury won’t do that, then they are willing to walk on their own away from an England-dominated Communion.

What new implications would a strong and coordinated, completely non-western based strategy bring? Philip Jenkins talks about the rise of African Christianity and how it is fast becoming the leading voice of a global Church. Could we be seeing a thread of this tapestry in these very events?

The Very Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely is Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix Ariz. He serves as Chair of the Standing Commission on Episcopal Church Communication and was originally trained as an astronomer. His blog is Entangled States.

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14 Responses to "Reading those Anglican tea leaves"
  1. Thanks for the tour of recent events. Very helpful and comprehensive. Just a caution (and I know this is not your intention) about painting the entire "global south" as one. Even Jenkins recognizes a tapestry.

    Again, thanks for all of your time.

    Lawrence Weeks

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  2. Nick,

    Thanks for this excellent analysis.

    Earlier this week, I wrote on this Blog about how the conservative/reasserter movement was running out of steam, how some groups were itching to go on their own regardless, and how others advised caution and are wary of fragmentation.

    Wouldn't you know that as soon as it ran, everyone started running for outward unity in the face of the unexpected? That's the news business for ya!

    Looking back, I should not have said "run of steam" but rather "fragmentation."

    The upshot of your analysis is that

    (a) Evangelical African Primates are tired of towing a Euro-centric line (which especially includes the US).

    (b) They view the issues in a very binary way and are impatient with the slow, nuanced approach of even the most conservative American.

    (c) These African Primates take serious that authority for these missionary dioceses/parishes in the US flows from East to West as it were, and

    (d) the observe the lack of visible unity of the movement in this country, the difficulty they have leading themselves, and the failed promises of missionary support equal to what was lost by severing with TEC.

    So they are taking charge. The conservatives in this country have run out the clock, they are realizing that they need to take ownership of these partnerships and not just be a marriage of convienence for disaffected American.

    The church tradition in these countries is rather young but the cultures are ancient. These are folks with a living memory of the Gospel planted on their soil from outside. I believe this makes these Bishops far less allergic to doing that in reverse.

    When they take away an Episcopal parish, we focus on the the intrusion--the lack of decorum, if you will. They are in effect saying "Hey! That's how the Gospel is spread. You did it here. Now we are doing it there."

    Personally, I wonder what the role of the Common Cause meeting will be in light of this. Will it be a last gasp for North American (dissident) Bishops to unify their authority on their own turf? Or will African Bishops tell them that there is a new game in town and here are the rules?

    Andrew Gerns

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  3. Thanks Lawrence. You're right - I think we all recognize the difference between the broad expressions of African Christianity and the specific views of the Anglican Provinces that self-identify as the Global South. The problem is that I can't think of a better way to describe them when writing within an anglican context.

    If anyone can, I'd be grateful.

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  4. Thanks Andrew both for you kind words and your outline of my points. You're right on with the outline and probably too generous with the rest. Grin.

    But to respond to your question, I think things are developing much more organically right now than perhaps any of us - no matter where we stand - can imagine.

    Archbishop Gomez has said something to the effect that any efforts to effect realignment right now are much to premature. I think he's pointing out that groups are still working on their self-definitions and working out what is important to them. Until that happens we all ought to be going slow.

    I too wonder what the Common Cause meeting might bring. Perhaps, if I might dream, it could create a way that would build some sort of bridge - no matter how personality based - that would give the churches of the continuum a way to have a developing relationship with the rest of political structures of the Communion...

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  5. Great analysis. What I'm drawing from it is that certain of the evangelical African bishops have decided that America is an open mission field.

    What it doesn't mean is that they decided to assist in the formation of a new American province--which is what many traditionalists are trying to find here. Yes, ++Akinola and others have said great things about +Atwood and are expressing delight--but it doesn't mean they're going to work together or consolidate. I think the facts on the ground will be not a new province but another relationship like the one between AMiA and CANA.

    I'm still waiting for responses from the Communion outside of Africa. ++Venables supports it--but what about ++Gomez? How about +Wright?

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  6. Nick makes some good points, and he may be right, but here are two related isses that might argue in another direction: money and publicity. Akinola and some of his allies are valuable to conservatives in the US (especially those outside the Church) primarily as opponents of the Episcopal Church and, to a lesser extent, of Western liberalism. As soon as the struggle to eject the Episcopal Church from the Communion ends (and it would end, I think, if the Communion split) then the American media will lose interest in Akinola, et al., and these Primates will, in turn, lose value to many of their original American sponsors. This is why I am still not convinced that they won't come to Lambeth. That is where the microphone will be.

    It may be that Bill Atwood, whose role in the realignment movement has been primarily as a fundraiser, has put something together, and it may be that Martyn Minns retains the late Diane Knippers ties to Howard Ahmanson (there are certainly enough CANA members working for the IRD.) So maybe they have planned for this. But without additional disclosures, it is hard for me to imagine that there is enough money in the movement to sustain African provinces that may face dimminishing Western aid in the wake of a split, an alternative American governing structure, and court costs.

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  7. Jim - thanks for the kind words.

    One quick response:

    You may well be right in terms of how the American conservative movement views Archbishop Akinola. I think the Archbishop is aware of that view and doesn't like it. I think Jenkins point that the African Christianity is going to move to the fore as a player is something that Archbishop Akinola is working towards. He wants Nigeria to take, to his mind, its rightful place as the heavy-weight of the Anglican Communion.

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  8. On a slightly related topic, I have very mixed feelings about Philip Jenkins, who I think is as much an advocate as a scholar. He certainly knows more about this than I do, but he's currently the only person ever quoted on this issue, and I am just not sure he has the story right. I am hoping to finish reading Miranda Hassett's book about the conflict in the communion soon and do a Q and A interview with her for the Cafe. I haven't reached the part of the book where she deals with Jenkins in depth, but I don't think she finds him entirely persuasive.

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  9. Seems that all this is part of the Network Centric movement of all systems. It will be a free for all for awhile - I think TEC needs keep being itself, make alliances where we can and leave the door open to others in the future - as lobbyists say - no permanent enemies. Especially not among brother and sisters in Christ.

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  10. Ann,

    I agree, definitely a free for all. I wonder, when the dust settles, whether the African Primates involved will start competing with each other with their various mission organizations?

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  11. I think we have yet to see what this will actually mean, but I'm not sure "fragmentation" is the best image. This Kenyan initiative has gone on for some time under the radar. I think that's been true for several reasons. First, the congregations by and large have never been part of the Episcopal Church, although their clergy and parishioners once were. Unlike CANA's attention-getting actions in Virginia, this hasn't involved fights over congregations leaving the Episcopal Church. Second, the responsibility has been distributed through a number of diocesan bishops in ACK, with each having only a few congregations. Only now that it's being centralized is it large enough to see. Finally, this is taking place in what the media considers "flyover country," far from the media centers on either American coast. The epicenter for this has been Memphis, Tennessee, and these are small "new-start" congregations scattered over the Midsouth.

    I do think the Primates involved (Akinola, Mzimbi, and Kolini so far; and can Orombi be far behind?) have given up on a Canterbury-centered, much less Canterbury-mediated, result. I also think they're less anxious about the sort of "balkanization" we see among various Christian Orthodox traditions in the United States. In my metropolitan area we have Greek, Serbian, Antiochian, and Russian congregations (including both OCA and ROCOR). They don't do much together, but they don't bad-mouth each other, either, or at least not in public. We also have AMiA, Anglican Rite Catholic, Ugandan, and Anglican Church in America/TAC congregations. Along the same line, they don't seem to do anything together, but neither do they bad-mouth each other. For all Archbishop Williams' decrying of it, that sort of "Orthodox-style" overlapping of jurisdictions is already functional here. The Primates involved are, I think, less anxious about that, as long as there are enough disaffected Episcopalians to start a congregation and then to reach out into what they clearly see as an open mission field. They're praying hard for laborers to go out and harvest; and they've discounted us from being coworkers in the field to being at best wheat to be saved, and at worst tares to be burned.

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  12. "The problem is that I can't think of a better way to describe them when writing within an anglican context."

    Call me a cynic, but the best analogy I can think of is a mod of the classic 3rd-world terrorist mantra (not that I'd be trying to draw additional parallels by so doing): "The enemy of my enemy is my friend..."

    To which I would add "...until he *also* becomes my enemy."


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