The average Anglican is a woman in her 30s living in sub-Saharan Africa on less than four dollars per day, says Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.
That African woman’s diocesan bishop probably isn’t present this week at the decennial Lambeth Conference of Bishops underway in Kent, England. It’s something worth keeping in mind as hundreds of vested Anglican bishops, more than 130 of whom hail from shrinking dioceses in the U.S.-based Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, posed for a photo op that took nearly 90 minutes of arrangement.
These Anglican leaders could provide encouragement in strongly reaffirming the authority of Scripture, or they may be diverted to instead focus on issues of pressing importance to secularists in the West.
Within the Global South there has been disagreement about participating in Lambeth. Some traditionalists dub this a “partial Lambeth gathering,” pointing to the large numbers of bishops from Africa that absented themselves in 2008 and again in 2022.
Missing this year are bishops from some of the largest and fastest-growing provinces of the 85-million-member global family of churches descended from the Church of England, which is the third-largest body of Christians behind Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. It’s difficult to know what percentage of the Communion is represented at Lambeth, although at least 200 bishops appear to have absented themselves out of a total 883 diocesan bishops.
The average Anglican is a woman in her 30s living in sub-Saharan Africa on less than four dollars per day.
Bishops from several African dioceses have declined invitations to participate in Lambeth this year, noting that sharing in fellowship with the six invited bishops in open same-sex relationships, or with those who consecrated them as bishops, would excuse unbiblical behavior. The African bishops cite the invitation of bishops in same-sex marriages as conflicting with both the historic teaching of the churches and the Lambeth Conference’s 1998 statement on Human Sexuality where bishops resolved that the conference “cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions” and rejected homosexual practice as “incompatible with Scripture.”
Others from traditionalist provinces, including South Sudan and the Indian Ocean, are present but decline to take communion alongside revisionist bishops in conference worship services, noting this would imply a unity that has in reality been shattered.
Shifts of Influence
The real news isn’t what’s happening at Lambeth. On the ground, the center of gravity for global Anglicanism has shifted. A booming and orthodox Global South seeks to fill a vacuum left by a declining and revisionist Global North.
In southern regions where Anglicans minister, vibrant churches now serve as missionary outposts to unreached people groups that have yet to hear the gospel but may well form the Anglican Communion’s future. Nepal had no Anglicans 30 years ago but now has many thousands. Nigeria’s Middle Belt was home to relatively small numbers of Anglican Christians at Nigeria’s independence but now is home to millions.
Anglican populations in places like Rwanda, Uganda, and Nigeria (the latter comprising nearly 42 percent of all Anglicans in sub-Saharan Africa) are a far cry from stereotypes of affluent and culturally liberal Episcopalians. The Global South’s growing churches, which mostly espouse orthodox teaching on the authority of Scripture and the identity of Jesus Christ as the unique Son of God, stand in stark contrast to the shrinking numbers of Anglicans in the Global North. Those 130 dioceses in the U.S. and Canada now account for only about 2 percent of global Anglicans, but they wield disproportionately large financial resources and the influence that comes with it.
What Can Be Done?
How will the conference of bishops address this division? It may issue a decisive statement reaffirming the authority of Scripture and biblical sexuality, but the conference has limited ability to curtail the practices of majority-revisionist provinces like the Episcopal Church. A censure or severing of relationship is likely the strongest action that could be taken, one that several Global South provinces have already pursued in declaring broken or “impaired” communion with the Episcopal Church following the consecration of an openly partnered gay bishop in 2003.
The real news isn’t what’s happening at Lambeth. On the ground, the center of gravity for global Anglicanism has shifted.
What the conference can do is acknowledge two realities that already exist.
First, this is not chiefly a dispute about sexuality, which is merely the presenting issue currently being challenged by revisionists in the Global North. Archbishop Welby wants a conference addressing global poverty and climate change, but those ministering in the Global South (arguably the most affected by those challenges) insist that the bishops of the Anglican Communion must affirm the authority of God’s Word in the face of a militant secularism in the North and errant teachings like the prosperity gospel in the South.
Second, the center of gravity of the Anglican Communion continues to shift toward the Global South though the official institutions of the Anglican Communion remain archaic and fixed in the North. Bishops can declare that Anglican identity is found not in connection to the Archbishop of Canterbury but in a belief system: teachings found in the Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.
Already, Global South Anglicans took the lead in 2008 when they called for the formation of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). The ACNA, which has been largely formed from groups that separated from the Episcopal Church across several decades, is now recognized as authentically Anglican by most Anglican provinces worldwide. The presence of the ACNA is now a fact of life in the changing religious landscape of North America, and its membership is now larger than that of a dozen Anglican provinces (out of 41 total). Similarly, the fast-growing Anglican Church in Brazil was constituted as a province in 2018 as an evangelical alternative to the revisionist Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil.
We can’t know for certain what the demographic profile of the average Anglican will look like in the next generation, but indications are that she will be among a population professing orthodox Christian belief thanks to missionary work carried out in our time. Regardless of what encouragement bishops meeting for Lambeth can bring in a strong statement, it’s reassuring to know that the gospel is being spread through faithful local churches and that Anglicans will be a part of that future.