The Archbishop of Canterbury: Dissolving the Anglican Church to Save It

Justin Welby will reportedly try to preserve the group of churches, shaken by fights over homosexuality, by loosening its ties.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (Reuters)

Justin Welby was named archbishop of Canterbury with high hopes that he was the man who could save the Anglican Communion. Now it appears he may oversee its breakup—a calculated destruction intended, paradoxically, to save it.

Welby heads the Church of England, making him also the titular head of the affiliated Anglican churches around the world, including the Episcopal Church in the U.S. The umbrella group, the worldwide Anglican Communion, has been shaken by conflicts over the ordination and consecration of gays and women and over same-sex marriage in the U.S. and U.K. According to reports in British media, Welby will propose reorganizing the Communion as a looser affiliation at a January gathering

According to The Guardian, at a January gathering at his seat at Lambeth Palace, Welby “will propose that the Communion be reorganised as a group of churches that are all linked to Canterbury but no longer necessarily to each other,” adding:

Welby believes that his proposal would allow him to maintain relations both with the liberal churches of North America, which recognise and encourage gay marriage, and the African churches, led by Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria, who are agitating for the recriminalisation of all homosexual activity in their countries.

The BBC and Telegraph have similar reports. The archbishop himself has not commented, but Lambeth Palace did publish a news release on the invitation to the 37 primates—the heads of the various branches of the church—to come to Canterbury. The release said the gathering would be a chance “to reflect and pray together concerning the future of the Anglican Communion … The agenda will be set by common agreement with all primates encouraged to send in contributions.”

The prospect of a split hung over the heads of the last two archbishops—Lord George Carey, a steely conservative, and Rowan Williams, an intellectual with a more liberal bent, both of whom strove for unity in a fractious church. Williams disappointed progressive Anglicans by not pushing faster on issues including the consecration of female bishops in the Church of England. Meanwhile, the American church was sliding ever farther to the left, in 2003 consecrating V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as a bishop in New Hampshire. Then, in 2006, with the question of female bishops still dividing much of the church, the Episcopal Church elected Katharine Jefferts Schori to its top position of presiding bishop, making her the first female primate in the Anglican Communion. (By the time of the conference, in January, the U.S. church will have a new primate, Michael Curry, the first black presiding bishop.) In 2012, the Episcopal Church authorized a rite for same-sex unions short of marriage. At the same time, African bishops have begun taking ever-more-strident positions against homosexuality, including supporting laws that would criminalize it or make it punishable by death.

These changes led to acrimonious splits in the church. In the U.S., conservative parishes left the Episcopal Church, labeling themselves “Anglican.” At the same time, African branches of the church reacted strongly against the elevation of female clergy to leadership positions and the sanctioning of homosexuality. There’s been talk of schism in the church for years. Conservatives are upset that Canterbury hasn’t acted more strongly to rein in the Western churches, while liberals ended up disappointed in Williams, whom they found too accommodating of conservatives. In 2008, many traditionalist bishops skipped the Lambeth Conference, a once-per-decade gathering, and Welby has already announced an indefinite postponement of the next Lambeth Conference. The failure of the Church of England to approve female bishops late in Williams’s tenure, despite his support, left a bitter taste among progressives.

The archbishop draws his authority as much from tradition and an Anglican sense of propriety as any formal role.

When Welby, a former oil executive-turned-clergyman, was named as the next archbishop in 2012, it was hoped that he could help bring reconciliation. Welby, who was bishop of Durham before his elevation, comes from the evangelical wing of the Church of England, the more conservative part of the church. The archbishop personally opposes gay marriage, though he has also said, “We must have no truck with any form of homophobia.” (Seven months into his tenure, Parliament passed legislation to legalize same-sex marriage in England and Wales.) In late 2014, the Church of England approved female bishops.

In the first years of his term, Welby sought to build ties with African church leaders to forestall schism. If these reports are correct, he seems to have decided that even if the Communion could be duct-taped together for now, a more permanent solution was going to have to come eventually.

“We have no Anglican Pope. Our authority as a church is dispersed, and is ultimately found in Scripture, properly interpreted,” Welby said in his statement. That’s essential for understanding what’s happening now. The archbishop draws his authority as much from tradition and an Anglican sense of propriety as any formal role. Welby can trace his role back to Thomas Cranmer, the author of the Book of Common Prayer and the first archbishop after Henry VIII separated the Church of England from Rome; and from there, he can trace it back to Augustine, the first archbishop, appointed in 597.

But because the archbishop is not a pope, he cannot make a decree and expect the primates around the world to obey. It meant that neither Carey nor Williams could impose his authority, either to halt the liberal churches’ changes or to silence the conservative ones’ objections. It means, too, that Welby cannot impose peace in the Anglican Communion, and instead must find a creative solution to the church’s problems that eluded his predecessors.