2018 likely to be another tough year for the archbishop of Canterbury

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby pays his respects at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem on May 3, 2017. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit) (Caption amended by RNS)

LONDON (RNS) — If 2017 was a tough year for Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby keeping the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion together, 2018 promises to be tougher still.

There were continuing squabbles over same-sex marriage and headlines about declining congregations through the past 12 months. But in 2018 Welby will have to face particularly testing issues:

  • Any fallout from the appointment of a woman as the bishop of London – the third most senior cleric in the Church of England.
  • The gathering of the international conservative faction known as GAFCON in Jerusalem in June.
  • The likelihood of a breakaway church in England.
  • The threat of a financial “strike” by rebel parishes.

One of the most dramatic moments of 2017 – confirming sharp divisions in the church – was the release of a report on same-sex marriage that Welby praised as a “road map.” It was narrowly rejected by the Church of England’s General Synod because the report  urged that marriage should remain between one man and one woman.

The same-sex marriage issue came closer to home when the Scottish Episcopal Church voted for it and held its first weddings for same-sex couples.

Then there was the primates meeting of the Anglican Communion in October. Welby’s fiercest critics from Africa boycotted the gathering.

They and fellow opponents of liberalizing church practice on marriage will be heading to Jerusalem in June for the 10th anniversary meeting of the Global Anglican Future Conference, or GAFCON. There they will be joined similarly disaffected Anglicans from North America and Britain.

Part of the problem for Welby is that the archbishop of Canterbury has no papal-like power; he cannot punish provinces by expelling them from the Anglican Communion. With unity so hard to achieve, he appears to have made avoiding greater disunity his goal. In the Church of England, the term “good disagreement” is often used now to describe the current situation.

This has prompted derision from Welby’s toughest critics at home. Among their biggest publicity coups in recent months was the posting of protests on cathedral doors. The declarations, denouncing the Church of England’s “corrupt” stance on same-sex relationships, mimicked Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the door of a chapel in the German town of Wittenberg, and took place just as the Church of England was marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

The document, affirming the supreme authority of Scripture and signed by over 60 priests, claimed that while the church had not changed its doctrine, in practice it was allowing clergy to adopt unorthodox lifestyles. The declaration was posted on the doors of St. Paul’s, Southwark, Canterbury, Rochester and Hereford cathedrals.

One of the protesters, the Rev. Stephen Rae, vicar of St. James, who pinned the protest to Canterbury Cathedral, complained of the church’s revisionism and said Canterbury had become “synonymous with abdication and dereliction of duty.”

Rae is highly critical of the idea of “good disagreement.”

“Our bishops have shifted from being our leaders to being referees,” he said. “We are deeply concerned about the recasting of teaching. If the trajectory doesn’t change there will be a massive split in the Church of England.”

Rebels protesting at the future of the Church of England have already carried out ordinations under the auspices of Anglican Mission in England, which was established as a mission society by the Nairobi Conference of GAFCON in 2013 to support traditional teaching.

The consecration of Andy Lines as a bishop earlier in 2017 and then his ordination of nine men to serve in GAFCON-supporting church plants in England – Welby’s backyard – make it appear, to many, that the Anglican Mission in England is effectively a breakaway church.

Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, chairman of GAFCON, described the ordinations as part of a plan “to help evangelize a nation that was once one of the greatest centers of Christian mission the world has ever seen but is now one of the most secular.”

“How can a church be effective in mission when it has muddled the truth of the Gospel?” he asked.

Then there is the conservatives’ reaction to the appointment of a woman to one of the most important positions in the Church of England — that of the next bishop of London, the third most senior position in the church after the archbishops of Canterbury and York.

On Monday (Dec. 18) it was announced that the new bishop is Sarah Mullally, currently bishop of Crediton.

The appointments panel for the bishopric will have been aware that the Diocese of London encompasses a wide range of views, from conservatives who object to women priests, to particularly liberal congregants.

Mullally’s gender pleases those seeking evidence of growing equality for women in the church – her predecessor Richard Chartres did not ordain women priests. But while she supports traditional church teaching on marriage being between a man and a woman, she is also said to be supportive of greater equality for gay people.

Welby might well have to face another kind of protest in 2018 – and one that is likely to hurt the Church of England’s coffers. Some parishes and their clergy are considering withholding their diocesan contributions over the controversies in the church, which would add financial headaches to the church’s theological ones.

But 2018 could bring comfort as well as consternation to the archbishop of Canterbury. While church data published this autumn revealed that Church of England attendance has now dropped below the 1 million mark, it also shows that those who do go to church are strongly committed, rather than nominal Anglicans.

As Martin Bashir, the religious affairs correspondent of the BBC who has traveled regularly with Welby this year, put it: “There is a move away from faith by inheritance to faith by choice. People are much more committed if they belong, rather than being just nominal Christians.”

About the author

Catherine Pepinster


Click here to post a comment

  • “As Martin Bashir, the religious affairs correspondent of the BBC who has traveled regularly with Welby this year, put it: “There is a move away from faith by inheritance to faith by choice. People are much more committed if they belong, rather than being just nominal Christians.””

    A little sweeping perhaps? The village in which I live is part of a group ministry and probably not typical of CofE parishes; it has a small (less than 20) congregation for most services (one – most weeks) and that includes some from an adjoining town who have historic residence ties to the village (and sometimes lead the services). Some of the regulars are there because they were brought up in the church, they love the music, they get to meet friends and enemies etc.. Probably most believe to a greater or lesser extent.

    There is a discernible trend to being more defensive about their beliefs – even though most don’t seem able or willing to disclose what those beliefs actually are other than vague generalisations. This, I suspect, is sunk cost emerging as faux persecution – I don’t see this as religion by choice so much as through the fear of change leading to a circling of the wagons. They don’t seem to know more about their beliefs – perhaps they are just more aware that they are not automatically accorded the elevated status and lack of questioning to which they had become accustomed.

  • Why not call this out for what it really is? We have a “collaboration” of older straight white men in North America and the CofE with conservative bishops and primates of color in other parts of the Anglican Communion who cannot grasp the reality that the church has always changed in its positions. We need only go back to one of the very first controversies to see that when there was a move to force new converts to Christianity to first undergo circumcision before they could become Christian. The status quo was up against those who wanted to open this new faith expression to others without burdensome requirements that had come from their Jewish heritage.
    Those in control, especially older white males, fight the loss of control of both church and state with tooth and nail. We don’t always “play well with others” or “share” as we should. And of course we have taught those less than stellar traits to other males around the globe.
    For anyone to think that there should be no change in the teachings of the church over time and in the face of scientific and sociological evidence is ludicrous. Remember that the church once believed the earth to be flat and had issues with those who thought otherwise. The church once embraced the idea that disease was the results of evil spirits rather than bacteria and viruses.
    What we know and have experienced over the last two thousand years cannot be ignored just because some guys don’t want to change, meaning they do not want to give up any of what they think is their God-given authority. We all inherited a male dominated version of our faith. We inherited a male dominated view of Scripture and its translations. Yet there is no real justification for that to continue. We have learned more about ancient languages that improved our translation of Scripture. We might even own the fact that some concepts have no English equivalents. And we have learned more than we probably ever wanted to know about human biology, human sexuality, human emotions and all that is human. I hope we have learned that being male should not carry with it any inherent superiority over being female any more than being one skin color should carry any inherent superiority over another.
    It’s time to become more mature in our faith. It’s time to return to the mission and message of Jesus that we love God and we love one another as He loved us. And it is certainly time for us to focus our energy on feeding the hungry, watering the thirsty, housing the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned. Jesus didn’t say a blessed word about human sexuality. Why are we so obsessed with sex and gender? Are we that immature and/or insecure?

  • The Church of England was born in a time when the monarchy determined whether the nation was Catholic or Protestant. The conflict surrounding those days encouraged them to think there must be a better way. The solution was to find an accommodation that “reasonably” satisfied both sides. The result was something quite different from either the Catholic or Protestant countries of Europe. Today, rather that kick out those who disagree, the Archbishop will naturally try to find accommodations for all sides, within some very broad limits. Of course that’s not always possible, but they will nevertheless go to extraordinary lengths to try. That’s what you see going on today. In time it will all settle out. Given it’s long history this has proven to be a generally successful method for maintaining unity with diversity.

  • In Canada, almost 40 years of active refugee sponsorship. Almost a third of our church budget gets spent on support for social justice, and outreach initiatives. (Budget gets approved through Vestry) Christmas Day the church will feed close to 200 folks a traditional Christmas dinner. Food Bank Sundays, loonie lunches, thrift store. And my sense is that this is not unique.

  • I would guess because it isn’t really all that much fun to be good, and power, money, and dominion are definitely a lot more fun and prophetable.