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Anglican Communion in the spotlight

Anglican Communion in Crisis by Miranda K Hassett. Princeton University Press.

This is a book about differences within the Anglican Communion and how in fact globalisation may mean Anglicans worldwide are uniting around traditional church teaching.

The recent media lynching of Archbishop Rowan Williams brought the Church of England, and the worldwide Anglican Communion of which it is a part, back into the public gaze.  That polemical attention may simply be a forerunner of what is to come during the 2008 Lambeth Conference.  Anglican leaders from all over the world will meet as guests of the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The Anglican Communion consists of church groups which share a common liturgical heritage and trace their origins to the Church of England.  Resolutions passed at the conference are influential but cannot be enforced.  At the last conference, in 1998, two significant resolutions were passed.  One called for the cancellation of developing world debt (linked to the Jubilee 2000 campaign).  The other received more publicity; it was a resolution which upheld the church’s traditional teaching on human sexuality.

Despite the resolution, the Episcopalian Church of the USA (ECUSA) took a much more liberal line.  Some evangelical and Anglo-Catholic churches in ECUSA disagreed with this perceived ‘modernisation’ of the church’s teaching (as did many around the world).  The battle was joined within the Episcopalian Church but ‘conservatives’ found themselves in a minority and serving under bishops with whom they had profound theological differences.  American churches began to seek the authority of more ‘orthodox’ bishops from elsewhere and in particular from the African Anglican churches.

These moves raised some interesting issues.  Some on the more liberal wing accused the African churches of being behind the times theologically, and found themselves labelled as racist or patronising as a result.  The richer Northern conservatives were accused of being in a power relationship with the poorer South. 

Into this debate steps Miranda Hassett.  A member of a liberal Episcopalian church but a trained anthropologist, Hassett spent a few months with a conservative church in the USA and with Ugandan churches.  Welcomed by both groups, she examined the relationships between the two.  She found that the African churches knew very much what they were about and worked with Northern conservatives because they agreed theologically.  Northern conservatives were learning more about global poverty issues because of their new relationships.  Disagreements between churches may ultimately arise from the increased information flows that come with globalisation, as churches discover more about each other’s theologies.  The notion of globalisation as a generally socially liberal force has been challenged, since the more conservative approach has more global momentum than the liberal wing.

This is an anthropology dissertation in book form.  It suffers from the academic requirement to define each term as soon as it is mentioned, supported by quotations that are little discussed.  I often wonder what is wrong with an appendix or two.   The author’s USA and Ugandan experience are sometimes assumed to apply to the whole Anglican Communion.  More attention could have been given to different theological perspectives since at root is how people believe the Bible speaks to the world today.  A focus on church politics does not provide an accurate impression of the church, although perhaps it illustrates the Christian message that we are all fallen beings in need of God’s rescue.  I wanted to know more about the spiritual life of Anglican Christians.  This does provide an interesting insight however into how relationships are developing within the Anglican Communion.  With scope for misunderstanding and needing to avoid any prejudice, delegates at the Lambeth 2008 conference must remember to have both much wisdom and a spirit of Christian fellowship.

This review previously appeared in Tribune magazine.
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