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The diversity of the Anglican Church makes it hard to keep together

By Alison Cotes - posted Friday, 24 October 2003

There's a massive showdown happening this week in London's Lambeth Palace, and it's got nothing to do with the latest shenanigans of the royal family.

Lambeth Palace is the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and so worried is Dr Rowan Williams that the worldwide Anglican Communion will split that he called the primates, as the senior archbishops of the 38 provinces are known (no jokes, please), to Lambeth Palace this week for an extraordinary meeting.

It's not just another storm in the parish teacup. This is a real and present danger, triggered by last month's resolution of the major US Episcopalian synod meeting, the General Convention, to endorse the consecration of an openly gay man as bishop and recognise same-sex unions.


Many primates in the African provinces are threatening to withdraw their churches from the international body, because they are horrified by the decision, which goes against everything they believe the church has always taught.

The Anglican Communion is very different from the Roman Catholic Church where, in theory, the Pope has total authority.

Although the Archbishop of Canterbury, like the Pope, is regarded as primus inter pares, or first among equals, unlike the Pope, his authority is purely symbolic and the mother church, the Church of England, cannot force its opinions on the rest of the Anglican Communion any more than the US province or the Australian province can, because each province is autonomous.

So is this the end of civilisation as we know it? If some of the provinces in the developing world form breakaway churches, what will happen to the cosy congregations so familiar to us from Songs of Praise on ABC television, or the petty squabbles of the parish of Dibley over which Dawn French presided with such hilarity?

The sobering realisation for Anglicans in the Western world is that they are no longer the representative people of the worldwide church, which numbers 77 million. Of the 38 provinces, only nine are from countries with predominantly white populations.

There are 11 African provinces, eight from the Asia-Pacific region, four in South America, and the rest from the Indian subcontinent, and their membership is growing steadily, unlike the declining membership in Western countries. This means the current face of Anglicanism is statistically more likely to be yellow or black than white.


Post-colonialism is as much a force in religious as it is in state matters, and the John Patersons and Peter Carnleys among the primates are outnumbered by the Martin de Jesus Baharonas and the Emmanuel Musaba Kolinis.

The issue, as often is the case, is a clash between progressives and conservatives in the church. But the current debate about homosexuality has greater potential to cause a permanent split than did proposed changes to Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer, which caused such an uproar in the 1960s, or even the ordination of women clergy in the 1980s.

Even within the provinces, individual bishops and dioceses cannot agree. The unwavering stance of Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney is diametrically opposed to that of Australian primate and Archbishop of Perth, Peter Carnley, and the Sydney diocese already is threatening to break from the Australian church.

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This article was first published in The Courier-Mail on 16 Oct 2003.

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About the Author

Alison Cotes is a Brisbane writer.

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