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Our Lady of the Global Village: The Anglican Crisis & the Coming of World Christianity

The faith I've had the privilege of encountering in the developing world is vibrant, courageous, and typically transcends the often-petty concerns of the West. World Christianity is coming home, and Christians are about to experience the catholicity of the church in a personal way. 

Harold Fickett


In the coming months, the worldwide Anglican Church will likely break into several distinct communions
over the issue of gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions. That's my guess based on the new realities of global Christianity that are shaping the crisis. The bishop of Pittsburgh, Robert Duncan, warned that the Archbishop of Canterbury could become "little more than the titular head of a moribund and declining British, American, and Australian sect."¹

The present Anglican conflict, vastly consequential in itself, portends the challenges Christians will face across the communions as the numerical superiority of the newer churches of Africa, Asia and Latin America makes itself felt. It will give every Christian a sense of virtual membership in a single parish-Our Lady of the Global Village. World Christianity is coming home, and Christians are about to experience the catholicity of the church in a personal way.

Last week at Lambeth Palace thirty-seven Anglican primates—the heads of national churches—met with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to address recent divisive events. The Reverend V. Gene Robinson, a divorced father of two now living with a homosexual partner, is scheduled to be consecrated as bishop of New Hampshire on November 2. The New Westminster diocese, headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, has been offering blessing ceremonies for same-sex marriages.

The Anglican primates issued a joint statement making clear "that the recent actions in New Westminster and in the Episcopal Church (USA) do not express the mind of our Communion as a whole, and these decisions jeopardize our sacramental fellowship with each other." The statement went on to say that bishop-elect Robinson's up-coming November 2 consecration "will tear the fabric of our communion at its deepest level...If his consecration proceeds, we recognize that we have reached a crucial and critical point in the life of the Anglican Communion, and we have had to conclude that the future of the communion itself will be put in jeopardy."

Prior to the Lambeth Palace meeting, the American Anglican Council, a body representing dissenting, "biblically orthodox," Episcopal churches in the United States, had asked the primates to rebuke the American church. The Council further requested that the Archbishop of Canterbury make provision for an alternate set of bishops to care for its congregations. Those participating in the council vowed to withhold funds from the national Episcopal Church if the consecration of bishop-elect Robinson went forward. They would establish their own mission agencies, educational institutions, etc.

In the last forty years Episcopalians who believe in historic Christianity have watched their denomination given over to churchmen like Bishop John Spong of Newark, who deny the faith's central tenets. Traditional Episcopalians have threatened schism many times over such issues as liturgical innovation, the ready-acceptance of divorce among the clergy, the ordination of women, and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. In the past they have always quailed and retreated.

This time they had a card up their sleeve: they knew that the global Anglican communion is far more conservative than its United Kingdom and American provinces. Practicing Anglicans in the Third World probably outnumber their Western brethren by twenty to one.

In the previous five years Third World provinces have made their numerical weight felt. In 1998 the Anglican communion's global conclave issued a statement that the practice of homosexuality was contrary to the teachings of Scripture. Asian, African, and Latin American bishops joined together to insure an unequivocal stance.

This caused apoplexy in liberal camps. Bishop Spong said the African bishops had "moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity," and so could not understand the real issues. He indicted Third World spirituality for its "religious extremism" and "Pentecostal hysteria."²

There's wonderful comedy in these sputters of illiberal rage, of course. But those of us who share the Third World's "religious extremism" need to hear in these Anglican trials a summons to the hard work and hard thinking that lies ahead.

The faith's enormous growth, from South Korea to Brazil to Nigeria, will utterly change the political, cultural, and religious conversations in North America and Europe. Christians in the Third World will increasingly shape the geopolitical dynamic, as Christian populations seek to co-exist with Islamic governments, as in Nigeria and the Sudan; with violent Hindu political movements, as in India and Sri Lanka, and even with European secularism. Millions of Third World Christians are migrating to the West. A neighborhood church could include a substantial contingent of former Igo tribesmen from Nigeria or exiles from Iran.

Global Christianity is, in many respects, an incredible inspiration. The faith I've had the privilege of encountering in several parts of the world is vibrant, courageous, and typically transcends the often -petty concerns of the West. The faith of the Third World embraces biblical authority, is unabashedly supernaturalist, and amply demonstrates the truly multicultural appeal of the gospel-its power to bring God's love to the human person in every culture and circumstance.

A couple of years ago I was in the African nation of Gabon-a place that can only be described as virulent. Malaria, phadagenic skin ulcers, parasitic dysentery, and other diseases are virtually entailed with citizenship. The Ebola outbreaks are centered there and in the neighboring Republic of Congo.

One Sunday in Gabon I attended Mass at a local parish. I'll never forget that liturgy, especially the presentation of the gifts. In America, a family is usually dragooned into service to march wearily down the aisle. By the time the presentation of the gifts took place, the church had already been rocking for close to two hours. Long before the formal beginning of the liturgy, a choir and steel drum band led the congregation in hymns with calypso and even funkier rhythms. As time went on, more and more people joined in the singing. The whole congregation had become a mighty choir when the African priests and their altar boys and girls processed in.

The priest delivered a sermon that began with dialogue, as preachers used to do in the days of the Church Fathers. He quizzed his congregation about the meaning of the day's gospel before taking off from their comments into reflections of his own. The day's gospel, fittingly enough, was about the Rich Man and poor Lazarus.

Then, at the presentation of the gifts, a flotilla of middle school girls in their school uniforms, white blouses and black skirts, marched down the middle aisle. They kept the syncopated beat of the hymn we were singing, marking their progress with a little swing step that they performed in perfect unison. They looked tremendously happy and alive. There was nothing carnal about their movements. They were dancing before the altar of the Lord, bringing gifts-their own and the congregation's-to him. Bringing us all to him.

If I could only transport my suburban Catholic friends here, I thought, this liturgy would transform us. We'd be able to see what it means to celebrate the Mass. That Gabonese parish was alive with the super-aliveness of holiness in a place that is, in many respects, a living hell.

At the same time, the Church cannot romanticize our Third World brethren, or the effect they are likely to have on us and our secular neighbors in the West. What if the Christians in Nigeria, for example, decide they can no longer abide the present, rapid spread of the Islamic code of justice, Shari'a, which severely constrains their religious activities, and makes conversion to Christianity by Muslims punishable by death. What if they decide to secede from the nation, establishing a Christian state? What will be our response? What will we say to our secular neighbors, who will no doubt be ready to chalk up such conflicts to the incomprehensibilities of religious extremism?

There are dangers to what Ronald Knox called "enthusiasm"-that "Pentecostal hysteria" Bishop Spong so much laments. The Christianity of the Third World does stress the charismatic gifts to the point that they can be seen as an end in themselves. Along with this Pentecostal emphasis, many emerging Christian churches, and Catholic movements that imitate their techniques, promote what we would call in the States a "health and wealth gospel." Whenever the Cross is removed from the center of the faith, the faith soon vanishes and secularity follows.

Global Christianity in many places is in the early stages of inculturation. The Church must discern what in these indigenous cultures may be retained as compatible with the gospel, and what must be rejected. The complicated healing ceremonies in many African churches can bring to mind the ministrations of oganga or witch-doctors in tribal ceremonies. The inclusion of ancestors in prayers by Korean Christians coming out of a Shintoist background may strike the Western observer as being something other than the communion of the saints.

Are these examples of syncretism? Or are they legitimate forms of cultural adaptation? About the year 600, Pope Gregory the Great advised his missionaries to England: "[T]he temples of the idols should on no account be destroyed. The idols are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them, and relics deposited there...and since they have a habit of sacrificing many oxen to demons, let some other solemnity be substituted in its place, such as a day of dedication, or the festivals of the holy martyrs whose relics are enshrined there."³ The early Church recognized that what was good in pagan worship could be baptized for Christian purposes. On the other hand, the Druids had to go.

If there's one thing I'm praying for, it's that global Christianity will impress upon Western Catholics the exigency of the "new evangelization," that the laity must take up its charge to re-Christianize the West. Otherwise Western Catholics will be stuck between our uncomprehending and, I expect, increasingly hostile neighbors, and our far-flung fellow Christians. We live in perhaps the most difficult mission field of all, as the rapid spread of Christianity everywhere else makes clear.


1 As quoted by George F. Will, "The end of Anglicanism?" The Sacramento Bee, October 16, 2003.
2 As quoted in Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom, 121
3 As quoted in Philip Jenkins, The Coming of Global Christianity, 110-111.

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October 21, 2003

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READER COMMENTS
07.03.04   spysusan says:
I am an episcopalian and would just like to add that not all of us believe in the teachings of Spong, nor do we all agree that the homosexual man should have been consecrated. Whether or not the Episcopal church breaks up or becomes a 'moribund sect' as the article predicted remains to be seen. Catholics have gone through 'break ups', resulting in separate orthodox, and later, protestant groups.Well, I guess we, like the Roman Catholics, would survive. I regarded the section on the worship styles of African Christians with some interest. I feel, however, that what is more important than the style of worship is the condition of the heart. I have meant some Catholic and Episcopalians who worship in a reverent, solemn manner and yet, in my opinion, seem to have a cold, superficial relationship to God and neighbor. I have meant other Catholics and Anglicans who worship in the same reverent manner, and seem to have true faith and devotion. I have also meant those from churches with more exuberant worship styles who are the same--some seem to be superficial 'Sunday' Christians, and some serve God and neighbor with true devotion. So to me, I guess the props are less important than the heart. 'Dance before the Lord', then, or, like the penitent in the synagogue, quietly ask for God's mercy, as long as your heart is right with God.

05.02.04   alexander caughey says:
I have just joined the thread, so apologies for my rather late contribution.I appreciate your well thought out opinion and your sincere intentions to influence a distressingly polarising debate on a matter which I believe should be confined to the people whose life is made more than difficult by having to bear an extra heavy cross of self doubt on their own acceptance, in being totally loved by Christ, despite their apparent imperfections. That the human race is made of human imperfection might suggest that they are in good company.John, had I believed that God made me to do His bidding then I would have not believed God's inspired words of Holy Scripture, for in these words of divinely inspired thinking lies the truth that God is but us in being Him. Did God not say that we are made in His image? Then who are we to say that it is not part of God's plan to love all His creation, even when His human creation is not loving each other in the manner which He might have originally intended they should. Is it not possible that God might have made alterations to His original idea? Can we conceive of God as also being us in growth of who we are to become. Can we envisage a day when all of the human race can look at each other and say that there lies us, in becoming the image that God has made us to be. Unity in race and diversity in growth. God's idea was manifested in His creation of the human race. Can we now deny that this idea was faulty, for the idea that we are all His glory in creation of His image was a mistake, when it comes to those human beings who have same sex attractions. Ah! it is not in the same sex attraction that is the sin but the practise thereof. Really! that would be saying that God's plan is at fault, for in creating those human beings who are either born with or unconsciously develop same sex attractions, God has over looked His original plan for heterosexuals only. Can this be God? Or is it your idea of God? As we all know, God's creation is always perfect. There cannot be imperfection in God's plan or in its implementation. Then if your reality that human beings, with same self attraction, are sinful when they engage in a same sex sexual act, you/our Church is saying that God did not for-see this and therefore we must conclude that God's plan is imperfect. I would suggest that this would not be our idea of God. My idea of God is contained in His message to all, when He said "I am with you always, even till the end of time". In other words, God is not abdicating His responsibility to love us all without condition, for always. God's plan for the human race was made clear when He told us to love each other as He has loved us; in other words, without condition. For if we are to become the image of God, then we must love each other, without condition, as God plainly did/does, when He chose to suffer for us, by allowing Himself to be tortured, humiliated and nailed to a hunk of wood, to die slowly and in great agony. By this sacrifice of His human self He was able to resurrect and prove to us that He truly is the Son of God.Does the self righteous indignation of so many of our self appointed judges of rightful sexual morality not suggest that there is a willingness to avoid trying to emulate the very person we are all attempting to follow, by imitating His way? Or, are we all so blinded by our own willingness to focus on the perceived failings of others that we fail to see the plank of wood in our own view of vision.If God is to be imitated by us, through His son, Jesus the Christ, then we should try to remember that it is only by aspiring to His way that we can become the best we can become, in becoming the image of Our Lord and Greatest Friend, Jesus the lover of us all.

11.03.03   John Martin says:
I thought I would post this follow-up to the article now that V. Gene Robinson has been consecrated as a bishop in the Episcopal Church USA. Two points: one philosophical and the other theological The cultural issues that divide liberals and conservative Anglicans have their roots in two fundamentally different cosmologies. For the last two hundred years liberal Protestantism has been trying to find a way to accommodate the faith to philosophic naturalism. To the cosmos as a self-contained reality. The only way to do this is to burnish the cosmos with immanence and find in history's unfolding--a la Hegel--the will of God. Changes in cultural mores then take on divine warrant. The conservatives have a God who is transcendent, prior to, and free to act within the cosmos. So many things follow from adopting one or the other position. Eventually the two camps must split apart because they do not share a common philosophy. They also don't share a common approach to interpreting the Scriptures. In radically simplified terms, the liberals believe that we interpret the Bible, while the conservatives pay far more attention to how the Bible interprets us. In relation to issues such as homosexuality, liberal theologians become proof-texters in ways that would embarrass fundamentalists, trying to atomize the Scriptures teachings on sexuality by isolating them from the Bible's greater witness. They proceed from this operation to writing off the specific passages to various cultural factors and misapprehensions on the part of the texts' authors. This is willfully blinkered. The Bible's teachings on sexuality begin with the creation. God creates man and woman for their well being as creatures and also as a means of understanding God's love for them. The differences in male and female sexuality fill out humanity's understanding of God, as the "image of God" in which we are made would be incomplete without the sexes' complementary differences. The union of man and woman will eventually become an interpretive key to understanding Christ's relationship to his people. The Bible witnesses from first to last of God's design of human sexuality and God's purposes in that design. It finds same-sex relationships and non-marital heterosexual relationships deeply flawed--and destructive to those who engage in them--because they contradict God's design. The passages that directly address same-sex relationships presume their hearers or readers understand this greater context. To act as if that greater context does not exist or has no weight is in bad faith--it's that obvious. But, of course, if a predisposition to homosexuality is the product of chance mutations in DNA over which the individual has no control--or environmental factors whose influence comes into play in a child's sexual formation--than the individual bears no personal responsibility for his sexuality. True enough. The design argument counters, though, that in a world marred by evil, in which the creation itself groans for God's deliverance, all of us inherit the deathliness and its nearly infinite forms that our first parents chose. We are obliged to bear such suffering, not capitulate to it and certainly not to mistake brokenness for wholeness. We are called up to "fill out the sufferings of Christ" by uniting our afflictions to Jesus' sacrifice. This is such a hard teaching that liberal Protestants begin to disclaim against such "mythical conceptions," spurning the idea that Genesis's account of creation and its metaphoric uses in the New Testament can make any claim on peoples' actual behavior. Modern science tells us that homosexuality is the product of DNA mutations, etc., etc. So we come round again to that first philosophical question: do we exist in a world designed by God but marred by humankind's sin? Or do we live in a self-contained cosmos in which any notion of divinity can only declare itself through the evolving attitudes of civilization? Do the sacred writings of the Jews and early Christians have something to say only as long as they are properly updated by the regnant authorities? Put all the current Anglican bishops in a room, and ask them how they view the first five chapters of Genesis. The groupings of opinion, I'd guess, would tell you how many communions will eventually result from what has been Anglicanism.

10.21.03   Godspy says:
The faith I've had the privilege of encountering in the developing world is vibrant, courageous, and typically transcends the often-petty concerns of the West. World Christianity is coming home, and Christians are about to experience the catholicity of the church in a personal way.&nbsp;

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