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Anglican Communion in Crisis

Post-Lambeth 2008 the major rift within Anglicanism persists. Its origins, history and future prospects are all bound up with the alliance between sections of conservative Episcopalianism and African Anglicanism.

Colin Brown   |  08 Dec 2008

Anglican Communion in Crisis: How Episcopal dissidents and their African allies are reshaping Anglicanism by Miranda Hassett. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007. – US$42)

Post-Lambeth 2008 the major rift within Anglicanism persists. Its origins, history and future prospects are all bound up with the alliance between sections of conservative Episcopalianism and African Anglicanism.

Conservative Episcopalians faced a tactical dilemma as they sought to arrest liberalising trends in their church. Should they ‘hang in there’, a discontented and powerless minority, or opt for the loneliness of schismatic existence for which there were dismal precedents?

From the mid-1990s a third path opened up. Some Episcopal conservatives, who already had mission-related contacts with African Christians, began building networks with them at both grassroots and leadership levels. This alliance, skilfully nurtured and managed, bore fruit at the Lambeth Conference 1998 with the outlawing of the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of those in such relationships.

The activities of this alliance, its membership soon widened beyond African-American links, does not explain all that took place at Lambeth 1998 or subsequently, but it is a key part. It is the emergence and earlier stages of this American-African alliance which this book seeks to describe, explain and set in a wider setting.

Its author is a practising Episcopalian and a social anthropologist who, after completion of the doctoral thesis on which the book is based, went on to pre-ordination studies at the Episcopal Theological School in Boston. She makes it plain that she is heterosexual, married and supportive of gay rights; her discussion has been widely hailed as generally fair-minded and empathetic.

Unsurprisingly, since Miranda Hassett is a social anthropologist, she reports on participant-observational studies of one conservative Episcopal congregation which has opted for episcopal oversight by the Archbishop of Rwanda, and on Anglicanism in central Uganda where she and her husband spent almost six months. These quite specific studies are placed in their wider historical context and related to discussions about the character of globalizing movements, post- and neo-colonialism and the so-called ‘global shift’ from North to South in worldwide Christianity.

Hassett’s book retains traces of its origins in a doctoral thesis; it is sharply-focussed, closely argued and buttressed by endnotes. It does not tell the whole story of events up to and at Lambeth 1998, nor of subsequent events; its date of publication precluded comment on Lambeth 2008. But it is an important, scholarly and generous-spirited contribution to understanding the stresses and strains of contemporary Anglicanism and setting them in wider context.

Colin Brown taught at St John’s College, College House, College House Institute of Theology and the University of Canterbury.
c.brown@ext.canterbury.ac.nz

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