The world’s third largest Christian denomination could effectively dissolve itself in the New Year, as its members cannot reconcile deep divisions on issues including gay marriage.
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has summoned all 38 leaders of the Anglican Communion’s various member churches to an extraordinary meeting in January in which he will propose they reorganise themselves into a much looser association.
The Communion, which includes the Church of England and America’s Episcopal Church, claims some 80 million members, making it the third largest Christian denomination after the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches.
However, it has been riven with bitter divisions over the past few decades as churches in the West adopted liberal views on homosexuality and women priests, while other churches, especially in Africa, remained staunchly conservative.
Welby, who is the symbolic head of the Communion, now proposes that each church maintain a link to Canterbury but not with each other, in last-ditch attempt to stop Anglicanism breaking apart completely.
Last November, however, he indicated there may be nothing he can do to save it.
“Our divisions may be too much to manage,” he warned. “In many parts of the Communion, including here, there is a belief that opponents are either faithless to the tradition, or by contrast that they are cruel, judgemental, inhuman.
“I have to say that we are in a state so delicate that without prayer and repentance, it is hard to see how we can avoid some serious fractures.”
One Church of England source said the new arrangement was not quite a divorce but “more like sleeping in separate bedrooms”, according to The Guardian.
Welby hopes the various churches will still co-operate with one another on less contentious issues, such as helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East, but acknowledges it is now impossible to get liberals and conservatives to work together on a permanent basis.
There are fears his plan may backfire, however, as there is a high risk African conservatives, who have organised themselves into a group called Gafcon, could break away completely. If they do so, conservative evangelical churches in the UK could join them, thus splitting the Church of England.
Such a division has already occurred in America, where conservatives left the ultra-liberal Episcopal Church and set up the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Welby has already angered the Episcopalians by inviting ACNA along to January’s meeting – despite the two churches being locked in a series of bitter lawsuits.
The Rev Sally Hitchiner, one of the Church of England’s most prominent lesbian vicars, welcomed the plan: “The churches now have the opportunity to relate like grownup siblings. This is a positive move for all sorts of reasons.
“We can’t hold together from a place like England – where an Archbishop of Canterbury could be in a gay marriage, possibly in my lifetime – to somewhere like Uganda, where they want to imprison people for gay sex.”