How a new global network spread

02 January 2008

The issue of human sexuality is reshapingthe Communion, as Mary Tanner learns

Anglican Communion in Crisis: How Episcopal dissidents and their African allies are reshaping Anglicanism
Miranda K. Hassett

Princeton University Press £23.95 (978-0-691-12518-3)
Church Times Bookshop £21.55

IN THIS BOOK, Miranda Hassett, an anthropologist, tells the story of the emergence of an alliance between conservative American Episcopalians and African Anglicans. To understand her subject better, she spent time with a conservative congregation in the southern United States, now under the Episcopal Church of Rwanda, and also in Uganda. Both experiences help her to make the point that it is not only leaders who are caught up in these new alliances.

The book describes in detail how certain Episcopalian conservatives in 1996 began to reach out to Southern leaders, how they developed networks, shared concerns, and planned strategies to ensure that a conservative resolution on human sexuality would be passed at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. A chapter reflects on how this affected the Conference itself, and reminds readers how it was hijacked by discussions about homosexuality, largely carried on outside the formal agenda, with intense attention from the media, and overshadowing the important issue of international debt-forgiveness.

Hassett then describes the founding of transnational dissident organisations that link North and South together, focusing particularly on Anglican Mission in America. There is a fascinating chapter on the part played by money, power, and influence in the new alliance.

Throughout the book, Hassett challenges the view that these events are to be interpreted either as the South rising against the North or the falling apart of the Anglican Communion. She argues that the North/South alliance is a new form of Anglican globalism that transforms established patterns of national dominance within the Anglican Communion, challenges the international structures of the Communion, and heightens the awareness of needs across the North/South divide. It can be seen as a re-evaluation of Anglican unity.

She identifies the competing understandings of the Anglican Communion lying behind the actions of liberals and conservatives. In the former, diversity and autonomy are the primary focus; unity is reduced to general good will. In the latter, interdependence and global accountability are shown in the passing of the Lambeth resolution on homosexuality.

It would be instructive to have the reflections of someone whose discipline is ecclesiology to set beside those of an anthropologist; for both views of the Communion need challenging in the light of an Anglican ecclesiology emerging from reports of Lambeth Conferences, the Eames Commission, and the Virginia and Windsor reports, with their emphasis on autonomy-in-communion, and processes of discerning and deciding in communion, with room for “open reception”.

Any bishop preparing to attend the 2008 Lambeth Conference, and struggling to understand the future of the Communion, would benefit from reading Hassett’s fascinating and well-written book.

Dr Tanner is a former Secretary of the Council for Christian Unity.

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