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The Anglican Communion at a Crossroads: The crises of a global Church, by Christopher Craig Brittain and Andrew McKinnon

12 October 2018

Anglican rifts are the pursuit of an elite, suggests Jesse Zink

THERE is no shortage of books declaring the Anglican Communion to be in crisis: Miranda Hassett’s Anglican Communion in Crisis, for instance, or, for variation, Ephraim Radner and Philip Turner’s book sub-titled The agony of Anglicanism. Yet 20 years after the divisive 1998 Lambeth Conference, 15 years after the election of Gene Robinson, and through one failed Covenant and various efforts at “relational consequences”, the Anglican Communion is still here. Why, then, do we need another book about the crises, plural, of global Anglicanism?

For the past ten years, Christopher Brittain and Andrew McKinnon have been interviewing Anglican leaders about their experience of church conflict and discord. Most interviews were conducted via Skype or in the UK, meaning that there is little on-the-ground reporting from around the Communion, with the exception of Brittain’s research on church schism in the diocese of Pittsburgh in the United States.

The interviews and the authors’ wide knowledge of the literature on church conflict, globalisation, and related issues combine to produce a book that clearly lays out the roots of the discord within the Anglican Communion and challenges some tired explanations for the conflict.

The book ranges widely in its consideration of topics. Brittain and McKinnon demonstrate how an “orthodox Anglican” identity has risen to new prominence in the past few decades, providing a common meeting-ground for conservative Anglicans of diverse backgrounds. They show how global communications has revolutionised inter-Anglican relations — not always for the better — increasing the pace at which events happen and forcing church leaders to respond in new ways.

There is a chapter that investigates the division of the diocese of Pittsburgh into a “realigned” movement affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America and a “continuing” group that stayed in the Episcopal Church. It is an important chapter in the way in which it demonstrates how elite-level, global conflict has profound local consequences. These and other similar chapters make this an excellent overview of various challenges in the Communion and one that I will recommend to my students.

In the final two chapters, Brittain and McKinnon offer some views on building a constructive future for the Anglican Communion. They criticise the 2004 Windsor Report for misdiagnosing the situation and so offering suggestions that sent Anglicans in the wrong direction. They argue that the Communion needs to be seen not as a finished product, but a “project to live into”.

While many of their suggestions are promising, a few claims needed further analysis. Brittain and McKinnon write that “Anglicans have been at a loss as to how to translate the complex web of interests, theologies, and missional agendas that span their parishes, dioceses, and provinces into a shared sense of identity.”

I am not convinced that this is true. It may be true for bishops and others at the elite level of the Communion, but it is manifestly not true for organisations such as the Mothers’ Union or any of the other networks of the Communion which continue to do important work that brings together Anglicans from different backgrounds into shared life. Because Brittain and McKinnon’s interview subjects are almost entirely bishops or other senior church leaders, this grass-roots perspective on the Church is missed. The networks of the Communion get only glancing mention.

Throughout the final two chapters, the problem of the Communion is presented as one of managing diversity. But the problem may, in fact, be a lack of diversity. One hallmark of the contention in the Communion is that its chief actors have overwhelmingly been relatively educated men who can communicate in English. As it happens, this is a minority demographic in the Communion. The challenge facing Anglicans may involve truly embracing our Communion-wide diversity, not restricting it.

In the chapter on the diocese of Pittsburgh, Brittain and McKinnon describe the split there — and by implication in the Communion — as akin to a “cold masonry chisel striking stone.” To press the analogy further, one way to counteract this shattering effect is to soften the landing zone for the chisel.

That work of deepening relationships, sharing in a common life and work, and growing together to maturity in Christ receives little attention in this book. But it has been happening across the Anglican Communion throughout the crises so ably described here.

The Revd Dr Jesse Zink is Principal of Montreal Diocesan Theological College, in Canada. His books include Backpacking through the Anglican Communion: A search for unity (Church Publishing Inc, 2014).

The Anglican Communion at a Crossroads: The crises of a global Church
Christopher Craig Brittain and Andrew McKinnon
The Penn State University Press £21.95
Church Times Bookshop £19.75

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