PHILIP JENKINS: The word schism means a split, and the great historical example is what happened in 1054, when the Eastern and Western churches had a tiff over such crucial theological issues as whether priests should wear beards. Everyone knew this was going to be resolved in just a couple of years; 950 years or so later, and counting, they’re still divided into the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and it’s not likely to be resolved any time soon.
Today I’m going to talk about the Anglican schism, but I want to look at the question of whether this is the first shot in a much larger war and whether instead of an East-West schism, we’ll be looking at a North-South schism. I want to start this off with a quote you will find shocking or at the very least surprising. As you’re aware, a number of Episcopal churches in the United States have placed themselves under the authority of African and Asian clergy because, basically, they don’t trust the leadership of the Episcopal Church.
One of the African clerics they’ve turned to is a man called Emmanuel Kolini, who is the primate of Rwanda. When Kolini is asked why he is interfering in American affairs, he has a very simple answer: “Back in my country back in 1994, we had the genocide and the world stood idly by, nobody came to help us; we are not going to let that happen to you. We will not stand idly by while this dreadful thing happens to the Episcopal Church.” Most of us, of course, look at that and think, “You’re seriously comparing the 1994 genocide with the split in the Episcopal Church?” That seems astonishing. But I hope to suggest why some of the issues involved here are so very important for Global South churches.
Quick narrative: The U.S. Episcopal Church is not a huge body, but it’s a very influential body. Realistically it has maybe two, two-and-a-half million members, yet its influence is far beyond those numbers. It’s a very liberal body on issues of gender, sexuality; it’s been semi-overtly ordaining gay clergy and carrying out gay marriages for a number of years. The turning point came in 2003 when an openly gay cleric, Bishop Robinson, was ordained. For some years before that, conservatives within the Episcopal Church had been looking to the wider Anglican world, and they’d had a lot of support from those Global South churches. Global South means, in this context, Africa and Asia.
In 2003, the skies fell in. Global South primates from countries like Nigeria and Uganda started using ferociously critical language about the ordination of Robinson. They called it a satanic attack on God’s church. The U.S. Episcopal response here was, “Who are you to tell us this?” Then the primates in countries like Nigeria said, “Let us tell you who we are to be telling you this. There’s two, two-and-a-half million members of you; the Nigerian church had, back in 1975, five million members, we’re currently up to 19 million members; by 2025, we’ll be at 35 million members. We’re doubling every 25 years or so; what can you say to that?”
But of course, the Anglican Church is not just Nigeria; it’s Uganda and Tanzania and Rwanda and all these other countries. Since that point in 2003 the Anglican Communion has developed an ever wider split. Most recently, of course, conservative churches within the U.S. Episcopal Church have placed themselves under the Episcopal authority of Global South churches. The most recent, of course, affected a number of very large, prosperous churches in Virginia, which are now part of a missionary diocese of the Nigerian church under its primate Peter Akinola.
The language, the sentiment and the depth of hatred in these events has been quite striking. We could have a competition as to which remark is the least conducive to Christian charity. (Laughter.) I have a couple of candidates. Candidate one is Akinola’s remark that the U.S. Episcopal Church is like a cancerous lump that has defied all treatment, and the time has come for it to be excised altogether. Candidate two is from one of the gay pressure groups within the Episcopal Church, when someone said: “All I can say to you African bishops, is why can’t you go back to the jungle you came from and stop monkeying around with the church?” We’ll have a vote afterwards as to which is the more offensive remark….