When ministers pray before a business meeting, it’s rare that anyone is asked not to show up. Yet that’s exactly what happened recently at a gathering of — of all people — Anglican bishops.
I said “of all people” because the Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church here in the United States, values unity above almost everything else. They express this unity in the celebration of Communion, a rite that sends the message that, no matter how deep the disagreements may be, the participants are still one in Christ.
Imagine, then, the surprise felt by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, when he read a letter from Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola and other conservative bishops. Akinola warned Williams that “Third World archbishops would not celebrate Communion with U.S. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold” at an upcoming meeting in Ireland.
The proximate cause of the crisis was the American church’s consecration of an openly gay bishop, Eugene Robinson of New Hampshire. But, for Akinola and the others, this action is but a symptom of a much deeper malady.
As the former bishop of South Carolina, C. Fitzsimmons Allison, told columnist Terry Mattingly: It’s difficult to celebrate Communion together when the participants don’t share a common understanding of words like salvation, resurrection, marriage, or even God.
He’s not exaggerating. He was once told by several American bishops that they “worshipped a god who is ‘older and greater’ than the God of the Bible.” Allison’s word for this is the right one: apostasy.
This departure from the “doctrines that have united Christians through the ages” made Robinson’s consecration possible. And it’s why the North American churches have been “urgently requested” to “voluntarily withdraw their members from the Anglican Consultative Council.” To put in it “reality-television” terms: “Just leave quietly. Don’t make us vote you off the island.”
While this may sound like Anglican “inside baseball,” there are important lessons here for American evangelicals. The first is Akinola’s insistence that “unity of doctrine [precedes] unity of worship.” Or, Allison put it, “stronger stuff” than “appeals to human emotions” are what holds a church together.
If we’re honest with ourselves, a lot of evangelical churches also avoid the “stronger stuff.” In this day of seeker-driven churches, what would people answer if you asked them to define resurrection, salvation, marriage, or God? Do we really want to know?
Another important lesson is the growing power of “Third-World” Christians. Akinola and company represent forty to fifty million, mostly active, Anglicans, some of whom risk their lives to practice their faith. Griswold represents two million, mostly nominal, Anglicans, many of whom reject the Bible.
As historian Philip Jenkins has written, the center of “gravity” of the Christian world has already shifted “southward.” These “southern” Christians are much more conservative regarding faith and morals, and their overwhelming numerical superiority makes it impossible to ignore what they are saying.
That’s good, because we in the West need to hear what they have to say, starting with a reminder of why it is we pray together in the first place.