June 19, 2008

Global Anglicanism at a Crossroads

When leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion gather in Canterbury, England, in mid-July for their decennial Lambeth Conference, they will deliberate over the future of a church that is experiencing deep, and perhaps irreconcilable, internal conflicts. Already, about a third of the 38 Anglican primates, or regional leaders, have announced that they are boycotting the conference to register their opposition to the sanctioning of gay unions and the ordination to the priesthood of non-celibate gays and lesbians. In addition, theologically conservative Anglicans have organized a separate summit, the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), to be held in Jerusalem the week of June 22nd. It is expected to draw around 1,200 senior church leaders (including some 300 bishops) from provinces that represent nearly half of the world’s roughly 80 million Anglicans.

This theological divide reflects the profound demographic changes that have taken place in global Anglicanism during the past hundred years. Like much of the rest of Christianity, during the last century the demographic center of Anglicanism has moved decidedly southward, where the faith is practiced in a much more traditional fashion than in the generally more theologically liberal North.

In 1900, for example, more than 80% of Anglicans lived in Britain, and a mere 1% lived in sub-Saharan Africa, according to figures from the World Christian Database. Today, a majority (55%) of the world’s Anglicans live in sub-Saharan Africa; by contrast, only 33% of Anglicans live in Britain. But this figure is deceiving, since, according to the Church of England‘s own numbers, average Sunday church attendance during this decade has dipped to approximately 1 million, or about 4% of the country’s Anglican population.
Figure 1
During this same period, the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion – the Episcopal Church – also has decreased in importance, going from 5% to 3% of the total Anglican population. And the decline of Anglicanism in the U.S. and Britain has occurred not only in relative but also in absolute terms; in recent decades there has been a decrease in the overall numbers as well. Britain has 26 million Anglicans today, which is 3 million fewer than in 1970; and the United States has 2 million Episcopalians, which is 1 million fewer than in 1970, according to the World Christian Database.

In contrast, the World Christian Database puts the current number of Anglicans in sub-Saharan Africa at 43 million, which is 35 million more than in 1970. Although much smaller in relative size, the number of Anglicans in the Asia-Pacific region has more than doubled over this same period.
Figure 2
For most people in the West, the familiar face of Archbishop and Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu is the image most often associated with African Anglicanism. But South Africans only account for about 6% of Africa’s Anglicans, and they are not very representative of the region. In fact, the new and more conservative faces that have emerged look less to northern Christianity as a model, instead seeing both church and society in the West more as mission fields needing a re-conversion to the fundamentals of the faith.
Figure 3
One of the major flashpoints in the ongoing conflict in the Anglican Communion centers on a recently married and openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson. Robinson was consecrated as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003, an event that helped convince several conservative Episcopal churches in the U.S. to look for alternative spiritual leadership. These breakaway parishes are now under the oversight of several African bishops, including Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria. That country officially is the second largest province in the Anglican Communion by membership but probably the first in terms of active members.

Now that the Anglican Communion is majority African, and the vast majority of African Anglicans are theologically conservative, there is a real question as to whether the historical ties of the Anglican Communion are strong enough to counter the forces that seem to be pushing the church toward schism. The Lambeth and Global Anglican Future conferences could soon provide an answer.

This report was written by Luis Lugo, Director; Brian J. Grim, Senior Research Fellow in Religion and World Affairs; and Elizabeth Podrebarac, Research Assistant, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Photo credit: Johnny Eggit/AFP/Getty Images