Editors. “The Guardian view on the Anglican communion: catching up with reality.” The Guardian. 17 Sept 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/17/the-guardian-view-on-the-anglican-communion-catching-up-with-reality. Accessed 18 Sept 2015.
Vanity is what gets all prelates in the end and, for archbishops of Canterbury, the name of that vanity is “Anglicanism”. Who would not rather be a world spiritual leader than the figurehead of an established religion that has lost its grip on the imagination of a shrinking second-rate power? In particular, the temptation to believe, as headline writers do, in a worldwide organisation called “the Anglican Church”, with 50 million (or was it 80 million?) followers, has been too strong for archbishops of Canterbury to resist. The effect has always been comic but sometimes it has been malign as well. In particular, it has encouraged some shameful grovelling in front of bullying homophobes. Less obviously, it also inflated the self-importance of liberals, who were able to believe not just that they were doing the right thing, as they were, but that the eyes of an admiring world were upon them as they did so. The effect on the reactionaries was almost wholly malign, as it fed fantasies of a reverse colonialism, in which they would take over with their pure gospel from the corrupted churches of the liberal north.
Justin Welby’s conversion to realism sets a rather better example. He has travelled around the world to talk to Anglican leaders and to listen to them too. He has understood that many of them have nothing constructive to say to each other and none of them have any intention of submitting to any discipline from outside their churches. Now he has summoned them to face up to this truth and its consequences. At their meeting in Canterbury next January, they can decide just how they want to associate with each other, and with him. It is entirely possible that there will be no agreement reached. But open disagreement would be better than the present state of hypocritical paralysis.
It is easy to blame the collapse of the communion as an organisation on the legacy of colonialism, but there are other and larger factors that militate against the existence of any global religious organisation in the world today. The transformation of attitudes towards sex which the feminist revolution has brought about really has divided the world in ways that seem for the moment unbridgable – and this is a tension that is seen in all religions, Buddhism and Islam quite as much as Christianity.
Once traditional gender roles are no longer seen as divinely ordained, everything else that was solid melts into the air. One reaction has been fundamentalism. But the fundamentalist can’t go back to his imaginary past and fundamentalism in all its forms is as much a part of the modern world that it reacts against as the most enthusiastic liberalism. The fundamentalist knows very well what it is that he rejects. In the western world, at least, it is the liberals who no longer know what they believe in, and that is their great strength. The equal dignity of women or of gay people is no longer a consciously held belief: it is something that everyone now knows without thinking about. That is the way that progress works.
The difficulty for progressives is that progress is not inevitable. Outside of western Europe and coastal North America, our views are still largely shocking and immoral. They can’t be imposed by force, as the plight of Afghan women or Nigerian gay people shows. Every culture must find its own way to feminism. Abandoning the pretensions of the Anglican communion is one small step along this way.