A Schism Looms in the Anglican Church

Compromise means a lot to Anglicans. Over its 450-year history, the faith has stayed united by downplaying dogma. Under the benign presidency of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the faithful have often politely agreed to disagree on a slew of issues, from the ordination of women to obscure points of ritual. But tolerance has its limits. On July 16, the leaders of the world's 77 million Anglicans meet in England for their once-a-decade gathering, and the talk is of irreconcilable differences. For a powerful conservative faction of Anglicans—including many who have refused to attend the conference—the hierarchy has ducked the question of homosexuality for too long. Either it's acceptable or it's an affront to the Bible's teachings. So while schism won't be on the official agenda at the Lambeth Conference, it will be on the mind of every bishop who attends.

The fault lines in the Anglican Communion have been deepening for some time. The religion was once dominated by liberal, affluent Westerners and comfortable elites. But like many mainline Protestant faiths in the West, its membership in rich countries has been declining for years, producing a fundamental shift in makeup and practices. Even as its numbers in the North have fallen—just 1 million worshipers now show up each week for services of the Church of England, the mother church of Anglicanism—they've exploded in some of Britain's former colonies. Worldwide, more than half of all Anglicans now live in Africa. And in sharp contrast to the relatively liberal Church of England (and its U.S. counterpart, the Episcopal Church) the African Anglicans preach a fervent fundamentalist line steeped in the Old Testament message of a stern, unbending deity.

The most obvious manifestation of this view is in the African Anglican's position toward homosexuality. Peter Akinola, the Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria, has described gays as "less than beasts" and cited texts that condemn same-sex relations as an abomination. His avowed mission: to rescue global Anglicanism from its misguided tolerance. But attitudes toward homosexuality are just part of what many Africans see as a broader lack of consistency in doctrine. When missionaries first brought Anglicanism to Africa more than a century ago, they preached a strict, literal reading of the Bible that is tricky to reconcile with today's liberalism. Henry Orombi, the Archbishop of Uganda and one of many African prelates who have refused the invitation to Lambeth, is unhappy that the onetime colonial masters are now making exceptions to the rules they once preached. "We are believing the truth that our ancestors, our missionaries, gave us long ago," he said recently.

Such strict orthodoxy plays well in modern Africa. In a time of AIDS, political turmoil, genocidal wars and economic chaos, believers may be seeking not just the comfort of religion but also the certainty that goes with unambiguous moral precepts, according to some religious scholars. If the constant woes of the Israelites as described in the Old Testament are remote to the Anglicans of North America and Britain, they may be grimly familiar to their co-religionists in Rwanda and Nigeria.

Practical considerations also dictate a hard-line posture on social issues. Anglicans in Africa—like other Christian groups there—often face powerful competition from Islam, a religion that takes an unsparing view of homosexuality. (Gay practices are punishable by death under Sharia.) There's also rivalry from fundamentalist Protestant sects, notably the Pentecostals, who are gaining an ever-larger following with a version of Christianity that stresses a direct connection with God and strict adherence to the Bible's teachings. Anglicans "just can't afford to be seen as soft on morality," says Philip Jenkins, an authority on African Christianity at Pennsylvania State University.

Post-colonial antagonism plays a part too. African leaders resent the northern Anglicans' assumption that they can dictate the future of the faith. "They have found an issue where they can say we have got the Bible on our side and bash the white people who have been pushing us around for 150 years," says Paul Gifford, an expert on African religion at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

The conflict broke open in 2003 when the U.S. Anglicans consecrated Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop—a move that horrified African Anglican clergy. Dissident Anglican leaders, dominated by a contingent of African bishops, met in Jerusalem last month, in advance of the Lambeth Conference, to register their discontent and debate an alternative future for Anglicanism. In a speech, Nigerian Archbishop Akinola, who is viewed as a torchbearer of African Anglicanism, made pointed references to "inhuman physical slavery in the 19th century" and the "political slavery of colonialism" in the 20th century. He vowed that he and his followers "will not abdicate our God-given responsibility and simply acquiesce to destructive modern cultural and political dictates." The attendees drew up a ringing 14-point declaration of beliefs, including a rejection of homosexuality and a condemnation of the "false Gospel" of liberalism.

The question now, as the Lambeth Conference gets underway, is whether the Anglican community can bridge this chasm. The absence of a central authority means there is little scope for imposing a solution. Despite his 1,400-year-old title, the Archbishop of Canterbury can deploy no more than soft power over the 38 national and regional churches that together make up the Anglican Communion. "The Communion doesn't have the same kind of discipline as the Catholics do," says Andrew Brown, a British expert on church affairs. "You can't simply sack a priest or a bishop."

The champions of unity at the Lambeth Conference will also have to confront the fact that conservative sentiments are not limited to Africa. Some North American clergy, as well as others in Asia and Australia, are just as unhappy with the liberal drift of the religion, and blame that drift for tumbling U.S. attendance figures, which have dropped 30 percent since the 1960s to 2.2 million per week. But a complete rupture remains unlikely. Simon Barrow, of the religious think tank Ekklesia, says a schism would endanger the credibility and influence the Africans get from being a part of a larger grouping as envisaged by the Jerusalem Conference. More likely, the Anglican family of churches will morph into a still looser grouping. Yet it is increasingly clear that conservatives in the former colonies are becoming the real power in the Communion. With their numbers growing, the traditionalists don't want mere toleration inside this Anglican family: they want it to follow their path. The era of compromise, in other words, may soon be over.