The Revd. William Taylor, rector of St Helens Bishopsgate, in a recent interview described the rejection of the Archbishop of Canterbury as head of the Anglican Communion by the GAFCON Kigali Statement as “the end of an era”. This he said, because Canterbury had walked away, and that this would have enormous implications not just for the Anglican Communion, but for the Commonwealth as well which was founded on the basis of the United Kingdom giving spiritual leadership to the countries it had once colonized.
Those who watched the coronation service of King Charles III on May 6th would have seen the Commonwealth leaders present, this following a prior meeting the day before where they affirmed their commitment to the Commonwealth under his leadership. There is an interesting correlation between the formation of independent autonomous provinces which make up the Anglican Communion and the later development of the British Commonwealth. Through the colonial period there was a symbiotic relationship between Church and State which had positive but also negative outcomes and many historians have chronicled this symbiosis. After the colonial era this symbiosis between church and the bureaucratic state was broken. Later the relationship between the mother Church of England and the Churches planted in her colonies was also transformed over time through processes which varied according to each situation.
Colonial Anglican churches throughout the British Empire were gradually freed from dependence on the Church of England and the Crown. This process of disestablishment started in 1868 with the Church of the West Indies. Following this the See of Canterbury relinquished legal primacy over other bishops in 1874. The next step occurred with the institution of the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 by Archbishop Longley. The spiritual arm of the Empire had developed into a fellowship of autonomous and equal provinces, all acknowledging their origins in the mother church of England, and all based on the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles of Religion. They acknowledged the Archbishop of Canterbury as primus inter pares with an important role of moral leadership over the Communion with responsibilities which included calling the Bishops of the Communion together once every ten years for the Lambeth Conference. Later more structures were developed – such as the formation of the Instruments of Communion which were the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Consultative Council and eventually the Primates Council.
Not only did the mother church gradually relinquish control over the churches she had birthed, the British Empire was gradually receding into the sunset granting political independence over several decades to its former colonies, but still retaining economic, financial and trade links with them through private and quasi-governmental bodies (especially in Africa, where there were agricultural and rural development projects). There developed a complex relationship between the geopolitical sphere and the spiritual.
At the 1926 Imperial Conference Britain and several of her dominions and former colonies including South Africa, India Australia and Canada agreed to membership of a community within the British Empire. In 1949 it was decided at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers meeting that republics and sovereign independent nations could be members of the Commonwealth. Today 56 countries are part of it sharing goals such as economic development, peace, and democracy. The British sovereign, particularly Elizabeth II has played an important symbolic role as titular head, and the Commonwealth nations respected her moral leadership.
Fast forward to the present and there are rumblings of discontent in certain of the Kings Dominions – at least six Caribbean nations are calling for their independence from the monarchy[i]. In the wider geopolitical order, there are parallel realignments and challenges to the status quo especially as regards developing nations. Developing nations are being far more forthright and sharply outspoken in their resistance to hegemony of the so called “international rules-based order” – led by the United States of America and NATO countries including the United Kingdom and France in particular.
In terms of global economic trade relations, several new trading blocs have emerged over the past years which are increasingly independent of the US dollar, the world’s reserve currency and western dominated trade interests. Among these are the BRICS group together constituting 40% of world population, China’s Belt and Road initiative (150 nations), and RCEP which groups China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand with the 10 member ASEN group of nations.
The Indian Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar has made powerful statements in several international forums, rebuking western and European nations for arrogantly believing that they are the centre of the world and expecting developing nations automatically to support their policies (such as the sanctioning of Russia).
During a recent visit by President Emmanuel Macron of France to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the President, Felix Tshisekedi, publicly berated Macron saying that he and other European leaders must learn to see Africa in a fundamentally different way than they had during their colonial past. “You must begin to respect us and stop treating us in a patronizing and paternalistic way, as if you are always absolutely right and we are always absolutely wrong”.
There have been similar instances elsewhere – for example Namibian President Hein Geingob rebuked a German leader for arrogantly calling into question Namibia’s right to determine its own foreign policy. In April of this year, President Museveni of Uganda lashed out at Western nations, saying they could not dictate to Uganda on how it should handle internal issues relating to culture and religion. In the same month Chad expelled the German ambassador, “for his impolite attitude and non-respect of diplomatic practices”[ii]
The American historian and social commentator Victor Davis Hansen has succinctly captured the essence of the present widening schism between the affluent West and the developing nations. His comments centre on the United States but could well apply to Europe and the United Kingdom.
“The rest of the planet worries whether it will have enough food, energy, security, and shelter to live one more day. For most, the incessant, woke virtue-signaling from affluent Americans comes across as the whiny bullying of pampered, self-righteous—and increasingly neurotic—imperialists.”[iii]
Reading the GAFCON Kigali Statement, especially its clear rejection of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s moral authority, one is left in no doubt that the majority of the Anglican Communion is no longer willing to be cajoled or sweet-talked by the church leadership in the West who have capitulated to secular ideologies corrosive to the Gospel. In a manner similar to the current rejection by developing nations who increasingly are looking to develop alternate political and economic alliances – for example the BRICS, the Churches of the Global South are rejecting the old Canterbury order and looking to develop new structures and rules of order which reflect a new reality[iv]. There is a growing self-confidence and sense of Spirit led destiny in both the GAFCON movement and the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans, albeit mixed with a deep sorrow that the Canterbury-led portion of the global Communion has departed from the Gospel, thus precipitating schism.
In his response to the GAFCON Kigali Statement the Archbishop of Canterbury mentioned the decision by the General Synod of the Church of England to give the Communion a ‘greater role’ in the choosing of future Archbishops of Canterbury. This will be seen by many as throwing a bone to a global Communion that refuses to be treated with high-handedness any longer.
[iii] Victor Davis Hansen, The new ugly Americans, TORONTO SUN, May 6, 2023.
[iv] The Church of Nigeria had as far back as 2005 removed “communion with the See of Canterbury” from its constitution (as a definition of membership in the Communion).