WASHINGTON -- Even people of different faiths, and of none, should watch the results of the London meeting, ending Thursday, of the 38 Anglican primates convened by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and titular head of the 75-million-member Anglican Communion worldwide. The meeting is part of a drama rich with lessons about the conservation of institutions, the price of "progressive" cultural aggression and the changing geography of religious belief.
Episcopalians, the American adherents of Anglicanism, were once a formidable cultural force -- the American establishment at prayer. But after years of pursuing communicants with political and cultural trendiness rather than doctrinal clarity, Episcopalianism is a small and dwindling faction of American Christianity -- "a flea on the American religious landscape, and yet we always seem to attract more attention than we deserve," according to one bishop. Membership is down 33 percent, to 2.3 million, since 1965. As the noted Catholic priest Ronald Knox wrote 75 years ago, "Dogmas may fly out at the window but congregations do not come in at the door."
On Aug. 5 the faction's tenuous unity was shattered when one doctrine too many flew out the window. The church's General Convention, meeting in Minneapolis, voted to confirm as New Hampshire's bishop a noncelibate gay priest. Church "progressives," ignoring conservatives' warnings of serious consequences, and having had their way on such matters as prayer book revision and ordination of women, were again calling the conservatives' bluff.
This time the conservatives are not bluffing. And they are ardently backed by primates from what is called the Global South, representing the vast majority of Anglicans -- in Latin America, Asia and especially Africa. For example, Bishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, a fierce opponent of the Minneapolis decision, represents 17.5 million Anglicans.
A leader of American conservatives, the Rev. David Anderson, president of the American Anglican Council, says: "It's like when you pull the cadmium rods out of a nuclear core. You take some out and nothing happens. But you reach a point where you reach critical mass and you have an explosion." Of the fallout from Minneapolis, Anderson says, "the presenting symptom is sex, but that is not the issue." The issue is "the loss of Biblical authority."