A time bomb is relentlessly clicking away in the worldwide Anglican Communion. If and when it explodes, gone from the see of Canterbury will be the majority of the estimated nearly 80 million members in 44 national and regional churches birthed by the Church of England.
The predominantly theologically liberal 2.3-million-member Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA) and the 800,000-adherent Anglican Church of Canada are the two North American branches of the communion. ECUSA stands to lose many of its largest churches; they are led by conservatives. Even the mother Church of England will shrink. Evangelicals and other conservatives lead many of its most thriving congregations. On paper, the Church of England has 26 million adherents, but only a fraction are in the pews on Sundays.
At immediate issue for conservatives is the widening acceptance of gay sex by leaders of Anglicanism in the West. For many of the conservative dissidents, it is simply the last straw in a decades-long drift from biblical teaching and authority.
No one has been more prominently at the forefront of the struggle of late than influential evangelical Archbishop Peter Akinola, 61, head of the fast-growing Church of Nigeria (Anglican), with an estimated 18 million members. The archbishop also chairs the continent-wide Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa (CAPA), representing an estimated 37 million Anglicans.
When the dust settles, the scholarly but tough-as-nails churchman may emerge as the top leader of the "new" Anglican Communion.
At this month's triennial General Synod of the Nigerian church, he led the delegates to approve startling changes to the church's constitution. Stricken were all references to the church's communion with the see of Canterbury. Instead, communion will be with all Anglican churches, dioceses, and provinces that hold and maintain traditional Anglican faith and discipline. The revisions spell out biblical boundaries that define Anglicanism.
Another change allows the church to create "convocations and chaplaincies" for like-minded faithful outside of Nigeria. This flies in the face of ECUSA demands that foreign bishops not trespass on ECUSA soil. The Africans already have taken some U.S. churches under their wing.
Despite the booming growth, the Nigerian and other CAPA churches are mostly dirt poor. Anticipating a complete shutoff of funds from ECUSA and other affluent Western churches, Archbishop Akinola called for a meeting of CAPA's top bishops in Dar es Salaam "to empower each province to be self-reliant." The African churches may be poor, "but God has given us all we need to live on," the archbishop said.
At a September ceremony in New York, Archbishop Akinola was one of four Anglican prelates feted by the conservative Kairos Journal for "exemplary fidelity to the authority of Scripture and exceptional pastoral courage in their efforts to restore the prophetic voice of the church." The others: Henry Orombi of the 8-million-member Anglican province of Uganda, Datuk Young Ping Chung of South East Asia, and Presiding Bishop Gregory Venables of the Southern Cone of South America. All four have actively sided for several years with conservatives under pressure and censure in ECUSA.
They and their provinces also have declared broken or impaired communion with ECUSA and the Anglican Church of Canada. And they uniformly contend that it is the liberal-led Western churches that are "walking apart from the Communion" and leading the schism.
Archbishop Akinola also took his complaint this month to the doorstep of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who not only is titular head of worldwide Anglicanism but also is primate of the Church of England (COE). In line with Britain's new Civil Partnership law, which extends marriage-like benefits to same-sex couples, COE's house of bishops said clergy could live with their partners without fear of church discipline, as long as they refrained from sex.
The new guideline infuriated both the powerful conservatives in COE and gay activists. Archbishop Akinola urged the bishops to withdraw it. "If England adopts a new faith, then I reserve the right to let them walk alone," he told the New York audience.
Archbishop Akinola "speaks for all the primates in Africa," Uganda archbishop Orombi added.