Anglican Debates: Democracy, Ecclesiology, or Both?

Elisabeth Rain Kincaid

Liverpool Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool, UK by Michael D. Beckwith (CC0 1.0 Deed).

Over the last two decades, the world-wide Anglican Communion, one of the largest denominational gatherings of Christians in the world, often appears in secular news related to the intensity of its internal conflicts.  These debates often center around questions which have roiled the larger culture:  gay marriage, women’s role in ministry, and care for the poor and vulnerable. While these intra-church debates are conducted in an ecclesial not a secular political sphere, an examination of these theological conflicts reveals that they are often debated and formulated in terms of broader strains and conflicts within contemporary liberal democracy itself. This mirroring of secular political tension within the Anglican ecclesiology is not surprising from a historical perspective, given the close and continuing tie between developments in Anglican religious polity and the English/United Kingdom body politic. In this essay, I will begin by briefly highlighting some key historical inflection points which directly impacted both the development of government within the United Kingdom and Anglican ecclesiology. I will examine three case studies regarding contemporary Anglican ecclesiological conflict. I argue that in each of these cases, the apparently theological or ecclesiological argument is also an argument about controversies or challenges in contemporary modern democracy, including the role and legitimacy of courts and the judiciary, the moral limits on self-determination and populism, and the relationship between church and state.

History of Anglican Political Engagement

The development of the Anglican ecclesial tradition is historically intertwined with the various English political controversies of each age.  For example, the murder of St. Thomas á Becket in front of the high altar of Canterbury Cathedral by Henry II’s knights was directly sparked by Becket’s opposition to the king’s attempts to control the church in England. However, the conflict also reflected a wider jurisdictional contestation across medieval Europe between rulers and church. Centuries later, Henry VIII’s removal of the church from the authority of the Roman pontiff and self-appointment as head of the church was not simply a rejection of the power of the papacy, but also an early manifestation of the development of doctrines of absolute sovereignty.  This doctrine would come to its fullest political and theological development under the early Stuart kings.  It would be explicitly articulated in theological terms by both James I and his court preacher, the great Anglican divine Lancelot Andrews, and later developed into the “no bishop, no king” rhetoric of Archbishop Laud and Charles I.  This would later contribute to the political division of the English Civil War. The development of contemporary constitutional democracy in both the United Kingdom and the United States was shaped by and later contributed to simultaneous changes in Anglican ecclesiology.  The Glorious Revolution of 1688 which resulted in the official surrender of substantive royal power and prerogatives to parliament under the terms of the Declaration of Rights was sparked by the fear of the effects on Anglican polity of a dynasty of Catholic instead of Anglican kings. The political and theological controversies which lead up to the Glorious Revolution and its aftermath significantly affected John Locke’s formation of his own ideas of classical liberal democracy, articulated in his Two Treatises on Government. Locke’s political theology of classical liberalism contributed substantively to the political development of the American Revolution, which in turn also deeply altered Anglican ecclesiology. Rather than being appointed by the Crown, the first American Episcopal bishop Samuel Seabury was elected by his American peers and consecrated by bishops in the Church of Scotland – echoing of course the changes in the broader American political system.  

Funded by the various foreign missionary societies, Anglicanism expanded around the globe along with the British Empire. As the Empire faded, to be replaced by the self-determining but fraternally affiliated nation states of the Commonwealth, the contemporary ecclesial structure of the Anglican Communion developed from a colonial church, where bishops were appointed by a central authority in the United Kingdom, to its modern structure of a gathering of bishops unified by a tradition while also comprising forty-one independent self-determining ecclesial bodies. The bishops are selected by a variety of practices determined by their own constituencies.  They are connected to global Anglicanism through their participation in the four “instruments of communion”:  the Lambeth Conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primates Meeting,  and the Anglican Consultative Council. However, even in this apparently egalitarian structure, tensions remain – echoing the tensions within the British Commonwealth and other countries which are heirs in some way to British parliamentary democracy and British empire. As we will see in the case studies, the extent of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s authority in relation to these four instruments of unity is a source of recent ecclesiological strain. How much authority does the Archbishop have to use these instruments of unity to enforce any type of doctrinal or ecclesiological unity in opposition to self-determination by local churches?

 In the first case study, I will examine the internal debate within Great Britain related to the overlap between the Archbishop of Canterbury’s theological role and his role within national government as the leader of an established church. The next two case studies will examine more global concerns about the nature of Anglican ecclesiology and, by extension, the contemporary discontents with liberal democracy. Over the last few decades, diverse global cultural developments had increasingly strained the bonds of unity within Anglican communion.  Following the 2008 Lambeth Conference,in which Rowan Williams rebuked but did not expel churches from the wealthy western world for blessing same-sex unions, a large number of bishops from the majority world gathered in Jerusalem to form an auxiliary body of Anglicans, called Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON).  This more theologically conservative group continues to the present day in a mission to “recover” the Anglican tradition and “guard and proclaim Biblical truth”,  which it believes has been contaminated by “revisionists within the Communion … who have allowed western secularism to dominate their world view.”  Along with the theological claims, the GAFCON leaders also advance a more political goal: the assumption of power by the church leaders in the Global South in a rejection of the tradition by which “global Anglican polity has leaned far too heavily on the benevolent patriarchy of the Established Church and the British Empire.” As part of their project of revitalizing and reorienting Anglicanism, GAFCON has established their own missionary societies and built affiliation bonds with various breakaway groups within Anglicanism.  My other two case studies will explore the impact of this rupture in Anglican ecclesiology in more global terms – rooted in the ecclesial turmoil between the “Continuing Anglican” movement tied to GAFCON and various expressions of Anglicanism tied to the Anglican Communion.  

Case Study I: Bishops in the House of Lords

The first case study examines tensions intrinsic in liberal democracy between majority rule and other key principles such as the preservation of tradition and the introduction of outside voices which might provide a moral counterweight to the overwhelming force of the majority. One attempt to achieve this balance is of course enshrined in the United Kingdom’s uncodified constitution by the presence of the upper house – the House of Lords.  However, the historic role of the House of Lords has been the topic of long ranging reform- most substantively initiated by the Labor government in 1997. While the number of hereditary peers has been substantially reduced, these reforms preserved a number of seats reserved for the Lords Spiritual – the bishops of the Church of England. At this point, there are 26 seats reserved for bishops (a number established since the reign of Elizabeth I), constituting approximately 3% of the House.  Although all bishops are voting members of the House, their active involvement in the business of the House has varied. Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, has been marked by a high degree of advocacy and engagement in the House.  The Archbishop has focused especially on using his seat in the Lords to focus on issues directly tied to the social witness of the Anglican church. These include such hot-button topics as such as immigration, predatory lending practices, and questions relating to the church’s teaching on marriage. For example, addressing the House on proposed restrictions on migration, the Archbishop argued: “When we fail to challenge the harmful rhetoric that refugees are the cause of this country’s evils, that they should be treated as problems, not people, [and as] invaders to be tackled and deterred, we deny the essential value and dignity of fellow human beings.”

 On the one hand, this very strong condemnation of government policy by Archbishop Welby embodies the fullness of the role which often been attributed to non-elected leaders in democracy – providing a voice for those who would be eclipsed by the political process or a loadstar of conscience against the populist impulse. In addition, Archbishop Welby’s unique position in the Church of England speaks to the special nature of English constitutional democracy – which, as outlined above, is closely intertwined with Anglican ecclesiology in its development and expression.

However, the presence of the head of the Church of England actively participating in its senior legislative body inevitably raises both theological and political questions. Should a church actually be enmeshed in government? What does the enshrinement and active engagement of the leaders of a national church in the governing body say about the role and place of those of other religious convictions? Does this special relationship uphold freedom of religion or work against it? How far does liberal democracy prioritize popular majority government?  Do these voices from the outside the elective process support democracy by balancing out errant majoritarian exercise of power or are they essentially undemocratic? 

Welby’s advocacy in the House of Lords has evoked these and similar questions and challenges from across the political spectrum. In one sense, this opposition may prove the value of his role as the counter-majoritarian voice of conscience and challenge. His advocacy does not align with either progressive or traditional political orthodoxy of the day: for example, his criticism of asylum procedure goes against the more conservative strands and his opposition to the attempt by members of Parliament to change the current established marriage theology of the Church of England go against the liberal strands. On the other hand, the diverse opposition to his political engagement may demonstrate a widely felt sentiment that theological and ecclesial reform is still necessary in the Church of England and perhaps within the larger governmental structure of the UK’s liberal democracy as a whole. 

Case Study II: The Diocese of Fort Worth and Control of Church Property

The second case study considers the litigious debacle which has consumed various Anglican ecclesial bodies in Fort Worth, Texas. When Episopcal  diocese of Fort Worth severed its affiliation The Episcopal Church of the United States and eventually affiliated with GAFCON, six parishes chose to remain affiliated. Pursuant to the policy set by the Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori, the Episcopal Church pursued a lawsuit against the diocese of Fort Worth for the return of all of the church property occupied by the parishes which had disaffiliated. When interviewed regarding the extensive series of lawsuits which the Episcopal Church filed following nation-wide departures of this type, Jefferts Schori described two governing principles of response. “One, that the church receive a reasonable approximation of fair market value for assets that are disposed of; and second, that we not be in the business of setting up competitors that want to either destroy or replace the Episcopal Church.”  The result in Fort Worth was a prolonged battle through the entire Texas court system costing millions of dollars.The Texas Supreme Court finally applied “neutral” (i.e state) property law principles to award the parish property to the departing diocese rather than the Episcopal Church as well as five church buildings occupied by parishes desiring to remain with the Episcopal Church. Even after this decision, litigation continued. as the squabbling dioceses disputed the ownership of additional purchases of any movable property following the resolution of the original lawsuit of 2008. 

At first glance, this drawn-out conflict may appear to be simply  a squabble within a particular religious tradition. However, in their willingness to use the courts and media outlets in order to aggressively pursue a winner-take-all approach, both sides of the conflict performatively displayed the disturbing tendency in our polarized society to view winning at all costs as the goal in any civic dispute. Rather than approaching conflict resolution and compromise as a goal, the churches displayed the same tendencies which are troubling American democracy: both the tendencies to polarization and the will to totalizing power.

Case Study III: Gay Marriage and Global Anglicaism

The third case study considers tension across global Anglicanism between two of the traditional instruments of communion – the Archbishop of Canterbury and the resolutions of Lambeth – and a new majority nexus of Anglicanism  — the leaders of GAFCON.  Long simmering since the establishment of GAFCON following the Lambeth conference of 2008, this tension flared up to new heights with the Church of Uganda’s (one of the 42 churches of the Anglican Communion) vocal support of the government’s strengthening of a draconian law penalizing same-sex sexual activity.  In response to the Archbishop of Uganda’s support of this law, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a statement “Supporting such legislation is a fundamental departure from our commitment to uphold the freedom and dignity of all people. There is no justification for any province of the Anglican Communion to support such laws: not in our resolutions, not in our teaching.”  The Chair of GAFCON and Archbishop of Rwanda, Bishop Laurent Mbanda, fired back in response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s rebuke, “It seems the history of colonization and patronising behaviour of some provinces in the northern hemisphere towards the South, and Africa in particular, is not yet at an end.” The opposing bishops on both sides used language from the contemporary public square rather than explicitly theological language. While Archbishop Welby relies on the classical liberal language of rights and universal human dignity as developed within the Christian tradition to oppose the law, the Ugandan and Rwandan archbishops turn to the language of rejection of colonialism and empire which have animated contemporary movements for political self-determination. In this ecclesial conflict, we see both sides assuming the posture of speaking for the persecuted in order to provide moral gravity for their claims. The African Archbishops of Uganda and Rwanda believe the Archbishop of Canterbury is re-inscribing the actions of the British Empire by condemning the democratic action of the Ugandan people which, he argues, accord with their cultural. The Archbishop of Canterbury believes the Church of Uganda is failing to protect the basic human rights of a persecuted minority.  For both, the terms of this theological debate has been transposed into the vocabulary of secular power claims.  While the Archbishop of Canterbury relies upon an understanding of universal human rights, the African Archbishops ground their language in a call for cultural autonomy and rejection of patriarchal colonial power. ♦

Elisabeth Rain Kincaid is the Legendre-Soulé Chair of Business Ethics and Director of the Center for Ethics and Economic Justice. She has published widely, including Law from Below: How the Thought of Francisco Suarez, SJ Can Renew Contemporary Legal Engagement, forthcoming from Georgetown University Press in Spring 2024.

Recommended Citation

Kincaid, Elisabeth Rain. “Anglican Debates: Democracy, Ecclesiology, or Both? ” Canopy Forum, November 07, 2023.