The Big Question: Is the Anglican Communion heading towards an inevitable split?

Why are we asking this now?

In recent decades the Anglican Communion has been sharply divided over a number of issues, particularly whether homosexuality should be accepted and tolerated in the Church. But things are really coming to a head. Next month bishops from around the world are due to gather in Canterbury for the once every-10-years Lambeth Conference, but more than 200 from conservative dioceses – predominantly but not exclusively from Africa – have boycotted the event and are this week attending a rival conference in Jerusalem instead.

Although organisers of the so-called Global Anglican Future Conference say they have no intention of splitting the Anglican Church or setting up a rival one, it represents one of the most serious threats to the authority of the global leader of the Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

What are the conservative bishops saying?

That the Anglican Communion has been "broken" by the church in America – known as the Episcopal Church – who caused uproar by consecrating the first professed gay bishop in 2003. They were later joined by Anglicans in Canada, who have also accepted the idea of gay bishops and same-sex unions.

Traditionalists essentially want Anglicanism to return to a much more Bible-based form of Christianity instead of the liberal approach that western bishops and the Church's leadership have generally followed in the past few decades. They believe that developments such as the ordination of women priests and the greater tolerance shown towards homosexuality within the clergy is contrary to their more literal interpretation of the Bible.

The Primate of Nigeria, Archbishop Peter Akinola, is one of the leading organisers of Gafcon. On the opening day of the conference he accused western Church leaders of apostasy and said there would be an "unavoidable realignment" of Anglicanism's power-base towards the conservative dioceses unless Canterbury did more to rein in the liberals. "We want one thing and one thing only," he said. "To restore communion and fellowship. It has failed. We are asking this conference to think about this and come up with something we can do."

How has RowanWilliams reacted?

As far as Gafcon goes, with a deafening silence. Archbishop Akinola has already complained during a recent press conference that his counterpart in Canterbury was "not interested in what matters to us, in what we think or in what we say."

But that doesn't mean the Archbishop has come out fighting for the liberals either. The Archbishop has desperately tried to avoid a repeat of the last Lambeth Conference in 1998 where the Church's attitude towards homosexuality dominated virtually every single discussion and revealed the angry divides within the Communion itself.

Liberals were dismayed earlier this year when it emerged that bishop Gene Robinson, the world's first professed gay bishop, was one of the small number of clergy left off the invitation list for Lambeth. Discussion of homosexuality at this year's Lambeth has also been severely limited to a brief period towards the end of the week-long conference. At next week's General Synod in York, the Archbishop is due to make a speech but whether he will talk about the current divide or not remains unclear.

Why is this such an emotive issue?

Because it goes right to the heart of the debate over the direction of the Anglican Church. For the vast majority of bishops, the last thing they want is one of the largest Christian churches torn apart by bickering over homosexuality, but a split is by no means impossible. Hardliners on both the liberal and conservative side see the current theological crisis in similar terms to the Reformation – a period where implacable theological differences left some with no choice but to break away from the Roman Catholic Church.

How far do attitudes to homosexuality diverge?

In Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria, where homosexuality is illegal and punishable, the ordination of gay clergy would be unthinkable. Some leading western bishops, such as the Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen, are equally opposed. But in the western hemisphere, a greater toleration of gay people has become the norm, with churches essentially turning a blind eye. Technically the Church still believes homosexuality is wrong. A resolution passed at the 1998 Lambeth Conference said homosexuality was "incompatible with Scripture" and that gay people should not be ordained.

But the ordination of Gene Robinson and the attempt by the Church of England in the same year to make Canon Jeffrey John into the Church of England's first gay bishop showed how western Churches were increasingly heading away from that position. The backlash from conservatives over Canon John was so strong that Rowan Williams eventually asked him not to take up the bishopric but the recent civil union blessing of two clergymen in a ceremony that contained all the hallmarks of a full-scale marriage has once more reignited the debate in the UK and across the world.

Could the sides yet reach an agreement?

It doesn't look likely. Entrenched liberals and extreme conservatives are too much at odds. Another problem is that as the conservative bishops are boycotting Lambeth altogether this year it could be another 10 years before the leaders of the Anglican Communion are in the same room together to discuss the issues that are dividing them – by which point it may be too late.

How would a split work in practice?

No-one really knows. The most dramatic scenario would involve a full-scale schism from Canterbury with vast swathes of the African and Southern Churches creating a new centre of leadership that conservative dioceses could then sign up to. The most likely place for that to happen is Africa, where the traditionalists are strongest and Biblical literalism most entrenched.

A lesser version would involve conservatives in liberal countries breaking away from their bishops to join conservative churches. This has already happened in the US where Martyn Minns, a rector in a Virginia church opposed to the ordination of Gene Robinson, was appointed a bishop in the Church of Nigeria.

Would Rowan Williams's position no longer be tenable?

It would depend on how he handles it but presiding over the most dramatic split in the Anglican Communion's history would certainly make his job pretty tricky.

So are the Church's differences really irreconcilable?


* The divide between liberals and conservatives is simply too wide for both sides to reach a compromise

* With Gafcon, a split has already technically begun, whether the Anglican Church accepts it or not

* It will be another 10 years before Church leaders can attend another Lambeth, by which point it may be too late


* The Anglican Church by its very nature is made up of conflicting views and theological differences and has weathered many storms

* The vast majority of clergy and lay people don't want to see their Church split in two and will do everything they can to save it

* The fact that conservatives have yet to call for a split shows that ultimately they don't want to break away anyway


Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Serge Pizzorno of Kasabian and Noel Fielding backstage at the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts
musicKasabian and Noel Fielding attack 'boring' musicians
videoWatch Lynda Bellingham's tragic final Loose Women appearance
Arts and Entertainment
The last great picture - Winner 'Black and White' and overall 'Wildlife Photographer of the Year'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage

Arts and Entertainment
High notes, flat performance: Jake Bugg

Review: Despite an uphill climb to see Jake Bugg in action, his performance is notably flat

The Putin automaton will go on sale next month in Germany
videoMusical Putin toy showing him annexing Crimea could sell for millions

Powerful images of strays taken moments before being put down

Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 pose for Children in Need 2001
Arts and Entertainment
'Right Here' singer Jess Glynne is nominated for Best Newcomer at the MOBO Awards 2014
musicExclusive: Jess Glynne hits out at 'ridiculous' criticism of white artists nominated for Mobo Awards
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Brand has written a book of political analysis called Revolution

Review: Witty banalities aside, the comedian has an authentic voice

Arts and Entertainment
Separated at birth? Frank Sivero (left) claims The Simpsons based Mafia character Louie on his Goodfellas character
arts + entsFrank Sivero sues Simpsons studio over allegedly basing mobster character on Frank Carbone
Carl Bernstein (left) and Bob Woodward (right) with former 'Washington Post' executive editor Ben Bradlee

The Washington Post editor helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down President Nixon

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Science Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Science teacher requi...

Deputy Head of Science

£36000 - £60000 per annum: Randstad Education Southampton: Our client are a we...

IT Teacher

£22000 - £32000 per annum + TLR: Randstad Education Southampton: Our client is...

Database Administrator

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: The role could involve w...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London