Thursday, July 31, 2008

Class war and the Anglican schism


Barry Healy

26 July 2008

Dramatic events within the worldwide Anglican Communion have revealed a “cold split” with the potential for a complete collapse of the Episcopal formation.

Superficially, the debates have centered on the right of women and homosexuals to be priests and bishops, and gay marriage.

However, while theological arguments dating back centuries are being mouthed, behind them are class war elements of more recent vintage, including some connected with Reagan-era Central American death squads. African bishops have led the charge against modernity, but they are funded and organized by right-wing US think-tanks and the Sydney Anglicans’ arch-reactionary Peter Jensen.

The Anglicans are approaching a three-way split. Jensen’s fundamentalist grouping, established at the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem in late June, is formally at war with the liberal Canadian and US Episcopal Churches and working aggressively to “plant” new churches in their territory.

Parallel churches

Jensen’s grouping has also set up its own leadership structures, including a rival primate’s council made up entirely of Africans at this stage, and it looks certain that the US will have two parallel churches, possibly with two primates.

Conservative High Church Anglo-Catholics are threatening to move under the Vatican’s umbrella and the vaguely progressive liberals led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, are hoping to cobble together unity by avoiding confrontation.

Lurking in the background are such organizations as the American Anglican Council, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) and the Association for Church Renewal directed by a weird homophobe, Howard F. Ahmanson Jr, and funded by right-wing “charitable foundations”.

For decades these groups have donated billions of dollars to what the US National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy calls “an extraordinary effort to reshape politics and public policy priorities at the national, state and local level”. Part of their agenda is the smashing up of progressive Christianity.

Ever since King Henry VIII established the church as a fig leaf, covering the English aristocracy’s theft of church property during its primitive accumulation of capital, Anglicanism has been the ideological voice of the English ruling class. Gathering every 10 years at the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Communion has evolved painfully through post-WWII decolonization and the cultural and political changes arising from the 1960s onwards.

“The tone of these conferences was gently reformist”, the British Catholic newspaper The Tablet reported on July 12. “In 1958 artificial contraception was agreed to be permissible and racism was denounced; in 1968 the ordination of women was gently mooted.”

When some women were ordained, the 1978 Lambert conference decided that each Anglican province could decide the matter for itself. The same conference also recognized the “need for deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality”, which was reiterated by the 1988 conference.

Quietly, Anglican homophobes began preparing their counter-attack and in 1998 they struck. Lambeth again voted to “listen” to homosexuals but added that homosexual practice was “incompatible with Scripture”.

In 1999 the Canadian New Westminster diocese started developing public rites for same-sex blessings and in June 2004 the Canadian Synod affirmed the “integrity and sanctity of adult same-sex relationships”.

But while the Canadians were moving progressively, in Australia the Sydney Anglicans, led by Jensen, started their split and wreck campaign within Australian Anglicanism over the ordination of women.

US-backed counterrevolution

The US component of the front is led by the IRD, which was established in 1981 to campaign in support of then-US President Ronald Reagan’s murderous contra war in Central America. The IRD ran a well-funded media blitz denouncing liberation theologists, who were part of the anti-imperialist struggle.

The IRD’s method was illustrated by a campaign it mounted after Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega praised health and literacy work conducted by the Nicaraguan Council of Protestant Churches. The IRD dishonestly described the development workers as Sandinistas — Nicaragua’s revolutionaries — and the fascistic Contras took care of the rest.

After helping to drown Central America in blood, the IRD turned to internal church affairs with its Reforming America’s Churches Project. The IRD invited donors to help in “restructuring” churches to which those donors might not belong.

The IRD coordinates a network of conservative US factions, the Association for Church Renewal, which interferes in many different denominations. The members, organized into “renewal” groups, polemicise against progressive church tendencies, target individuals and take over churches. Where they fail they try to split churches off, taking as many assets as possible.

One of the major bankrollers is Ahmanson, heir to a banking fortune. He funded the 1994 Republican takeover of the California Assembly, opposed gay marriage and affirmative action in California, and is behind the Discovery Institute, the basis for the anti-evolution “intelligent design” movement.

In a 1985 interview with the Orange County Register Ahmanson proclaimed his goal “is the total integration of biblical law into our lives”.

On July 2, ABC Radio National’s Religion Report interviewed Canon Jim Naughton of the Washington DC Episcopalian Diocese, who has researched Ahmanson’s views. Naughton said that Ahmanson’s “softening” of his views on homosexuality meant he no longer thinks it is “necessary to stone homosexuals but that if you came upon a society that was living by the laws of ancient Israel, where they did stone homosexuals, you couldn’t say that that was necessarily immoral”.

Serving the West

Naughton noted that prominent African GAFCON spokespeople Archbishops Akinola of Nigeria and Orombi of Uganda have serious theological differences with other churches in the communion. “But the fact is that much of the money comes from the West, the statements are written almost exclusively in the West or by Westerners”, he said.

“What just happened in Jerusalem [at the GAFCON gathering] is that bishops from some of the poorest countries on the planet got together for a meeting to make a great contribution to the church and what emerged was a document that did nothing to improve the life of the average African, but did much to advance the interests of wealthy Americans, Australians, and people in the United Kingdom.”

Naughton was dismissive of statements such as Jensen’s that GAFCON is giving voice to the “global South”. He said the IRD “was basically founded to attempt to denigrate and undermine the liberation theologians of Central America, which is one of the things that makes the claim now that these folks speak on behalf of the global South, so outrageous.”

From: Comment & Analysis, Green Left Weekly issue #760 30 July

[A longer version of this article is available at]

Submitted by:

--The Rev. Dr. Tim Vivian, Interim Vicar Grace Episcopal Church, Bakersfield

Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies California State University Bakersfield