(TLC‘s review of the year for the Episcopal Church will be published tomorrow.)
By Mark Michael
Really, there is only one big global story in 2020, a pandemic that has resulted in millions of deaths, caused deep economic distress, and disrupted regular patterns of gathering and common work in nearly every society around the world.
It has been no different for Anglican churches. In March and April, Anglicans scrambled to adapt to pandemic lockdowns and social distancing regulations. For the first time in centuries, all public worship was banned in England, and the Archbishop of Canterbury memorably celebrated a live streamed Easter Eucharist at his kitchen table.
There were many hopeful and moving responses to the crisis, including global digital gatherings for Anglican Communion Sunday in May and the commissioning of an anthem based on a collect for times of pandemic, premiered in London’s oldest church the last day that choirs could gather to perform.
The Lambeth Conference originally scheduled for July of 2020 was postponed to 2021 in March, and then to 2022 in July, and is now to be preceded by a “digital journey” to help bishops develop relationships and prepare for a shorter time together in England.
Pandemic restrictions have been especially difficult in places like rural Kenya, where the digital infrastructure is sparse and social distancing rules violate deep social habits. In England and Quebec, some Anglican clergy have accused government authorities of overreach and partiality in restricting public worship.
There is a great deal of anxiety about the financial implications of the crisis for churches in the United Kingdom, and cost-saving measures have been planned and implemented, including the furloughing of curates in Liverpool diocese, major church closures on the Isle of Man, and stipendiary clergy reductions in Chelmsford. Westminster Abbey, which relies heavily on entry fees from tourists, described the pandemic as a “shattering blow” to its finances. The pandemic has also complicated the challenges of responding to natural disasters like a cyclone in Vanuatu in April and flooding in Kenya in May, while its distresses compounded the impact of a locust plague across East Africa.
All but three of the Anglican Communion’s primates gathered for a meeting in Jordan in mid-January, making some preliminary plans for the Lambeth Conference that then lay only seven months in the future. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby described the gathering was “the most constructive and creative” of his tenure and said he was grateful that those present weren’t “bringing along some of the baggage of previous meetings.”
Nevertheless, some of the “baggage” associated with unresolved differences in teaching and practice about human sexuality did emerge as a source of conflict in the Anglican Church of Australia. After more than a year of deliberation, the decision of the Diocese of Wangaratta’s synod to authorize a liturgy for blessing same sex civil marriages was ruled as permissible by the church’s highest court in November.
While the case was being considered, differences between the large conservative evangelical Diocese of Sydney and smaller, more liberal dioceses played a major role in the election of the church’s primate. After a deadlocked election forced the church to designate an interim primate, the final decision was for Archbishop Geoffrey Smith, a “big tent” conservative. Australia’s branch of GAFCON, the traditionalist network that has strong ties with the Diocese of Sydney, has threatened to support disaffiliation efforts by local congregations if the church’s 2021 General Synod fails to clearly condemn same-sex marriage.
Living in Love and Faith, a major document about sexuality, marriage, and identity, was released by the Church of England in November after several years of preparation. Parishes across the church will engage with the document over the next year, and it eventually will guide the Church of England’s General Synod in formal discernment about changes to teaching and practice about same sex relationships. The widespread outrage expressed within and beyond the church to a January pastoral statement by the church’s House of Bishops that reiterated traditional doctrine about sex outside of marriage suggests that the way ahead may not be smooth.
The Anglican Communion also welcomed its 41st province in 2020. The Province of Alexandria unites dioceses in Northern Africa and the Horn of Africa that were founded through mission work of the Diocese of Egypt. New primates were also elected this year for the Church of South India, the Church of Ireland, and the Anglican provinces of Hong Kong, Japan, and Korea. New bishops were also chosen in the dioceses of Egypt and Singapore, which have exercised outsize strategic influence across the Communion in recent decades.