2021 in Review: Anglican Communion

Archbishop of Alexandria Sami Fawzi, left, and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby | Photo: Diocese of Egypt

By Mark Michael

Across the Anglican Communion, 2021 was marked by a series of adjustments to a global pandemic that has proved to be more long-lasting and destructive than many had anticipated. Some of the year’s most inspiring news focused on new provinces in Africa, and powerful witness by Anglicans in response to political upheaval and environmental disasters. Other headline-grabbers spotlighted churches that were forced to reckon with sexual abuse and concerns about financial sustainability.

The brightest days of the year for the Anglican Communion probably came in September and October, with the launching of two new African provinces — the Igreja Anglicana de Mocambique e Angola (Anglican Church of Mozambique and Angola), the Communion’s second Portuguese-speaking province; and the Anglican Province of Alexandria, which united dioceses in North Africa and the Horn of Africa.

A temporary lull in COVID-19 infections made it possible for Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to travel abroad for festive services to mark the occasions. Anglican churches in both regions have grown significantly in recent years, partly through the emigration of Anglican refugees from regional conflict.

The pandemic was a central topic when the Anglican primates gathered for a virtual meeting in November. It has “exposed and deepened fault lines between rich and poor in our world,” they said, and called for global action to ensure greater equity in vaccine distribution. They celebrated Anglican participation in the COP-26 climate summit in Glasgow (the first time an official delegation has been sent to such a gathering), while urging governments to “redouble efforts to reduce global temperature rises and to provide a just finance package to enable and accelerate the transition to a lower carbon world.”

The pandemic and climate change will also be key themes for next summer’s Lambeth Conference, organizers revealed in June, part of its focus on being “God’s Church for God’s World.” The Anglican Communion Science Commission, a group of scientists, public health officials, and theologians from around the world, will equip Anglicans with resources to confront these and similar challenges, which lie at the intersection of faith, human suffering, and geopolitics. Bishops from across the Communion also began gathering for small-group digital conversations in September, part of a “Journey to Lambeth” that is intended to deepen fellowship and help bishops make more productive use of the more focused time they will share together in July and August of 2022.

Pandemic-related social crisis also caused political upheaval in several parts of the world, presenting opportunities for church leaders to challenge corruption and provide relief to those most impacted by social upheaval.

In Uganda, bishops criticized President Yoweri Museveni’s attempts to suppress the opposition during last January’s election, claiming that he was showing “Amin tendencies,” following the brutal lead of his one-time rival. The Archbishop of Canterbury joined in more recent criticisms of Israel’s government for failing to protect its Christian minority from extremist attacks, using rhetoric that garnered criticism from Jewish officials. Pakistan’s primate has pressured his country’s government to crack down on forced conversions to Islam and childhood marriage, which are both on the rise.

The Archbishop of Jerusalem called for a ceasefire during a May outbreak of violence between Israel and Palestinian militants based in the Gaza Strip, appealing for donations for Gaza City’s Al Ahli Hospital, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, which opened a new surgical ward to care for those wounded and maimed in rocket attacks. Myanmar’s Anglicans led ecumenical efforts to prop up inadequacies in their nation’s health care system, which faced spiking COVID rates in the midst of social upheaval caused by a summertime military coup.

Church and political leaders from across Africa gathered in Nairobi in June for a conference that aimed to foster Christian witness in political life, challenging believers to rise above temptations to corruption and ethnic tensions. Some Australian church leaders publicly backed a recent “religious freedom” initiative which would secure greater protections for religious groups that oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, while others are far more cautious about the measure.

In October Ghana’s bishops lent their support to a controversial bill that assigns prison sentences for those who identify as LGBT and advocate for gay rights, subjecting themselves to harsh criticism by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council, and other Anglican leaders. Meanwhile, progressive Welsh bishop Joanna Penberthy took a leave of absence in June after her Tweet “never trust a Tory” led to a firestorm of criticism.

Less controversially, Anglicans were on the front lines of providing care for those impacted by volcano eruptions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and drought-induced famine in Madagascar. They planted gardens to alleviate food shortages in Fiji and created a transportation system in the Philippines to put jitney drivers to work transporting produce to stock bare shelves in urban markets. Despite the challenges of these times, new churches were opened in Bangladesh, a seminary was launched in Newfoundland, and a Polynesian religious order welcomed its first novice in many years.

Tensions within Anglicanism’s mother province, the Church of England, focused this year on the sustainability of the historic parish system, which depends heavily on full-time stipendiary clerics, given massive cash shortfalls caused by pandemic gathering restrictions. The announcement of Myriad, an initiative that aims to plant 10,000 predominantly lay-led churches by 2030, led to a backlash in the form of a “Save the Parish” movement, and attempts by senior church leaders to reassure clergy at this summer’s General Synod, which received mixed reviews.

The summer synod meeting also considered proposals for revising the church’s Clergy Discipline Measure, which is widely criticized for its cost and inefficiency, as well as its tendency to silence the survivors of abuse and victims of bullying. Debates about the measure unfolded as allegations of sexual abuse by prominent English conservative evangelical leader Jonathan Fletcher surfaced in the investigations of a safeguarding charity, which raised wider concerns about an “unhealthy culture” of secrecy around abuse within Anglican evangelical institutions.

In November, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby publicly apologized for his earlier refusal to exonerate Bishop George Bell, an influential mid-20th century ecumenist and ethicist, confirming that the Church of England had mishandled claims of sexual abuse made against Bell in 2013. The Anglican Church of Australia dealt with some of its former failings a few weeks later by deposing a retired archbishop, Roger Herft, from ordained ministry for refusing to prosecute known offenders during his earlier ministry as Bishop of Newcastle. African churches are also beginning to face their own, often unacknowledged, problems with sexual abuse and gender-based violence, with church leaders in Ghana taking swift action in the summer against a so-called “holy kiss priest.”

A new Church of England General Synod gathered in November, following the “most fiercely contested elections” in the body’s 50-year history. A churchwide campaign succeeded in securing a younger and more diverse body of delegates, who will serve five-year terms, but grassroots organizing, around saving the parish system and advocacy for and against potential changes in the church’s practice of same-sex blessing, probably played a larger role in generating interest and candidates. The church will likely take up any proposals for change in its practice of marriage, which must be approved by a two-thirds majority, in February 2023.

One Anglican province, the tiny Church in Wales, did opt to allow the blessing of same-sex civil unions in 2021, voting for the measure by wide margins at the September meeting of its Governing Body.

Earlier in the year, Canadian conservatives also mounted a challenge to “the chancellor’s memo,” a judgment by the Anglican Church of Canada’s chief lawyer, which has been used by progressive bishops to permit same-sex marriages in their dioceses, after 2019 attempt to change the church’s canons failed. In Australia, which has a similar “mixed practice” since a church court upheld a local diocesan rite for same-sex blessings in 2020, GAFCON announced plans to create a non-geographic diocese for conservative congregations that may leave, leading to forceful criticisms from the church’s moderate primate, Archbishop Geoffrey Smith.

In January, the Anglican Communion Office, which has faced financial challenges in recent years, announced plans to shrink its staff and shift away from centralized programming. More recently, the Anglican Communion’s Secretary General, Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon, said that he plans to retire in August 2022, returning to his native Nigeria to take up interfaith work he began before stepping into the Communion-wide role.

The year 2021 also saw the election of new primates in six of the Anglican Communion’s 42 provinces: the Philippines, South America, Pakistan, Burundi, Congo, and Wales. The Anglican Church in Kenya elected its first female bishop, Emily Onyango, in March, and, five months later, its first female diocesan, Rose Okeno, defying a 2018 moratorium on women bishops within the GAFCON Movement. The influential GAFCON-affiliated Diocese of Sydney also elected a new archbishop, Kanishka Raffel, a prominent conservative evangelical of Sri Lankan ancestry.

Prominent Anglican leaders who died in 2021 included environmental activist Eliana Wamukoya, the first African female bishop; Feremi Cama, one of the three serving primates of the Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia; and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, champion of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle.

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