By Mark Michael
The primates of three of Africa’s largest Anglican churches, who claim to represent nearly half of the Anglican Communion’s global membership, issued an open letter May 6 explaining that their decision not to participate in the March Primates’ Meeting or the July Lambeth Conference is rooted in the unwillingness of the Communion’s leaders to take decisive action to affirm traditional teaching about human sexuality.
The Most Rev. Henry Ndukuba, primate of the Church of Nigeria; the Most Rev. Laurent Mbanda, primate of the Church of Rwanda; and the Most Rev. Stephen Kaziimba, primate of the Church of Uganda also criticized the proposed agenda for this summer’s Lambeth Conference, claiming that it focuses on “peripheral matters about the environment and difficulties experienced by disadvantaged communities” while “evad[ing] the crucial issue of human sexuality.”
The communique issued by the Primates’ Meeting specifically mentioned the three primates, whose provinces have not participated in the Canterbury-based Instruments of Communion since 2008: “We continue to lament the absence from our meetings of three primates who choose to stay away. Our reflections, deliberations and fellowship are diminished by their absence.”
At the meeting’s press conference, Canadian primate Linda Nicholls encouraged the three primates to attend the Lambeth Conference, while Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said of them, in answer to a reporter’s question, “They don’t want to be in the room with those who have changed their teaching on marriage and the nature of human identity.”
The three primates’ letter referenced the events of 2008, which included the first major boycott of Anglican Communion gatherings and the issuing of The Jerusalem Declaration by the then-nascent GAFCON Movement. The Nigerian, Rwandan, and Ugandan churches have come to treat the movement as a traditionalist alternative to the Anglican Communion’s unifying structures (a view not shared by all who participate in GAFCON).
“The grounds upon which faithful GAFCON Provinces boycotted the 2008 Lambeth are still valid,” the primates said, “as nothing has really changed about the issues in contention, which broke the fabric of the Communion in the first instance. Rather, things are getting worse as the culprits are becoming more daring and persistent in their errors and rebellion.”
The presenting issue in the Anglican Communion’s “crisis of unity, faith, and ethics” has been homosexuality, but this, they say, is rooted in a deeper issue of “Biblical revisionism, arising from the adoption of secular culture within the Church.”
“The Anglican Church in the West,” they allege, “is in rebellion; having rejected fundamental beliefs in the authority of the Holy Bible, sound Biblical ethics, uniqueness, and Lordship of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. This is a form of apostasy, which Jesus Christ warned against in Matthew 16:11.
“It is becoming more apparent that Canterbury, which ought to moderate, mitigate, and ensure resolution of the crisis, is becoming too tolerant and complicit in the arrogance and errors of the revisionist Anglican Churches in the West,” they added. “For faithful Anglicans, Anglicanism is a way of life of total commitment to Biblical Truth that has no room for any revisionist agenda.”
The three primates note that the wide-ranging communique issued by the March Primates’ Meeting does not mention human sexuality, and further allege that “the conclusions reached by the Primates suggest that the subject of human sexuality is not on the agenda at the next Lambeth Conference, as if the problems generated by the admission of homosexuality as a normal way of life as opposed to Resolution 1.10 of the Lambeth Conference of 1998 could be swept under the carpet.”
At the Primates’ Meeting press conference, Archbishop Justin Welby did say, “It is certainly one of the agreed aims of the primates – I think, by everyone – that we do not have the whole Lambeth Conference spent talking about issues of human sexuality, but we look at those things that are destroying tens and hundreds of millions of human lives, and will do even more around the world.”
But there has been no indication from Lambeth Conference organizers that differences over human sexuality will be excluded from the agenda or that the bishops would not be asked to engage with Lambeth Resolution 1.10, as they did at the last Lambeth Conference in 2008 (while not taking a vote).
The primates’ claim that their three provinces “represent about 30 million of the estimated 70 million Anglicans worldwide” is also contested. The World Christian Database last estimated (in 2015) that the Anglican Communion had a combined membership of 90,771,000. The Rev. Dr. David Goodhew, a longtime Covenant contributor who has written many columns on membership statistics, said the database “is widely regarded as the best quality data on world Christianity.”
While the Anglican churches in Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda have grown rapidly in recent decades, some demographers seriously question the accuracy of their membership statistics. In a 2020 peer-reviewed article in The Journal of Anglican Studies, Andrew McKinnon, a sociologist at the University of Aberdeen, asserted that “the evidence from representative surveys finds that the claims often made of the Church of Nigeria consisting of ‘over 18 million’ exceedingly unlikely; the best statistical estimate is that under 8 million Nigerians identify as Anglican.”
Comparisons between large church memberships are notoriously unreliable, because of self-reporting and varying definitions of “membership,” among other reasons. Perhaps the best-known and most accessible database of Anglican Communion membership is on Wikipedia. The list there relies on a variety of sources, and echoes the contested 18 million figure for Nigeria. According to the data collected there, the Anglican churches in Nigeria and Uganda (reported as 8 million) are the second and third largest provinces in the Communion, behind the Church of England (26 million, also a contested number). The Church of Rwanda is much smaller, at a reported 1 million, ranking 13th among the 41 autonomous provinces.