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Lambeth 2020 and the Growth of Asian Anglicanism

The second in a series of articles exploring different parts of the Anglican Communion. The first discussed growth and decline in African Anglican churches

By David Goodhew

The 20th century is widely seen as the American century, but it is sometimes suggested that the 21st century will come to be seen as the Asian century. That assertion has some basis in superpower politics, but what about in faith?

Anglican churches, taken individually or together, are generally much smaller in Asia than in Africa, England, or North America, and the Asian Anglican provinces are not as well known in the wider Communion. But, in places, they have grown quickly, had deep influence in highly strategic parts of the world, and may well expand significantly in the future. So, in this series of regional studies looking towards Lambeth 2020, Asian Anglicanism deserves serious consideration — although the constraints of space mean I will have to omit much that is important. And it is necessary to assess Asian Anglicanism carefully, not least because old preconceptions are disproved by what is happening on the ground.

The Overall Picture

Asian Anglicanism remains small in the context of the Communion overall, but figures from religious demographers Todd Johnson and Gina Zurlo show it has grown rapidly.[1] Note that the figures here do not include data on the churches of the Indian subcontinent, which are ecumenical federations, of which Anglicans take part with a range of other Christian denominations.

Table 1: Numbers of those affliliated with the churches of the Anglican Communion, 1970-2010[2]

1970 2010
Africa 7,728,000 50,398,000
Asia 361,000 855,000
Europe 29,367,000 26,436,000
Latin America 775,000 915,000
Northern America 4,395,000 2,527,000
Oceania 4,781,000 4,843,000
TOTAL 47,408,000 85,973,000

As Table 2 shows, Asian growth is happening primarily in one region, Southeast Asia, where the number of Anglicans jumped from 179,000 in 1970 to 539,000 in 2010. This means that about two-thirds of Asian Anglicans are now from that region — a marked increase compared to earlier years.

Table 2: Asian Anglicanism by region, 1970-2010[3]

1970 2010
Eastern Asia 107,000 164,000
South Asia 48,900 55,300
Southeastern Asia 179,000 539,000
Western Asia 25,800 97,000
TOTAL 361,000 855,000


A Tale of Two Asian Cities: Hong Kong and Singapore

Hong Kong and Singapore are key global economic centres with strong similarities, and both act as centres of Asian Anglicanism. But their trajectories in recent decades are very different and therefore allow us to make some useful generalizations about the whole trajectory of Anglicanism in Asia.

In 1970 the number of Anglicans in Hong Kong was more than twice the number of Anglicans in Singapore. Yet by 2010 the situation was reversed.[4] The change is entirely due to growth in Singapore; the number of Anglicans there has risen by 500 percent between 1970 and 2010. In the same period, Hong Kong’s Anglican population remained stable.

Such growth has had a much wider effect, since the Diocese of Singapore has for several decades energetically planted churches across Southeast Asia and beyond. In the last 30 years it helped start about 100 new congregations in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Nepal. And, through Trinity College, Singapore has functioned as a centre of theological education for the wider region, helping to further such expansion.

Anglicanism in Hong Kong remains solid and has some thriving congregations, but it has been markedly less dynamic. And since the Hong Kong population has dramatically risen in recent decades, its share of the population has shrunk significantly.

A difficult and delicate question for Anglicanism in both city-states is how they relate to the state. Hong Kong Anglicans have had to relate to the Chinese state after the territory reverted to Chinese rule in 1997. Archbishop Paul Kwong of Hong Kong has forged a close relationship with the Chinese state as a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee. Alongside this, the archbishop has attacked pro-democracy protests, using the disturbing argument that since Jesus was silent on the cross, protesters should do likewise.[5] This is in marked contrast to Hong Kongs’s Roman Catholic, Methodist, and Lutheran churches, which have backed the pro-democracy movement and sought to protect activists from state reprisals.[6]

Archbishop Kwong has felt able to question the Chinese state to a limited degree by resisting attempts to remove crosses from the outside of church buildings. His position could be seen as analogous to the historic tension expressed in the differences between churches under Chinese Communism: between churches that have official approval (meaning a measure of freedom, alongside much compromise with the state) and churches that have operated unofficially (meaning less compromise, but much restriction and persecution). As the Chinese state appears to grow more repressive under President Xi, that tension looks set to grow.

By contrast, Christianity in Singapore deals with a right-wing state, in which it is a minority faith. Singaporean Anglicans have engaged in much educational and medical work, both for its own sake and to earn the right to speak of the Christian faith. They enter warily into wider public discourse.

Beyond this is the question of theology. Singaporean Anglicanism is conservative evangelical in theology and charismatic in spirituality. Hong Kong is more mixed theologically, but its leadership has tended to align with the more liberal wings of Anglicanism. Hong Kong pioneered women’s ordination; Singapore has a conservative stance on the issue.

Asian Tigers

More broadly, there is significant Anglican vitality across Southeast Asia, most notably in Malaysia, evidenced by the new St. Paul’s College in Kuala Lumpur, which is affiliated with St. Mellitus College, London. The rapid growth of Anglicanism in Indonesia and Nepal from almost nothing is a sign of how Anglicanism in Asia now is significantly different from the Asian Anglicanism of 50 years ago — and a sign of how it may change further in the future.

Political and cultural theorists have argued for the existence of an “anglosphere,” meaning the informal connectivity of areas that use the English language and are influenced by English-speaking culture, even if they have had little or no experience of British colonialism. The spread of Anglicanism in parts of Asia — such as the Southeast — suggests that a religious “anglosphere” exists as well, within which Anglican expressions of faith have significant potential to minister.

Neither Up nor Down

Japan and South Korea are significant centres of Asian Anglicanism, but they have been stable rather than growing in recent decades. In the case of South Korea, this is in marked contrast to the wider context. South Korea’s population has mushroomed, as have many of its churches. South Korean Anglicanism has focussed on social action, making little attempt to start new churches.[7] In the case of Japan, Anglicanism is very much a minority, neither growing nor declining, in a static population that is markedly aging.

Anglicanism on the Subcontinent

Anglicanism on the Indian subcontinent has a unique history. In response to the upheavals of decolonisation, it is part of ecumenical denominations: the Churches of North and South India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. These include Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, and Congregationalist as well as Anglican elements. While these churches have seen significant growth, they also face major challenges. In the Church of South India, continuing struggles to root out corruption have significantly affected the church. All these churches wrestle with a civil climate that is often hostile to Christianity. In Pakistan, the church has faced severe persecution from non-state and sometimes state actors.

China and Asian Anglicanism

China is the most powerful nation in Asia and looks set to grow in power. Despite much repression, its churches have dramatically grown since the 1949 revolution. How this plays out in the global Christian community is unclear. Whether Anglicanism can expand among burgeoning Chinese churches and how the Chinese state could shape Anglicanism are similarly open questions.


Parts of Asian Anglicanism have changed dramatically in recent decades. Vibrant new centres of Anglicanism are arising in strategic centres, notably across Southeast Asia. Alongside such shifts, a significant element of Asian Anglicanism is standing still, even as the surrounding societies change fast. In the case of Hong Kong, whilst it is home to robust church life, its leadership’s closeness to the Chinese state raises concern that it is in danger of co-option. In the wider Communion, it is striking that, while the most dynamic Asian Anglican churches have tended to be on the conservative theological wing, they have preferred to operate through the “Global South” grouping rather than GAFCON. They seem to prefer a quieter mode of engagement, although their theological stance is broadly similar.


[1] T. Johnson and G. Zurlo, “The Changing Demographics of Global Anglicanism, 1970-2010,” in David Goodhew (ed.), Growth and Decline in the Anglican Communion, 1980 to the Present(Routledge, 2017), p. 50.

[2] This data comes from Johnson and Zurlo, “Changing Demographics,” p. 50. Affiliated Anglicans is a broad-brush term and therefore a broad-brush measure. Within England, for example, it includes all who were baptised as Anglicans, even though the vast majority do not regularly attend worship. The Anglican Communion figures include churches in communion with Canterbury as of 2010, with the exception of churches such as those of South and North India which are in communion with a range of denominations. For more discussion of data issues, see: D. Goodhew, “Growth and Decline in the Anglican Communion,” in idem, Growth and Decline, pp. 5-9.

[3] The subdivisions of Asia are aids to analysis used by some geographers. “Western Asia” covers Turkey to Iran; “South Asia” is equivalent to what is also referred to as “the Indian subcontinent”; “Southeast Asia” covers countries east of India, south of China and north of Australia; “East Asia” consists of China, Japan, Korea, and surrounding states.

[4] Johnson and Zurlo, “Changing Demographics,” pp.49-51.

[5] South China Morning Post, 8 July 2014.

[6] I am indebted to Calida Chu, a doctoral student at Edinburgh University researching public theology in contemporary Hong Kong, for advice on Hong Kong, although I stress that the opinions expressed here are my sole responsibility.

[7] See: A. Kim, “South Korea,” in Goodhew (ed.), Growth and Decline.


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