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Anglican Communion Growth

02.28.2023 06:13 PM By Adventure

Looking at the Changes in Light of Missions

The Anglican Communion is a family of provincial Churches, where each province is located in one or more countries.  The family is facing growing pains.  It is messy, even ugly.  The press will likely tell you that it is all about sex, or perhaps, a theology of marriage.  That is only a symptom of the real issues of the family.  The bigger issue might surprise you because it is a healthy and good thing.  Namely, the real is one caused by the success of global, cross-cultural missions!

 The Anglican Church had one Province for most of 1800 years until new provinces were formed in the new United States, India, Australia, and New Zealand.  Today, the Communion comprises at least 42 Provincial Churches worldwide.  The largest by way of active or attending membership is the Church of Nigeria with more than 18,000,000 people.  By way of comparison, the Episcopal Church in the United States has less than 1,600,000, and the Anglican Church of North America has 125,000.  The Episcopal Church has been shrinking while the Church in Nigeria has been growing rapidly - like many of the Provinces in the Global South.  That growth of the newer Provinces paired with the decline of the older Provinces is at the heart of the dysfunction in the Anglican Family.  

The senior most leaders, called Primates, of each province are commonly called Archbishops and Presiding Bishops.  When the 42 Primates gather, it has been tradition that the Archbishop of Canterbury was "the first among equals".  The Primates and their Provinces are in principle to have a place at the family table with full standing.  The reality does not match the principle.  The Archbishop of Nigeria with 18 million worshippers is invited to sit at the same table as equals with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church with 1.6 million worshippers.  Sadly, the primates of the growing newer provinces are treated differently than the primates of the older provinces.

This is a missiological dilemma.  We say that we want the new Churches to stand tall, but then we treat them as less mature, less knowledgeable, or even less spiritual.  The Archbishop of Canterbury has recently proposed stepping aside as the First Among Equals.  This is potentially an exciting development, wherein there is a possibility that fundamental change will come to the Family Table.  This is an opportunity for the old Provinces to step back and allow the newer Provinces to step up as full members of the family.  

The dynamic is similar when a parish church begins to invite people into the life of the parish, perhaps young people, or people who have recently moved into the neighborhood.  The parish is excited to see the numbers go up on Sunday (or Saturday or whatever day, ministry takes place).  But when it comes time to hire new staff, call a new rector, add a new service, or build a new building, the excitement turns inward into conflict.  The changes themselves are really not the problem - adapting to the growth is the challenge and the opportunity.

Since missions created the growth, there are only two ways to resolve the conflict:  retreat from missions and growth, or press into missions with renewed vision of God at work in the world.  (The third option of neither retreating from nor embracing missions, is a recipe for sustained conflict.)  Missions keeps the Church on its toes, or should I say, on its knees.  Missions and the challenges of growth invite deeper faith and bolder love.  Missions reminds us that God chose to send is Son, Jesus Christ, to earth because God loves all peoples, nations, tribes and tongues, around the globe.  Missions therefore frames the challenges of growth in the context of faith and hope.  

Even today, one third of the world is outside the reach of the Anglican Communion.  We can retreat from missions and ignore 2 billion people - or we can engage the whole world with the love, hope, and joy of Jesus Christ.  We can stay stuck in our on-going squabbles (as important as they maybe), - or we can choose to make grace, the extravagant generosity of God, the defining nature of the Church.