In a probably fatal blow to worldwide Anglican unity, the leaders of half the world’s church members have confirmed they will not attend the Lambeth Conference in July.

The conference, which is only held every ten years, will now be significantly diminished in influence and standing. But the wider implication is clear – in four of the largest Anglican communities in the world, the Anglican Church is effectively setting itself up as an alternate to the rest of church, nominally led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Australia’s largest diocese – Sydney – won’t be at Lambeth, nor will Nigeria, easily the largest and fastest growing Anglican church in the world. Together with Uganda, which won’t be there either, Nigeria makes up half the total Anglican communion. Rwanda, which has a significant Anglican presence, won’t be attending either.

Now that half the church is boycotting Lambeth, the door is wide open for conservative church dioceses in other countries to boycott it as well. And a couple of other Australian dioceses may be among them. Sydney’s Archbishop Peter Jensen now effectively find himself the “co-leader” of half the world’s Anglicans, along with the Archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola.

Provided they don’t formally split, there is nothing the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the increasingly irrelevant Australian Primate, Phillip Aspinall, can do about it. He has no authority over Jensen or the Sydney Diocese, and his influence over the rest of the church in Australia will be even further diminished by the latest developments.

A formal split would invite what is already happening in parts of the United States – a costly, messy legal battle over assets. The asset-rich Sydney Diocese is not going to formally break away – and its control of its billion dollar assets cannot be challenged while it remains even nominally within the Anglican communion.

But Jensen’s comments at the weekend about being “completely committed to the Anglican communion” is church double speak. He might be “committed to the Anglican communion” but is distancing his diocese as far as possible from its established leadership and authority. And as each year goes by, the Sydney influence grows. On Saturday, Jensen ordained 48 deacons for his diocese – on the same day Aspinall ordained just 9 for the Brisbane Diocese.

Jensen has no pressing need at all to break away formally form the Anglican Church in Australia. His media profile is significantly higher than Aspinall’s within Australia – and it is about to grow worldwide as well. His diocese, like its Sydney Catholic counterpart, is recruiting more new clergy than just about the rest of the church combined, attendances are actually growing, and the diocese has a massive, diverse investment and asset portfolio.

Jensen will claim the decision to boycott Lambeth is related to what he sees as a permissive approach to same-s-x marriages and gay clergy. That is only part of the story, but the part Jensen wants highlighted. The divide is also about issues like appointing women bishops – which Jensen won’t countenance under any circumstances, nor will the growing church in Africa.

This is a divide that won’t be healed because neither Archbishop Jensen nor Archbishop Akinola, have any enduring interest in a healing process.

Peter Fray

Save 50% on a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

The US election is in a little over a month. It seems that there’s a ridiculous twist in the story, almost every day.

Luckily for new Crikey subscribers, we’ve teamed up with one of America’s best publications, The Atlantic for the election race. Subscribe now to make sense of it all, and you’ll get a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year’s digital subscription to The Atlantic (usually $70AUD), BOTH for just $129.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW