Anglican Communion: Anxious Times
What are we learning about the Anglican Communion under the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic? This crisis has highlighted many unknowns, but some things do become clearer. Reactions to the unexpected are revealing.
Africa is likely to be the region that ends up suffering most. Although the death toll, at the time of writing, is much lower than that in the West, the impact on the region’s economy and food security will put growing millions at risk even if the disease itself is contained, and in East Africa the problem is being compounded by devastating and recurrent locust plagues.
In such circumstances it would be understandable if African Anglican leaders were majoring on the need for emergency aid and debt relief. While both are undeniably important, calling people back to a God-centred hope in the gospel has been of first importance. This is the context of all the subsequent advice being given on preventing contagion.
So, for example, Archbishop Ole Sapit of Kenya has said:
‘This Covid-19 pandemic has tested our faith uniquely. The world is in a major crisis never witnessed before. This pandemic reminds us that ultimately the world is not our home. Ultimately, we are not in charge, but we can boldly and gladly say that God is.’
And Archbishop Henry Ndukuba has encouraged Nigerians, saying:
‘Let Nigerians and Christians not be afraid; but rather let us turn to God in repentance and ask Him for mercy and His help, so that it can be well with us. Let us seek the Lord with all our heart, at such a time as this; because this is the time to seek Him, for it is written in His word that we should seek the Lord when He can be found, and this is the time that we can find God.’
In contrast, the response from the mother Church of the Communion seems decidedly thin. While the crisis has called forth bold and biblical responses in Africa, here that same anxious cultural accommodation we have seen over sexuality and gender issues has taken a new twist.
The predominant message has been the need for social distancing laced with resurrection-as-metaphor, which tends to be heard as little different from a gardener finding comfort in Spring flowers without the call to personal repentance and faith. In fact, the haste with which parish churches were literally locked down, even for their clergy, and the directive to clergy by the Archbishop-elect of York, Bishop Stephen Cottrell, that they should not even be at the bedside of the dying, are symptomatic of a Church which is increasingly disconnected from the biblical gospel and church history.
This cultural anxiety means that the Church also tends to have the same blind spots as wider society. With the BBC’s news coverage suffering an abrupt contraction of horizon, being almost totally consumed by the domestic challenges of the pandemic, there is a pressing need to recognise and respond to the plight of millions in the wider Communion whose governments are far less equipped than ours to protect and care for their citizens. I doubt that African Anglicans are much impressed by the ringing of Canterbury Cathedral’s bell ‘Harry’ every evening for Covid-19 victims and frontline workers around the globe.
In a revealing final sentence, the press release about this ‘for the first in history’ initiative concludes with the reassurance: ‘The Cathedral’s bell “Harry” will be tolled remotely via a timer, so no staff will be present within the building.’ But we may wonder if the anxiety being dealt with here is more on the part of the writers rather than the readers.
Originally published in Evangelicals Now newspaper