How to mount a successful coup in Anglicanism

Frances and John Colenso, from an earlier conflict
This is drawn from some work I've done looking at doctrinal conflict in the nineteenth century. It may be a basic primer on how to mount a reformation in the church:

Theological disputes periodically rack the Anglican Church. They have focused, for example, on the meaning of baptism, critical approaches to scripture, the significance of vestments, the limits of intercommunion, the ordination of women. 

Each conflict has been historically distinctive however they shared certain common characteristics.

First, conflict is normal
Conflict is normal in every church.  Differences between faithful christians have deep historic roots and are reflected in almost every aspect of the expression and embodiment of faith. Underlying differences are complex, extensive, often buried in people's everyday attitudes and may reflect incommensurable differences at the level of basic spiritual or philosophical presuppositions. 

The present conflict is about large things. It is about the post-modern church, simultaneously dividing into smaller units and drawing together in globalised world.  It is about the legacy of calvinist, anglo-catholic and latitutdinarian conflict recast in contemporary terms. It is the exporting of the US Episcopal Church's divided and unhappy history across the globe, and about where the centre of the Anglican world really lies and should lie.  It is about the nature of a global Communion in a post-colonial world.

But all of this would remain confined to long books and academic conferences. Therefore,

Second, select your focal point
Because of this complexity, the occasion of conflict is often a relatively small matter, perhaps the actions or teaching of a particular individual. Conflicts take the form of synecdoche in which small matters encapsulate and represent much greater underlying differences.

Homosexuality is a synecdoche for the big things in conflict.  It was deliberately chosen (at least in the UK) as a battle ground because it united conservatives, and especially evangelical conservatives, who had been deeply divided over the ordination of women.  It is an emblematic issue of the US's culture wars.

Therefore whatever the occasion and focus of the conflict, the underlying issue is always greater. Almost anything can become a focal point of conflict - nothing is minor or adiaphora when the identity of the Church is at stake.

Third, challenge authority
Churches rest on authority: the authorities (scripture, traditions, the formularies, law) are made real by those people who are granted authority to interpret, apply and judge the authorities (clergy, bishops, biblical scholars, theologians, historians, lawyers and also - in their own lives - individual believers) .

All such authority is subject to challenge as normal, it doesn't take a conflict.  Church conflicts are the ordering of underlying conflicts around a focal point in order to mount a systematic challenge to the established authorities.

Therefore: a struggle about a matter of Christian belief or practice quickly becomes a struggle for the soul of the church and, equally quickly, a struggle to gain the right to determine how the church decides. 

Fourth, never ignore inertia.
However, most church members do not engage in conflict. 

Consequently leaders of the contending groups have to work hard to keep their supporters on side and engaged in battle. They do so by increasingly strident rhetoric. They declare the conflict vital to the authenticity of the Church as a whole while denying the possibility of middle ground or conciliation. The focal point of conflict becomes a shibboleth: a test by which to divide friends from enemies amongst people who would otherwise be indistinguishable. 

Underlying tensions embedded in the church are highlighted. Shared discipleship and good working relationships are minimised. Big guns (bishops, experts, court cases) are lined up on both sides.  Disputes quickly become critical conflicts of self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating seriousness. 

On the other hand, those seeking a resolution to conflict have the majority with them although, for the most part, the majority remain silent, dispersed and disengaged.  The longer the conflict goes on the harder it is to keep sufficient numbers fighting.

Fifth, change the structures
Those seeking to resolve the crisis perceive that they cannot find a way forwards by dealing with the occasion of conflict head-on. There are seldom clear-cut resolutions of the focal point of the conflict. Because the issues are too great and inherently intractable those driving the conflict and those seeking a resolution may find common cause in moving sideways and shifting the ground of debate onto organizational change. 

This has the immediate effect of transposing the conflict into new terms, away from its ostensible focus and onto the ultimate goal: the right and power to determine how the church makes decisions. The Covenant says nothing about sexuality.

Organizational change embodies shifts in ecclesial power.

The alternative is schism.  Although the Communion in general and the Church of England in particular likes to think of itself as having a single continuous and unitary history there have in fact been many departures, separations and schisms.  In a schism ecclesial power is placed in a new jurisdiction; if it is large enough it will also trigger a re-evaluation of the allocation of power within the parent body.

In conclusion,
In the end, no group wins an unalloyed victory.  The very process of the conflict changes all sides.

On the other hand the church we have now - in all its aspects - is a result of past conflicts.  Dire predictions seldom come to pass and consequential changes are seldom planned or anticipated.

All church conflicts have been waged in the name of truth, authenticity, righteousness and real people have been really hurt.

And still it's worth standing up for what you believe: this is the way the church lives.


  1. Well done, Paul.

    I find your first and second points, especially, quite enlightening.

    In your first point you say:

    It is the exporting of the US Episcopal Church's divided and unhappy history across the globe, and about where the centre of the Anglican world really lies and should lie.

    Without the export of TEC's "divided and unhappy history", do you believe that the different expressions of the faith within the Church of England would have come into conflict over homosexuality?

  2. That took my breath away.

    Thank you, I needed that,


  3. Grandmère Mimi,

    This is a complicated issue to which the only simple answer I have is: Yes and No.

    If any factor in the way things were was different then different outcomes are conceivable.

    I suggest that conflict is normal and the particular foci of a conflict is, strictly speaking, accidental.

    Certainly the US's influence is very strong (economy, communications, foreign power, too many people convinced they know what's best for others) and TEC shares this in the Anglican sphere.

    But if the US's culture wars had not included sexuality in its battlegrounds I doubt homosexuality would have been the occasion for conflict in the global church.

    The UK (as each distinct body within the Church) has a particular history and is influenced by developments elsewhere. Perhaps homosexuality would still have been a battleground here - but without the US's influence I doubt it would have achieved such traction.

    The central issue in Britain for many of the most conservative was post-modernism. Many liberals did not get this for a decade or more. Homosexuality was a tactical choice for the wider - cultural - battle.

    I date this from the mid-1980s. Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition was published in French in 1979 and English in 1984.

    So: Yes there would probably have been conflict in Anglicanism whatever TEC did and, if TEC was not so divided and unhappy (as I see it from the UK), then NO: the course of events would have been different.

  4. Paul, despite the fact, as it seems to me, that TEC has been careful not to meddle in the affairs of other churches in the Communion, the reality is that our church suffers from guilt by association simply because we are the Anglican face in the US, a country with great influence around the world and a country which is not above throwing its weight around.

    It is interesting to get an honest view of ourselves from an outsider. I believe we do not see our church as quite so unhappy as you. It's business as usual in most parishes, except for the concern over falling membership and attendance.

    A good many of us in TEC see the Church of England sweeping their conflicts under the carpet in the name of civility, whereas we prefer having our conflicts on the table and open for discussion, even contentious discussion.

    We see Rowan as preferring and promoting hypocrisy rather than openness and honesty, which we find quite difficult to understand. And when he attempts to instruct our bishops on how to run a church, we view him as meddlesome.

    I'm sorry if I took the comment thread somewhat off topic.

  5. PS: Thank you for your thoughtful response, Paul.

  6. You can't understand the current conflicts without taking account of the machinations of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, funded by California billionaires, and the C Street crowd of Dominionists funded by people like the Koch brothers. This isn't an interchurch dispute like Calvinists vs Anglocatholics. It's fueled and directed as part of a political agenda. See the work of Jim Naughton done for the Diocese of Washington, and comparable U.S. Methodist analyses. As you say, homosexuality is the presenting issue, one usefully divisive, but the drive is coming from rich people working to either co-opt or neutralize the social influence of the churches. Treating this like a family dispute, or even like an honest difference of beliefs, is to let the powerbrokers continue to operate off the radar.

  7. Grandmère Mimi,

    Perhaps I use 'TEC' imprecisely.

    Unhappiness: Pittsburgh, Forth Worth, court cases over property, the level of vitriol on some of the conservative blogs. Not forgetting Bishop Pike.

    But I accept that this is a view of the US through the headlines (whether of blogland or other media) and that daily reality is much more, well, ordinary.

    And, thank you Murdoch Matthew, there is always the consciousness of American money fuelling disputes in areas (not least central Africa) well outside the ostensible field of conflict.

    But to lump all these together as TEC, explicitly or by implication, is too casual and I apologise.

    On the other hand I entirely accept the charge of hypocrisy when levelled against the CofE. (And in the earlier blogs 'Incompatible with the Covenant' explore why it won't be possible to use the Covenant against the UK on this charge.)

    But I don't think the root is civility. I think (previous post) that self-deception, sometimes knowing self-deception, is built into the fabric of the CofE.

    This does raise the question about the Covenant which Kearon raised in relation to Canada: what is the relationship between the Provincial decision makers and the actions of subordinate bodies? This uncertainty means that Sydney Diocese will not be sanctionable under the Covenant or, conversely, that the mechanisms of the Covenant will reach right down to the actions of a parish.

  8. The point was, the American money is fueling the conflict within the TEC, as well as in mainstream protestantism generally. The people who want to rule, using Fundamentalism as an organizing principle and weapon against the liberals, are out to suppress any hint of the social gospel -- concern for widows, orphans, or neighbors. Their gospel is all about kingdom, power, and glory. They've had an effect in the USA, but have used investments in Africa to really put the pressure on Anglicans, with their international pretensions.

  9. When Hilary Clinton spoke of a vast right-wing conspiracy, she was labeled paranoid, but a good many of the same people and organizations, who tried to bring down Bill Clinton, now fund the breakaways from TEC. It's quite true that their tentacles reach as far as Africa to meddle in Anglican matters over there.

    And the Tea Partiers and their ilk are not grass roots organizations. They're what we call astroturfers, phony grass roots groups, funded by wealthy right-wing individuals and organizations

    Murdoch is right on the money. And we probably both sound paranoid, too. :-)

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