Opinion Articles

Sexual Politics in the Evolution of Anglican Governance

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The 2016 Anglican primates meeting has imposed a three-year penalty on The Episcopal Church following the American church’s support of marriage equality. Most commentators on this latest episode in the church’s struggle to respond to the legalization of same-sex marriage have read it as a sign of the imminent collapse or fragmentation of the Anglican Communion. A closer look at church history reveals that such conflicts over sexual politics have actually been central to the evolution of Anglican governance.

Responding to The Episcopal Church’s passage of legislation allowing for the blessing of same-sex marriage in its churches, the primates meeting required:

that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

They also asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a Task Group to work towards the restoration of relationships between the churches of the communion.

As several commentators have noted, Addendum A is most controversial because in making this requirement, the primates meeting appears to have exceeded its powers. The primates meeting is one of the ‘instruments of communion’ that hold the international Anglican Churches together. But it until now it has been a consultative body with no executive power. In 2005, for example, it ‘requested’ that the US and Canadian churches withdraw from participation in international bodies following pro-gay moves in those provinces. By shifting in their 2016 communique from ‘requesting’ to ‘requiring’, the primates appear to have assumed new powers.

The international structures of Anglican unity and governance are relatively young – emerging from the mid-nineteenth century. As Anglican missions around the British empire and beyond became established, the Church of England gradually developed a series of governing structures which attempted to pull together what rapidly became a disparate and complex collection of church bodies.’ .

There are currently four ‘instruments of communion’ which bind Anglican provinces around the world into one Communion. A province’s membership of the Anglican Communion is usually defined by their being in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury (who is the first instrument of communion). Debates about sexual politics were central to the development of the other three instruments of communion.

The second instrument, the Lambeth Conferences first established in 1868 and subsequently held every ten years, were a direct response to the Colenso affair. In 1863, after John Colenso, the first Bishop of Natal, began to promote tolerance of polygamy and other theologically liberal positions, Robert Gray, the first Bishop of Capetown, attempted to depose him. After Colenso’s appeal to the privy council was upheld, Gray appointed a rival bishop for Natal. These alternative Anglican dioceses persisted until after Colenso’s death in 1883. The affair led to the passage of the Colonial Clergy Act, 1874, which granted independence to the new Anglican provinces.

Sexual politics preoccupied the first meetings of the Anglican Consultative Council, the third instrument of communion established in 1971. It’s headline issues were the ordination of women, and differences in policies on the acceptance of remarried divorces and the baptism of people in polygamous marriages. Attitudes to polygamy were not resolved until 1988, when the Lambeth Conference resolved that, while monogamy was the Christian ideal, people in polygamous marriages could be baptized and accepted into the church.

The Anglican primates meeting, the fourth instrument of communion, was established in 1979. Its first meeting  was also dominated by sexual politics, in this case, the inter-provincial recognition of women who had been ordained as priests. It affirmed the autonomy of individual dioceses and provinces to develop and maintain their own policy, while urging continued conversation and consultation around the Communion: a now familiar response.

This survey of sex and the evolution of Anglican governance shows that while the imminent break up of the Anglican Communion over sexual controversy may make good headlines, it is bad history. In fact, the current controversy over marriage equality is typical of Anglican history. Debates over sexual politics have been central to the evolution of Anglican governance: from the Church’s Tudor foundation, precipitated by Henry VIII’s desire for a new wife, to colonial missionaries confused about whether to accept converts in polygamous marriages, to a theologically diverse global Communion struggling to respond to newly legalized marriages between same-sex couples.

The reassertion of episcopal authority at the 2016 primates meeting – ‘requiring’ rather than ‘requesting’ penalties – goes against a 150 year trend towards the democratization of Anglican government. But Anglican government, and relationships between Anglican provinces have never been stable, nor have they been well defined. As then Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan, said at the inauguration of the primates meeting in 1978, “I do not think there is a quick or easy answer to the question `Where is authority to be found?’  Nor do I think it is of the genius of Anglicanism to define too rigidly”.  While episcopal power is the defining feature of Anglican governance, it is also useful to remember that sexual politics have been a driving force in the evolving definition of the structures of the Anglican Communion.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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