Class war and the Anglican schism

By Barry Healy

July 29, 2008 -- Dramatic events within the worldwide Anglican Communion (the international association of national Anglican churches) have revealed a “cold split” with the potential for a complete collapse of the Episcopal formation. Superficially, the debates have centred on the right of women and homosexuals to be priests and bishops, and on gay marriage. However, while theological arguments dating back centuries are being mouthed, behind them are class-war elements of more recent vintage, including some connected with the era of US President Ronald Reagan’s backing of Central American death squads in the 1980s.

African bishops have led the charge against modernity, but they are funded and organised by right-wing US think tanks and the Sydney Anglicans’ arch-reactionary Archbishop Peter Jensen. Another player is the Vatican, which has been reported as throwing its resources behind Anglican Primate Rowen Williams.

Christian soldiers marching to civil war

The Anglicans are approaching a three-way split. Jensen’s fundamentalist grouping established at the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem in late June are effectively at war with the liberal Canadian and US Episcopal Churches. They are working aggressively to “plant” new churches in their territory, while loudly claiming loyalty to the Anglican Communion.

Establishing (``planting’’) churches in other Anglican provinces is regarded as tantamount to open conflict within the Communion. The Sydney Anglicans have been quietly doing it for some time in Australia. In the USA, some parishes have expressed their distaste for liberal ideas by seceding form their dioceses and placing themselves within the care of the conservative Ugandan church!

The Sydney Anglicans have been ransacking the coffers of Anglican social welfare organisations to fund the rapid expansion of their missionary resources. Archbishop Peter Jensen’s proclaimed objective is to get 10% of Sydney residents (400,000 people) into “Bible-believing” churches by 2011.

MooreCollege, the Sydney Anglican’s conservative theological factory, has been tasked with producing 10,000 part-time pastoral workers and 1000 full-timers as the cadre force at a budgeted cost of A$500 million. Anglicare, the church’s welfare arm, is reportedly financially troubled because of it.[1]

Jensen’s holy-war missionaries, trumpeting their view of faith, which consists of mouthing chapter and verse of the Bible, identifying each by number in bingo caller fashion, are fanning out across Australia and South-East Asia. While popping up in dioceses far from Sydney, they are fiercely loyal to their coordinating centre.

Parallel churches

The international face of this reactionary wave, the GAFCON grouping, has set up its own leadership structures, including a primate's council, which is made up entirely of Africans (at this stage), rivalling that centred in England. Mouthing modern anti-Orientalist arguments, Jensen has said that this represents a natural evolution of Anglicanism away from its imperial roots, similar to the development of the British Commonwealth in the post-colonial era.

It looks certain that the United States will have two parallel churches, possibly with two primates. Within Britain, conservative High Church Anglo-Catholics are threatening to move under the Vatican’s umbrella and the vaguely progressive liberals led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, are hoping to cobble together unity by avoiding confrontation.

The London Independent reported on July 16 that the Pope was “trying to bolster the beleaguered Archbishop of Canterbury” because the Vatican fears that Anglicanism “could mutate into hardline Protestantism”. Top Vatican officials were quietly sent to the July 2008 Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Communion’s highest gathering, to provide assistance.

Previously, dissident High Church Anglican priests who seceded to Rome were welcomed, even if they were married. According to The Independent’s Paul Vallely those days are gone.

“A number of the Anglicans who moved to Rome when women were ordained brought with them a rancorous divisive mentality. Which is why those Anglican bishops who recently approached the Vatican to ask if traditionalist C of E parishes could migrate en masse to Rome, under an Anglican liturgical rite, were sent off with a flea in their ear”, Vallely wrote.[2]

Lurking in the background are such organisations as the American Anglican Council, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) and the Association for Church Renewal funded and directed by weird homophobes like Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. and the Bradley, Coors, Olin, Scaife and Smith-Richardson right-wing “charitable foundations”.[3]

For decades these groups have donated billions of dollars to what the US National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) in a 1997 report calls "an extraordinary effort to reshape politics and public policy priorities at the national, state and local level". Part of their agenda is the smashing up of progressive Christianity.

The NCRP says that their money supports “a network of regional and state-based think tanks and advocacy institutions [working] to transform the social views …of the nation's religious and philanthropic leaders”.[4]

Protestant schisms are not historically unusual but internationally organised, politically motivated and externally funded splits are unprecedented.

Anglicanism’s imperial heritage and painful evolution

Ever since King Henry VIII established the church as a fig leaf covering the English aristocracy’s theft of church property during its primitive accumulation of capital, Anglicanism has been the ideological voice of the English (later British) ruling class.

It also uncomfortably stitched together two strands of Protestantism, known as Low Church and HighChurch (or Anglo-Catholic) Anglicanism. The current schism is largely along the High Church/Low Church line.

HighChurch Anglicans essentially see themselves as estranged from the Vatican in a similar manner to that in which Taiwan is estranged from China today – each thinks of itself as the real “nation” but each has evolved its own traits. HighChurch Anglicans maintain much of the ceremonial garb and religious practice as Roman Catholicism.

Low Church adherents grew out of more radical aspects of the protestant reformation, influenced by Europeans like the Swiss theologian Huldrych Zwingli, the Anabaptists and the Mennonites. Their theology reflected a class divide in the development of English capitalism. From within Low Church Anglicanism came the Puritans and other radical sects, which formed the shock troops of Cromwell’s 17th century English capitalist revolution.

Today, Peter Jensen’s Sydney Anglicans self-consciously continue the Low Church tradition, basing themselves on Queen Elizabeth I’s 39 Articles of Religion, not on Cromwell’s revolutionary tradition.

Just as there are Marxist sects that trace their existence from arcane organisational splits at a certain point in history, continually harking back to establish their authority, the Sydney Anglicans look back fondly to 1563. To describe these people as reactionary is an understatement.

Gathering every 10 years at the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Communion has evolved painfully through the periods of post-WWII decolonisation and the cultural and political changes arising from the 1960s onwards. In practice, global Anglicanism remained very largely white-run until recently. Black bishops formed a majority only after 1988.

“The tone of these conferences was gently reformist”, Theo Hobson, writing in the British Catholic newspaper The Tablet, reported on July 12. “In 1958 artificial contraception was agreed to be permissible and racism was denounced; in 1968 the ordination of women was gently mooted.”[5]

When some women were ordained the 1978 Lambeth Conference decided that each Anglican “province” could decide the matter for itself. The same conference also recognised the "need for deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality" and the 1988 conference reiterated it.

Quietly, Anglican homophobes began preparing their counterattack. “Leaders of the conservative wing of the Church have worked since at least the 1990s to develop international alliances”, says The Washington Window, newspaper of Washington DC EpiscopalDiocese.[6]

In 1998 the conservatives struck: Lambeth again voted to “listen” to homosexuals but added that homosexual practice was "incompatible with Scripture". Tablet says of the resolution: “It was supposed to be a classic piece of Anglican fudge. But it was hijacked by a lobby of bishops from the developing world, which had formed in the mid-1990s, resolving to contest Anglicanism's drift to the condoning of homosexuality.”

The attack of the killer think tanks

In fact, while African bishops have been the spokespeople for the homophobic wing, the money and organisational clout has come from US and Australian right-wingers.

In 1999 the Canadian diocese of New Westminster started developing public rites for same-sex blessings, and in June 2004 the Canadian Synod affirmed the "integrity and sanctity of adult same sex relationships".

While the Canadians were moving in one direction, in Australia the Sydney Anglicans, led by the fundamentalist theologian Peter Jensen started their split-and-wreck campaign within the Australian church over the ordination of women.

The US component of the front is led by the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), which was established in 1981 to campaign in support of then-US President Ronald Reagan’s murderous contra war in Central America. The IRD ran a well-funded media blitz denouncing liberation theologists who were part of the anti-imperialist struggle.
The IRD’s method was illustrated by a campaign it mounted after Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega praised health and literacy work conducted by the Nicaraguan Council of Protestant Churches. The IRD dishonestly described the development workers as Sandinistas —
Nicaragua’s revolutionaries — and the fascistic Contras took care of the rest.
After helping to drown
Central America in blood, the IRD turned to internal church affairs with its Reforming America's Churches Project. The IRD invited donors to help in "restructuring" churches to which those donors might not belong. The IRD is “ecumenical” in a special way: it is indifferent into which church it drives its reactionary agenda.

The IRD coordinates a network of conservative US factions, the Association for Church Renewal, which interferes in many different denominations. The members, organised into “renewal” groups, polemicise against progressive church tendencies, target individuals and take over churches. Where they fail, they try to split churches off, taking as many assets as possible.
Homophobic, reactionary and rich

One of the major bankrollers is Howard F. Ahmanson, heir to a banking fortune, who funded the 1994 Republican takeover of the California Assembly, opposed gay marriage and affirmative action in California and is behind the Discovery Institute, the basis for the anti-evolution “intelligent design” movement,.

In a 1985 interview with the Orange County Register, Ahmanson proclaimed his goal “is the total integration of biblical law into our lives".

On July 2, 2008, the Australian Broadcasting Commission Radio National’s Religion Report interviewed Canon Jim Naughton of the Washington, DC Episcopalian Diocese, who has researched Ahmanson’s views. Naughton said that, after loudly calling for death for homosexuals for years, Ahmanson has publicly modified his views on homosexuals recently. According to Naughton, Ahmanson “said he no longer thought it was necessary to stone homosexuals but that if you came upon a society that was living by the laws of ancient Israel, where they did stone homosexuals, you couldn't say that that was necessarily immoral. And that was the softening of his view.”[7]

Ahmanson personally attended the GAFCON gathering to help shepherd through his right-wing politics.

Naughton noted that prominent African GAFCON spokespeople archbishops Akinola of Nigeria and Orombi of Uganda have serious theological differences with other churches in the Anglican Communion. “But the fact is that much of the money comes from the West, the statements are written almost exclusively in the West or by Westerners”, he said. “What just happened in Jerusalem is that bishops from some of the poorest countries on the planet got together for a meeting to make a great contribution to the church and what emerged was a document that did nothing to improve the life of the average African, but did much to advance the interests of wealthy Americans, Australians and people in the United Kingdom.”

Naughton was dismissive of statements such as Peter Jensen’s that GAFCON is giving voice to the ``global south’’. “The Institute on Religion and Democracy was basically founded to attempt to denigrate and undermine the liberation theologians of Central America which is one of the things that makes the claim now that these folks speak on behalf of the global south, so outrageous. I mean the first indigenous theological movement coming out of the global south in the second half of the 20th century … was stomped on by these people.”

[1] The New Puritans, Muriel Porter, Melbourne University Press, 2006, p.10

[2] Why the Pope is not rejoicing at the split,Paul Vallely, The London Independent, July 16, 2008.

[3] Following the Money, A Special Report from the Washington Window, newspaper of the Washington DC Episcopal Diocese,, p.1.

[5] It's good to talk, Theo Hobson, The Tablet, July 12, 2008,

[6] Following the Money, p.3

While organisations like the IRD may indeed be hoping to exploit differences of opinion among Anglican leaders to further their own ends, I think your analysis is too simplistic, and rather racist and condescending towards Africans, implying that they have no opinions of their own, but are simply the mouthpieces of shadowy organisations like the IRD.

Much also depends on what you mean by terms like "modernity". I suspect that the IRD is very much an agent of modernity, and driven by modernity, and in that respect would probably find itself at odds with many African bishops, and even more, African laity.


For those who are interested, visit Steve’s blog at… and see the engagement between us. It has not been very fruitful.

Steve describes himself as “not-a-marxist” and when he posted the first two paragraphs of my article he gave me quite a hammering. I looked forward to being told all the shortcomings of my article, from which I could raise my standards through debate.

So far I’ve been told that there’s one typo in it. Then it was revealed that Steve hadn’t read more than the first two paragraphs before forming his initial opinion that it is condescending and racist towards African Anglicans.

Of course, Steve is entitled to his opinion, and to not shift from it even after reading the full article. But the charge is not supported by the text and certainly my analysis reflects that of many others, about whom he remains silent.

In the introduction I state that “African bishops have led the charge…” Later, I back that up by quoting the British Catholic newspaper The Tablet saying that ” a lobby of bishops from the developing world” had “hijacked” the debate around homosexuality after the 1998 Lambeth conference. Is The Tablet condescending in saying that?

I further describe African bishops as “the spokespeople for the homophobic wing” of the church.

But the point of the article is that the organisation and money for the GAFCON movement are part of an “internationally organised, politically motivated and externally funded” operation by the IRD.

Canon Jim Naughton of the Washington, DC Episcopalian Diocese summarised the situation in a nutshell in saying that at GAFCON “much of the money comes from the West, the statements are written almost exclusively in the West or by Westerners”.

Steve, having to backtrack from his initial, extravegant charges against me, grants that the IRD is “shadowy” and is exploiting the situation. That is, he is claiming a difference of degree from me in the matter. Great! Steve, please back it up with facts about the complexities as you see them, facts that I have missed, nuances that could be drawn out.

Your suspicion that the IRD is an “agent of modernity” is wrong. The IRD campaigns for the most strident form of neo-liberal economics, absolutely no-holds-barred laissez faire capitalism. More than that, Ahmanson wants to return America (and presumably the world) to Old Testament Biblical law. That stuff about the stoning of homosexuals mentioned in the article isn’t a joke.

The rights of women and homosexuals to function freely in all areas of society are democratic rights not yet fulfilled even centuries after the great democratic revolutions. Women and homosexuals have not waited around to be granted their rights from on high. They’ve gone out and fought for them, God bless ‘em.

In that sense, people who oppose that liberation movement are fighting against “modernity”. Ahmanson and the IRD represent possibly the most reactionary wing of the US ruling class, which wants to drag humanity back centuries.

Moreover, Steve, having tasted blood in this operation within the Anglican Communion what will hold the IRD from more international split and wreck jobs? Will you be counted in the ranks of those who take a stand? Your equivocating stand on this article doesn’t bode well, does it?

All in all, this schism is a fascinating development in the history of cultural imperialism. It stymies any who unthinkingly hold to a “four legs good, two legs bad” simplistic Third Worldist politics.