By David Goodhew
Amidst the heated comments of western bishops against reaffirming the 1998 Lambeth Conference’s resolution on sexuality, it is vital to remember how much “whiter” this Lambeth is than most recent Lambeth conferences. At Lambeth 2022 western churches hold influence out of all proportion to their size. Western bishops would be horrified to admit it, but their influence is a classic case of white privilege.
I am not always a fan of the language of “white privilege,” but it is certainly discernible here. Eight Episcopal dioceses in the USA have fewer than 1,000 people in church on an average Sunday as of 2019 (there are more “micro-dioceses” now). In 2019, the diocese of Northern Michigan claimed 385 attended its churches on an average Sunday — that’s fewer than a good many individual Anglican congregations. This cannot be serious. And these micro-dioceses are, mostly, led by white bishops.
In 2017, 10 Canadian dioceses — a third of all Canadian dioceses — had under 1,000 worshippers on an average Sunday. And they have shrunk further since then. Yet their (mostly white) bishops are busy opining at Lambeth.
Several Scottish dioceses are able to run North American dioceses close when it comes to the dubious distinction of being the smallest diocese, by attendance, in the Communion. The Bishop of Brechin felt able to speak out on Lambeth 1:10, but didn’t mention that the total attendance across his diocese, as of 2019, was 676 people.
Yes, a bishop’s episcopal charism does not depend on the number of worshipers in their see. But when almost all the micro-dioceses are in the west, and when western bishops are disproportionately present at Lambeth 2022, this is white privilege in action.
The Side-lining of Global South Anglicans
Over-representation of rich western dioceses is matched by gross under-representation of the Global South at Lambeth 2022 This happens in several ways.
Lambeth 2022 is taking place even though the bishops of half of African Anglicans have refused to come. Their dioceses constitute a third of the total Anglican Communion. Western bishops may say “it was their choice not to come.” But this is not a good look. That third of the communion is certainly not being listened to. The readiness of many western bishops to act as if Lambeth 2022 is “business as usual” is untenable.
Under-representation of the South happens in other ways. Whereas many western dioceses have tiny numbers and/or are shrinking, many dioceses of non-western Anglicanism have vast attendances. The Diocese of Singapore has planted across Asia. It has a deanery covering Nepal and Anglicans in Nepal number around 10,000. Though larger than many western dioceses, Nepalese Anglicans have no distinct voice at Lambeth.
The Canadian diocese of the Yukon had 199 people on an average Sunday in 2017 — across the entire diocese. And that number has probably fallen since then. North American Anglicans made up about 10% of the entire Communion in 1970. Fifty years on, they make up 2%, tops. These numbers need to be remembered every time western bishops speak.
The loud voices of many western bishops belie the fact that many western dioceses are smaller in attendance than not a few individual congregations elsewhere in the Communion. And most other western dioceses are shrinking fast. Yet their voice is heard loudly — whilst the voice of many Global South Anglicans is unheard or muted at Lambeth 2022.
The influence of a diocese should not depend solely on its size. But it cannot be detached from its size either. The Anglican Communion has created the equivalent of the “rotten boroughs” of 18th century England, where tiny numbers of electors could send people to parliament, whilst millions were disenfranchised. In Anglicanism, every bishop is equal — but some are much more equal than others.
This means that the Lambeth “calls” have no validity. Lambeth 2022 is like Lambeth 2008. It cannot speak. The whole Communion has not gathered since 1998. And if the mostly white bishops of Britain and North America try to get their way, despite the white privilege so operative at Lambeth 2022, there is a serious possibility that 1998 will turn out to be the last gathering of the whole Communion.