During my childhood, I hated England. It’s a post-colonial thing. The Opium War left a bitter aftertaste in my cultural memory. If you grew up in America reading about the exploits of Paul Revere, you thought of the British as the redcoats. But since I grew up in China, I thought of them as top hat-wearing drug dealers who peddled yapian by the boatload.
In an ironic twist of fate, I became Episcopalian — just about as English as you could get in the U.S. (Reading Harry Potter and talking in a faux British accent doesn’t count!) I read from “The Book of Common Prayers”, sang hymns composed by Vaughan Williams and chanted liturgy penned by Thomas Cranmer. I even served a short stint in the choir until I realized I will never be as good as those prepubescent boy sopranos at Christ Church, Oxford.
In America, most people associate the Episcopal Church with white, middle-aged or elderly congregants. But actually, the community of Anglican churches worldwide, encompassing some 70 to 80 million people, is a lot more diverse. Many of these member churches are located in former British colonies, including Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda. While member churches have their own leadership and differ somewhat in how they worship, they share a common investment in authorized prayer books. Meanwhile, the Church of England serves as a mother church, hosting an international conference of bishops every ten years. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is the symbolic head of the Anglican community.
As the British Empire dissolved gradually after WWII, the role of the Church of England evolved. Gone are the Victorian days when English missionaries became bishops in Uganda. Nowadays, locally elected bishops often hold positions contrary to that of the Church of England. Take for instance, the ordination of women. The first female priest in the Anglican community was Li Tim-Oi, who was ordained in 1944 in Hong Kong. It took fifty years for the Church of England to begin ordaining women, later than the Episcopal Church in America and the Anglican Church of Canada. At the same time, some member churches, such the Church of Nigeria, still do not allow female priests.
The biggest challenge facing the Church of England today is how to prevent further drift between the member churches who allow homosexual priests and those who do not. Just last month, the Episcopal Church in America elected a lesbian, the Rev. Mary Glasspool, as the Los Angeles Bishop Suffragan. Immediately, a wave of backlash came from conservative member churches — hardely a surprise when Archbishop Williams warned the Episcopal Church back in December that electing Glasspool would “[raise] very serious questions not just for the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion, but for the communion as a whole.”
Although as a LGBT ally, I support Glasspool’s election, I understand the difficult position Williams is in. While he is supportive of LGBT people, Williams must also keep the unity of the Anglican community together. Although people accuse him of being too moderate, I believe he is acting appropriately so. With such a diverse range of perspectives coming from all the member churches, each with a different cultural traditional, the Church of England should not dictate a set of specific doctrines that would alienate people half a world away.
The Anglican community exists in a post-colonial world. The number of Anglicans in the Church of Nigeria outnumber that in the Church of England. “The Book of Common Prayers” has been translated into Chinese and Maori. While Anglicans still somewhat look to Canterbury for leadership, the truth is the Anglican Church is no longer “Anglican.” Could the community of member churches stay together as they become more independent? Only time will tell.