80 Million Anglicans Can’t Be Wrong—Or Can They?

When I tweeted this morning a certain un-awed wonder at news reports that a middle-aged white dude, Durham bishop Justin Welby, has apparently been tapped as the next Archbishop of Canterbury, one of my Twitter followers snapped quickly back: “Almost all the candidates were middle-aged and white. Should they have gone with [anti-gay Archbishop John] Sentamu just because he’s black?” So, too, a British Facebook friend complained about my “prejudice” toward the Church of England. “You wouldn’t have preferred [the bishop of] York, would you?” 

Of course, that was not my thinking at all—Twitter’s mere 140 characters creates a certain barrier to nuance.

The “almost all the candidates were middle-aged and white” bit was more to the point, Bishop of York Dr. Sentamu being the “only” non-white Church of England bishop who made up the “almost.” The tweeter doubled down on in a follow-up message: “but you’d have to have more non-white bishops in the Church of England to begin with.” Exactly. Or, you’d have to look outside the C of E for archepiscopal “Focus of Unity” of a worldwide communion that may well draw deeply on its colonial English roots, but that’s been coloring richly outside the lines of its WASP lineage for several centuries.

Dr. Sentamu, well known for his own lack of nuance, promised to be a divisive choice in the global Anglican Communion—if not in the Church of England proper, where he is much admired by the Anglican laity despite, or perhaps because of, periodic fits of ideological and interpersonal pique. Given his much more conservative views on matters like the role of women and homosexuals in the church, an oft-noted “lack of diplomatic skill,” and the fact that at 62 he is older than outgoing ABC Rowan Williams, Sentamu was dropped from serious consideration early in the recommendation process.

All the enduring contenders, thus, were drawn from the soft, white center of the Church of England, allowing Welby, an affable former oil company executive with a familiar Eton-Cambridge pedigree, to move to the top of the list.

Postcolonial Leadership Lessons?

When rumors of the likely appointment of Welby began flickering across news sites in the UK and then the US just two days after Obama’s rout of Romney, I couldn’t help wondering if the Anglican Communion might not have a few things to learn from the demographic configuration of the GOP defeat. The American GOP is, after all, something of a doppelganger of the racial, ethnic, class, and social-ideological archetype embodied in the apparently exceptionally gifted but otherwise globally unrepresentative Welby.

As much post-election commentary makes clear, Republican strategies based on stirring the social anxieties of rural and suburban middle-aged white voters backfired as Mitt Romney struggled to situate himself in some sort of ideological middle way that the GOP has long since abandoned in favor of one-dimensional public policy decrees.

Women, younger voters, African Americans, Asians under age 40, and Hispanics turned their back on the white-(elite)-male-as-normative aspirational vision of America peddled by Romney, veep candidate Paul Ryan, and their Fox News mouthpieces. 

Likewise, the social issues that had been so reliably divisive for Republicans in previous elections (abortion and gay rights)—aided by the scandal of failed Senate candidate Richard Mourdock’s comments on rape as “intended by God” as well as a growing they’re-here-they’re-queer-we’re-over-it zeitgeist—simply had no traction in the face of the continuing economic drought and the devastation of Superstorm Sandy.

If the GOP didn’t get the message before the election that the days of white hegemony are pretty much over, they certainly couldn’t miss it the Day After. Is there something the Church of England in particular and Mainline Protestantism might learn from Obama’s win on Tuesday with only 39 percent of the white vote?

Of course, we must bear in mind that the seat of Archbishop of Canterbury is not filled on the basis of representative vote, as is the case for the primates of some other churches in the Anglican Communion. Rather, in the late medieval monarchical political tradition of the Church of England, he—gender remaining a nettlesome qualifying factor as yet unsorted in the C of E—is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister, this formed on basis of consultation with advisors on the Crown Nominations Committee. Were this not the case, it is not unreasonable to speculate that the popular Sentamu would soon occupy the See of Canterbury.

Either choice, however, misunderstands the emergent demographic of God’s people (in Anglican-speak) as they gather in the widely distributed outposts of the Anglican Communion—though less and less so in England, the United States, and other Western churches.

A Rainbow Emerges from the Cloud of Whiteness

In the West, Sentamu’s strident objections to women in the episcopate and LGBT persons pretty much anywhere in the Church as other but piteous sinners would be as profoundly alienating as it might be welcomed by Anglicans in more reliably conservative African, Asian, and Latin American churches. In this light, the “middle way” offered by Welby—“yes” on lady bishops, “no” on queers—is but a temporary balm that, though surely not similarly contrived, sounds all too like Romney-style waffling to be comforting either to the Anglican Church in the West or in the developing world.

Likewise, while the Anglican Communion in the West is a vast cloud of whiteness—92 percent of the American Episcopal Church is white—it cannot hope to sustain its mission in a world of much richer hues if it continues to be a pale reflection of that demographic. 

This is surely no small part of a message the American people sent to the GOP this week: we’ll trade age and prestige for someone whose life experiences can more readily be translated to our own, and whose decisions we can more confidently expect to be informed by the compassion that comes from commonality.

In the Anglican Communion, as in the wider Christian Church and the world it inhabits, a less wooden Romney or a more personable Clarence Thomas as a leader is no more the image of the Palestinian laborer who inspired the birth of a new religion in a Roman colonial outpost two thousand years ago than it is of the people who continue to try to follow his decidedly non-elite, decidedly radical social and spiritual practices. Is Justin Welby any closer to ethnic, political, social, or theological type?

Yes, African, Asian, and Latin American Christians are more conservative than are their Western sisters and brothers in the Church. But, as women speak more openly and clearly in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and as LGBT people in places like Rwanda and Nigeria continue to risk their lives to honor their createdness in the image and likeness of God, this conservative orientation is bound to change.

It surely has in a country where an African American president would have been all but unimaginable a decade ago, where the possibility that LGBT civil rights laws would pass in four states on one day—this despite an enduring religious sensibility that has not significantly declined even as conventionally institutional religion wanes. 

Behind the fading cloud of whiteness, there surely now seems to be a global rainbow shining. The new ABC, along with all Christian leaders, would do well to remember that the rainbow is a promise—in their own theological terms—of the full restoration of divine creation in all its beautiful, gleaming diversity.

Elizabeth Drescher [@edrescherphd] is the author, with Keith Anderson, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). She teaches religion and pastoral ministries at Santa Clara University. She is currently at work on Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of Religious Nones, a project funded in part through a grant from the Social Science Research Council’s “New Directions in the Study of Prayer” project through the Templeton Foundation. Her website is www.elizabethdrescher.com