Anglicans look south for unity in diversity - Abp John Chew interviewed in The Times

Anglicans look south for unity in diversity - Abp John Chew interviewed in The Times

Source: The Times



Times correspondent, Ruth Gledhill, asks the Archbishop of Southeast Asia how a communion facing crisis can survive

SECRET meetings have taken place on which the key players refuse to comment. Old rivalries are festering and certainties crumbling as emerging powers challenge the established order. Injuries, real and imagined, are scrutinised in desperate attempts to gauge their future impact. As the team hotel politics reach fever pitch, tension continues to mount in the build-up to the crucial game, with all its implications for England. Or at least, for the Church of England.

This is of course not the World Cup, but the struggle over homosexuality that threatens to split the Anglican Communion. The future of the Communion could be decided at the general convention of the US church next week. Unity will stand or fall on whether the Episcopal Church of the US agrees a moratorium on gay consecrations called for by the Windsor report. The trophy at stake is the very soul of Anglicanism, with the losers destined to live out their ecclesiastical existence as an obscure sect.

But as with the football, the really important action is taking place off the pitch. The real axis is less around the conservative evangelicalism of the Peter Akinolas of Africa versus the liberal catholicism of the Frank Griswolds of the US. It is more to do with the colonial-style structure of the West coming up against the Chinese-style consensus politics of the East.

A crucial change has been made to the “constitution” of the Anglican Communion, which is a bit like Britain in that it doesn’t really have a written constitution. Instead, it has four “instruments of unity” that are meant to keep the 38 provinces together. Or it used to. The Anglican Consultative Council decided in March that the instruments of unity should be renamed the “Instruments of Communion”, and there would no longer be four, but three. The most important instrument, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has become the “Focus for Unity”.

This much was in the Windsor report but, alongside this, moves are being made to allow the Archbishop of York, Primate of England, to attend Primates’ meetings. So Dr Rowan Williams moves closer to becoming an Anglican Pope, while Dr John Sentamu takes a leap in status, propelling him into the heart of Anglican Communion governance. (Sentamu is, incidentally, attending the general convention, although not as a representative of Dr Williams, who in line with normal practice is not going or sending a representative.)

Meanwhile, paralleling this in the East, a bishop has been elevated to the leadership of the Anglican Church in Asia who had his university education in England but who is described by close friends as “Chinese to his very core”. The Bishop of Singapore, Dr John Chew, 58, now Archbishop of Southeast Asia, is also secretary of the Global South group of churches. It is difficult to estimate the effect that his elevation will have on Anglican Communion affairs without understanding Chinese politics, and few English bishops do, except the Church’s assigned expert, Bishop David Urquhart of Birkenhead.

Global South leadership is key because these churches are the fastest-growing in the Communion, and also represent the heart of the opposition to the liberal West. In an address last month, Lord Carey said: “If I were to define the average English Anglican, I would not hestitate in saying it is an educated middle-class woman in her later 50s who is comfortably off. In truth, the average Anglican is a black young woman who has two or more children, living on under two dollars a day. She is illiterate or semi-literate and someone in her immediate family, perhaps herself, is suffering from Aids/HIV.”

The churches of the East and South, grappling with these realities, are angered by the patronising assumption of the West that with more education they will “catch up”. And they have barely begun to flex their muscle. A highly placed source said: “John Chew is a Chinese diplomat to his fingertips. He is working incredibly hard at all kinds of levels but it is a different kind of working. At the moment the churches in Asia are working with the Africans through consensus. They wait until everyone is on board before speaking. It could be dismissed as autocratic, but that would show a complete failure to understand how they exercise leadership.”

Dr Chew, born in Singapore as the fifth of six children, attended Catholic and Anglican schools and studied government and public administration at Nangyang University. He and his wife have a grown-up son. He was working in government when he felt called to the ministry, and he studied theology and divinity at a London university and gained his doctorate in Old Testament studies at Sheffield. He returned to Singapore to become a theology lecturer, and was consecrated bishop in 2000. His new role places him in charge of the relatively small Anglican churches of Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia but his pivotal role in the Global South leadership makes his potential influence far greater.

He regards aspects of Western culture as decadent and forecasts “utter chaos and disintigration” without change.

“The widespread and increasing prevalence of all things spiritual surely points towards the need for the divine and transcendent,” he says. “But the great tragedy is that without the biblical revelation and ethics, it’s only a primal spirituality without any common public welfare and goodness framework.”

His primary concerns are with mission. The gay issue is barely on his Church’s agenda, but he cannot fail to be drawn into the debate. “Practically all the churches of Malaysia and Singapore cannot, on the basis of the Scriptures, go along with churches which endorse the gay issue, especially when gay ordination is added on.”

His aim is not to campaign against homosexuals, however. “It is to feed, lead and guard the flock of Christ in the Church and in the world. Specifically, to strengthen the internal life of the Church in terms of its sense of worship, identity, fellowship and service in community and missions. Externally, to establish the Church’s presence in the public square and marketplace in a fast-changing region with all the turbulence of the time.” And although he will continue to look to Canterbury for some form of leadership, this will by its nature be limited.

“The world has grown so complex that honestly, one can hardly expect Canterbury to contemplate the complex pluralistic South-East Asia, North East Asia and South Asia”. And as for the future of the Anglican Church, he believes the problem is not unity but diversity. “The classic dictum must be upheld if there is to be any global role: in essentials unity; in non- essentials liberty; in others charity. Unfortunately, this is forgotten by some materially rich churches in the Communion”.

Last month, the present Archbishop of Canterbury hosted a meeting of eight bishops from the US. The bishops are understood to represent the majority in the middle ground. The future of Anglicanism will depend on whether they decide for unity or diversity.

The tragedy of a football match is that one side has to lose. For the Church of England at least, victory can no longer be assumed to be on the side of the established order.

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