A more diverse, conservative Anglicanism is growing

An Anglican church in Maryborough, Queensland, Canada. Photo by  Denise Bin via Creative Commons .

An Anglican church in Maryborough, Queensland, Canada. Photo by Denise Bin via Creative Commons.

BOSTON — On a recent summer afternoon in a brownstone apartment, a Nigerian Christian man shared his experience with his church’s small group as an Anglican church-hunting in New England.

“I’m an Anglican at heart,” he said. “But I’m now attending a Baptist church.” 

After visiting an Episcopal church downtown, he quickly realized that the doctrine they taught veered significantly from his home church in Nigeria. He’s not alone. Another Nigerian man in the same church shared that he left the Episcopal church he was attending because of teachings about sexuality and practices of the liturgy of the Holy Eucharist, among other differences.

Due to several schisms in the past several decades, the Anglican denomination is complex and difficult to understand, even for many within it. The Anglican Communion is a global association of churches with 85 million members in 165 countries connected to the Church of England. Their membership includes The Episcopal Church in the U.S, which has recognized same-sex marriages since 2015.

While Pride month festivities are increasingly common in U.S. cities to celebrate LGBTQ rights, conservative Anglicans are also a growing movement. About a decade ago, some churches split off over the mainline Anglicans ordaining bishops in same-sex relationships. They formed their own association, the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA). These churches considered themselves a part of the Anglican Communion, but did not agree with the direction that many of the Western member churches were headed. Now, they are led in part by a Nigerian — Rev. Ben Kwashi, Archbishop of Jos, Nigeria — and Rev. Foley Beach, Archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America. Most Anglicans don’t know about the multiple break-offs, according to Rev. David Goodhew and Jeremy Bonner. 

Some liberal Canadian Anglican churches had already started the ball rolling in 2002 by voting to allow bishops to bless same-sex unions. African and South American bishops reacted to this by starting their own conference — Global Anglican Future Conference, or GAFCON. Now, while GAFCON still is primarily African, Asian and Australian members, it represents more than two-thirds of Anglicans worldwide.

ACNA celebrated its 10th anniversary in June, with about 135,000 members in 1,062 churches across Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. It is considered part of the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (GAFCON), a “global family of authentic Anglicans standing together to retain and restore the Bible to the heart of the Anglican Communion,” according to their website.

Surviving and thriving

To put those numbers in perspective, The Episcopal Church — a province of the Anglican communion in the U.S. — claimed more than 1.7 million members in 2017 and 6,447 churches. The catch here is to notice the slow but continual decline of the Episcopal mainline, and the slow but observable increase of the ACNA. The Episcopal Church’s membership has seen a 10 percent decline from 2012-2017 and 19 percent decline over the decade. While 15 percent of their churches are seeing markedly increased attendance, 57 percent are seeing a noticeable drop.

The ACNA surge is modest but noteworthy. In 2018, the ACNA observed a net growth of 25 congregations, totaling membership to 134,649 – nearly the same from the previous year but part of a steady growth since 2009.

As Goodhew and Bonner ask, is the ACNA merely a reaction to The Episcopal Church, or is it changing into something else entirely?  

The Rev. George Conger, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida who writes for Religion Unplugged, observed that overall the ACNA has a healthy trajectory of growth with younger people and increasing numbers of minorities — both by culture and outreach — whereas the Episcopal Church is 87 percent white, according to a 2014 internal survey. While the ACNA has not yet sifted through detailed ethnic data, many believe it is significantly more ethnically diverse than the Episcopal Church.

Goodhew and Bonner point out a fascinating geographical trend as well. Almost half of the ACNA’s members reside in a strip from Washington, D.C., across the Upper South (North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee) to Texas and the Southwest. More than one-third of Episcopalian members live in New England and Mid-Atlantic states, while only about a quarter of ACNA’s members do.

Shifting global dynamics

While the Anglican Worldwide Communion and The Episcopal Church have seen some growth in the past few decades, many of the demographics are shifting. In 1970, there were 47 million Anglicans, and in 2010, the communion reported 86 million members –– 83 percent growth in 40 years.

Goodhew and Bonner point out that the ACNA is almost double the size of the church in Wales, and up to seven times the size of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

“ACNA’s growth makes it distinct from most Anglican churches in the West, and is likely to affect them over time,” they write. 

Today, most of the global Anglican movement is not centered in the West. Instead, it’s focused in African countries like Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya. 

“Many Anglicans in the Global North are blithely unaware that ACNA exists, but much of the Global South now has stronger links with ACNA than with TEC [The Episcopal Church] and other Global North churches,” say Goodhew and Bonner.

There’s even Anglican churches in North America that have direct connections to the Church of Nigeria rather than ACNA, part of a missionary effort from Nigeria.

Still, not all churches in the West are suffering. The Rev. Melvin Tinker pastors St. John’s Newland parish in Hull, England. In a town that sees high unemployment and low church attendance, his church claims a staggering 580 attendees on an average Sunday. When he arrived at the church 25 years ago, the congregation size was about 140 with a dozen children, Tinker said.

However, what makes Tinker’s parish different is his congregants. Tinker’s parish includes a variety of professionals and nonprofessionals. Ethnically, his congregation is increasingly diverse, with some Eastern Europeans, a large population of Congolese and a growing number of Iranians and Kurds. While he has many University of Hull students attending, Tinker has seen many families and individuals stay locally because they love the community of St. John’s parish.

“I’ve never been in a church so mixed in my life,” Tinker said.

His secret? “We’re doctrinally sound and Gospel-driven. That's the key to it all,” Tinker said. “What you get with liberalism is that you’re reflecting back to the culture what the culture already thinks. There’s no reason to leave your non-Christian life for a Christian life. What we’re offering, what Christ is offering, is a radical alternative.”

While he believes the convictions are the main reason for growth, Tinker says that there are some practical tools that helped his congregation grow. His church has emphasized outreach –– focusing on schools, mom groups, and events where new people can “come and see” what their church is all about. They have added a church nursery for their many babies.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to compare the Episcopal Church to the ACNA, Conger said. “The divorce took place a long time ago and they are different worlds,” he said.

Whether the more conservative break-off will ever catch up to the larger mainline churches is “impossible to answer — and not that important right now,” write Goodhew and Bonner. More importantly, it’s important to understand that the ACNA is a “a substantial and growing force.”

Kara Bettis is a Boston-based reporter on faith, politics and culture. Connect with her on Twitter.