The worldwide Anglican Church risks a permanent split unless someone committed to traditional values is chosen as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the leaders of 55 million churchgoers have warned.
In a major intervention in the selection process, an alliance of archbishops and bishops from four continents has written directly to the selection committee urging them to choose someone prepared to halt a drift towards liberal values on issues such as homosexuality.
The next Archbishop must be willing to “uphold the orthodoxy of the Christian faith” in order to secure the “future and unity” of the church “at a foundational level”, they say in a letter seen by The Daily Telegraph.
Only someone with an understanding of the more traditional views of Anglicans in Africa and elsewhere and the ability to gain their “respect” would be acceptable they add.
The warning comes in a letter to Lord Luce, the chairman of the Crown Nominations Commission, which is selecting the next Archbishop, by the leaders of the Church in the so-called “Global South”, who met earlier this week in Singapore.
Their intervention is likely to be viewed as a boost to the chances of the Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, being selected for Canterbury, as a figure well-regarded in Africa and elsewhere.
In addition to being the leader of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury is the titular head of the estimated 80-million strong Anglican Church worldwide.
Despite its historic ties to England, it is increasingly dominated by the fast-growing churches primarily in southern hemisphere.
Most southern provinces still hold firmly to more traditional doctrines but some branches of the Church elsewhere, particularly in North America, have steered a more liberal course in recent years.
The splits were laid bare four years ago when a third of the bishops boycotted the 10-yearly Lambeth Conference in London in protest at the American church’s decision to ordain its first openly homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
Since then the split has only become more entrenched. Earlier this year an attempted unity pact on which Dr Rowan Williams staked his authority was rejected in the Church of England itself.
Following the announcement of Dr Williams’s retirement, leaders of African and Asian churches have privately voiced fears that their views are being ignored in a selection committee dominated by white, liberal-leaning Britons.
Earlier this month Bishop Mouneer Anis, the leader of the Church in the Middle East and North Africa, warned of a “colonial” approach to choosing the new Archbishop.
In the letter, signed by 17 primates, they make clear that, as leaders of what is now the majority of the Anglican church, they “expect to be consulted”.
“At a time when the Christian faith faces challenges from other religions as well as secular worldviews, the new Archbishop of Canterbury must be committed to uphold the orthodoxy of the Christian ‘faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’,” they write, quoting a phrase from the New Testament.
In order to act as “Guardian of the faith” the new Archbishop must be able to enforce unity “especially on issues that have led to the present crisis in the Communion”, they add.
“The new Archbishop of Canterbury should have the experience and cross-cultural sensitivity to understand the concerns and conflicts in the worldwide Communion,” they add.
“He has to be able to communicate effectively and gain the respect and confidence of, his fellow primates in the Global South.”
But last night one senior figure in the Church of England warned that the global split could now be too deep for the new Archbishop to bridge.
“Whoever it is I don’t think one man can achieve it really because the splits are so deep,” he said.