2016-06-30
Just before Christmas, my neighbor and I were hauling our trash to the curb. She mentioned her family's desire to live near a parochial school, so I asked if she were Catholic. When she said yes, my first and natural impulse was to tell her I was an Episcopalian. But then I did a quick calculation. It was cold; we were both in a hurry to get back inside. I didn't have time to explain that I was an Episcopalian, BUT that I wasn't in agreement with the Episcopal Church's highly publicized decision to consecrate a gay bishop. So remained silent.and ashamed.

Today, American Anglicans who are upset with the official church's decision to ordain a gay bishop are gathering in Texas to form a Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes. Around a dozen dioceses will be represented by bishops, priests, and laity. Representatives from regional "mission districts" (from parishes outside those dioceses), as well as at least one non-geographical mission district (representing parishes that oppose the ordination of women), will also participate.

So why are they coming together? First, because the Archbishop of Canterbury and many of the Primates have urged them to do so. Secondly, they recognize that our unity in faith and our common mission outweighs our differences. So the gathering in Texas has a strong emphasis on mission and ministry, based on common worship and theology.

What do traditional Episcopalians like me want? We want to be able to tell people where we go to church--and to share our church affiliation proudly. We want to disassociate dramatically with the unbiblical actions of our denomination. We want to stop funding programs incompatible with our vision of godly mission and ministry. We want to strengthen our ties with the worldwide Anglican Communion and with the majority of Christians globally. We want to be led by bishops we can respect.

The Anglican Communion has been held together by a kind of gentleman's agreement--common faith and practice without centralized authority. The Episcopal Church broke that agreement when it ordained V. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. It's now a classic case of the need for legal external restraint when internal restraint is abandoned.

But to get there, we want to avoid a legal struggle with our denomination, whihc is certainly possible. We don't want our priests to be deposed, our parish lay leadership dissolved, or the loss of valuable church properties. We don't want costly legal battles.

What we really want is an amicable realignment of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. One possible scenario is that membership in the Anglican Communion is redefined with more obligations and with some measure of accountability. For example, perhaps the question of who gets to be an Anglican bishop might be settled, not only by national churches, but also through confirmation by some sort of global body. The Episcopal Church would presumably opt out of a Communion that requires such accountability, leaving the way for another entity to be granted the Anglican "franchise."

What would realignment look like? We don't know. Nobody does. We have hopes, but they are varied. Broadly speaking, there are three categories of preferred outcomes.

  • Some want to stay within the structure of the Episcopal Church and continue to work for reform, while still distancing themselves in terms of financial giving and participation.
  • Others want to be within the Episcopal Church, but with a very different structure that allows for conservative non-geographical dioceses with their own kinds of leadership and programs.
  • Others want another church (or "province" in Anglican parlance). This could be parallel to the Episcopal Church or could replace the existing Episcopal Church. (That is, replace it within the Anglican Communion. In a nation that enjoys religious freedom, liberal Episcopalians may have a viable church.)
  • Even before the Episcopal General Convention, the Archbishop of Canterbury had spoken sympathetically to the idea of a parallel province. Some of the American conservative leadership embraced that idea while still at the Episcopal convention. But they quickly heard from international Anglican leaders that a parallel province that left the rest of the Anglican Communion "in communion" with the wayward Episcopal Church was unacceptable.

    Relatively more bishops and priest tend toward the first two options. Relatively more lay persons, who consider those options at best confusing, prefer the latter.

    Frankly, agreement on structural options doesn't matter. In the end, whether or not the Network remains largely within the Episcopal Church or eventually becomes a Church is out of our hands. It's up to the Anglican Communion.

    This is the point at which the current leadership of the Episcopal Church still doesn't have a clue. The so-called progressives are downright reactionary when it comes to preserving institutional organizational charts. They are fundamentalists when it comes to the form, but not the content, of their religion.

    For example, the Rev. Jan Nunley, a spokesperson for the Episcopal Church, told USA Today on Jan. 12 that inviting an outside bishop to perform sacraments without a diocesan bishop's permission "flies in the face of 1,700 years of Christian tradition. The canons say you can't do that." Yet this comment comes from someone who defends scrapping 5,000 years of Judeo-Christian sexual ethics and the doctrine of marriage.

    For months leading up to last summer's General Convention of the Episcopal Church, mainstream Anglicans at home and abroad warned the Episcopal Church that to move away from Anglican teaching on sexuality and marriage--by word or action--would be disastrous. These warnings were dismissed as alarmist threats. Unfortunately, too many Episcopal revisionists believed their own rhetorical spin--that there would a bit of a flap for a while but that soon everything would calm down to business as usual. Now they are shocked, SHOCKED!, at the repercussions. Let's examine a few:

  • Domestic. Within the Episcopal Church, the fallout from the consecration of Gene Robinson is largely anecdotal. Clearly, some have left the church and others have one foot out the door. Donations are being diverted away from the national church. Several dioceses have repudiated the Robinson consecration and refuse to recognize him as a bishop. An October 2003 conference of protesting Episcopalians in Dallas attracted 2,700. Some 3,200 clergy and laity gathered for a similar regional event outside Washington, DC, earlier this month.
  • Ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. The Russian Orthodox Church has terminated its theological dialogue with the Episcopal Church. Aspects of dialogue between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church have been delayed--and the Episcopal Presiding Bishop was forced to resign as co-chair of that dialogue. The Oriental Orthodox Churches have suspended ecumenical dialogue with the entire Anglican Communion. Even Anglican dialogue with Muslims was suspended until Anglican leaders were able to assure Muslim scholars that the American church's actions were not authentically Anglican.
  • At the same time, both Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic leaders have specifically expressed solidarity with, in the word of the Russian Orthodox, "those members of the Episcopal Church who clearly declared their loyalty to the moral teaching of the Holy Gospel and the Ancient Undivided Church."

    Ecumenical marginalization is particularly vexing for Anglicans, who pride themselves on being the via media--the middle way between the Protestants and Catholics. How ironic if Episcopalians become the "via media" between the Unitarians and Christians.

  • Anglican Communion. Here the fallout is the most devastating. More than 25% of the provinces of the Anglican Communion--at least 10 provinces from Africa, Latin America, and Asia--have announced "impaired communion" with the Episcopal Church. These provinces represent well over half of the Anglicans worldwide. In a particularly sharp rebuke to the Episcopal Church, the Church of Uganda made clear that a delegation including the Episcopal Presiding Bishop to the enthronement of the new Archbishop of Uganda would not be "welcome, received or seated." proposed gift to refugee camps was also rejected: "The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not for sale.." Instead, the Ugandans invited a delegation from the newly forming Network.
  • The stakes for the Anglican Communion couldn't be higher. What is now at issue isn't so much the relationship of the Episcopal Church with other Anglican Provinces. Individual provinces are settling that. The question is: Will the provinces of the Global South remain in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury if he remains in communion with the Episcopal Church?

    I'm increasingly convinced that global Anglican realignment is both necessary and unavoidable. Indeed, the current crisis will only accelerate what was already inevitable. Right now, the determination of who is in and who is out of the Anglican Communion rests with the Church of England, most specifically the Archbishop of Canterbury. One man, appointed by the Queen of England, calls the shots.

    Much of the joint work of Anglicanism goes forward through the London-based Anglican Consultative Council. Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies is blunt about the problem. "Many of our brothers in the global South resent that the minority North still controls the Anglican Communion and sets the agenda for meetings," he said this month. "We must break the stranglehold of this monster called the Anglican Consultative Council. Many of us feel that cultural sensitivity is lacking at the Anglican Consultative Council in London, that there is a lack of respect. It is impossible to avoid this implication. There is the feeling that although we people of color are present, we are not fully accepted. That is painful because we believe we are fully brothers and sisters and want to walk together," he declared.

    In short, Anglicanism retains a 19th Century colonial structure, remarkably unsuited for the 21st Century Church. The post-colonial churches are coming of age. Something new is coming. American Episcopalians, both liberal and conservative, can only watch and wait.