I am an Anglican priest in the northwest Bronx, a part of New York City inhabited largely by immigrants. Without the faith and perseverance of members of my church from the West Indies and Africa, our parish would not survive.
So I have an immediate concern about the creation of a fourth new Anglican province in North America — joining the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, and the Anglican Church of Mexico — but my concern is not for possible losses to my parish. My concern is wasted energy in the church and lost opportunities for mission in the world.
Even though I am an openly gay priest, and my partner of 28 years is an active member of my parish, sexuality has not been the focus of my ministry. (From the press, one might think that sex was all Episcopalians talked about!) However, in my parish the primary concern is the gospel — and how to live a life worthy of God’s call. My congregation appreciates that, and I believe they see in me someone who is trying seriously to live such a life, and who wants to help them do the same. I do not believe, if the Anglican Church in North America were to establish a competing church down the street, that I would lose many members to it, if any.
Still, this new proposal raises a number of difficulties, both for itself and for the Anglican Communion.
Anglicans are fond of saying, “We’ve always done it that way,” and this holds true in the creation of new jurisdictions. Drawing on legal traditions from before the time of Henry VIII, the Church of England has always advocated the concept of “the national church,” and never wavered despite the fluctuations of history. During the Civil War, for example, as the Episcopal Church avoided taking a position either on slavery or states’ rights, Confederate bishops and parishioners established a separate national church. Naturally, those in the Union refused to acknowledge this new Confederate church. With old-fashioned politeness, they continued to record the bishops and deputies from those dioceses as merely “absent” from the sessions of the General Convention. This attitude also, of course, made it much easier to welcome the bishops and deputies back when the war was ended.
So from the very beginning, the idea of one nation/one church has, with the exception of missionary endeavors, been well established in Anglicanism. As the various former colonies of England became free, so too did the churches established there gradually take on their own independent identity.
In my parish, although people come from many different national churches around the world, they share a common identity as Anglicans as well --- it is a wonderful mix of unity in diversity, a common identity wearing many different national costumes. And they come to my church precisely because it is the US expression of what they know "back home."
There are a very few places in the world where more than one Anglican province functions with some overlap of territory; this is sometimes the result of missionary areas that were once distinct having now come to overlap, or because of a need to minister to a distinctive linguistic or cultural group. However, most importantly, unlike the new proposed Anglican Church in North America, these Anglican provinces recognize each other and cooperate with each other — they are, in short, in communion with each other, and members of the Anglican Communion.
The same cannot be said of the new proposed province. It is coming into existence precisely because its members do not wish to be in communion with the Episcopal Church; some of them are vociferous in their opposition to its policies and programs. Nor is it at all clear if it will be recognized by the Anglican Communion as a new member of that communion, or even if such recognition is possible, given the historic desire not to have two competing churches, both part of the same communion, in the same place.
At Saint James in the Bronx, people have shown little interest in the ongoing turmoil in the Communion. They see themselves as still very much a connected to their home country, but the church is the church they go to, the community with which they worship --- not the ecclesiastical structure of their homeland. "This" they will say, "is the Anglican church here; this is my church!"
So what does it mean to be "Anglican?" Two things, at least, seem to be essential for a province to be Anglican in any meaningful sense. First, it is important to be in communion with the Church of England, the source of Anglican identity. The decision as to who is in communion with the Church of England rests jointly with the archbishops of Canterbury and York. The present Archbishop of Canterbury has on several occasions noted his desire to see members of the communion and its churches work out their differences through the orderly processes of the communion and each church; so it seems unlikely that he would undercut a principal which he appears to regard as fundamental.
The second qualification for being considered Anglican is membership in the Anglican Consultative Council, at present the only pan-Anglican body with a Constitution. That Constitution states that new members can be added to the Council with its approval, and the approval of two-thirds of the primates of the existing member churches. Again, it seems unlikely that approval would be forthcoming from the required supermajority of primates. No doubt they are aware that this breakdown in the tradition of national churches might leave any one of their own churches open to such an internal split. As of this writing, only a handful of the primates have intimated support for the creation of the new province, and their intimations have been guarded.
There have been many splits away from the Episcopal Church over the last century, most of them — like the present province in formation — a result of dislike for the perceived direction of the larger body. Most of them have dwindled or at least not prospered. After all, if one is seeking a religious tradition more conservative than that generally found in the Episcopal Church, there are in most places in the United States many options from which to choose. Without the approval of the Archbishop of Canterbury or the broader Anglican Communion, I do not think the Anglican Church in North America will prove any more vibrant or enduring than most such efforts from the past.
And in my parish, we’ll keep on with the round of worship, praise and prayer; the baptisms, funerals and weddings; the preaching and teaching; the outreach and mission --- all the things that lie at the heart of what it means to be a church.
Tobias Haller is Vicar of Saint James Church in the Bronx and blogs at In a Godward Direction.