The Anglican Communion, in a decision released yesterday, has disciplined the U.S. Episcopal Church over its decision to bless same-sex marriages in church. WaPo:
The Anglican Communion’s announcement Thursday that it would suspend its U.S. branch for three years from key voting positions was seen as a blow to the Episcopal Church, which allows its clergy to perform same-sex marriages and this summer voted to include the rite in its church laws […]
“The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union,” the leaders of the Anglican Communion, which represents 44 national churches, said in a statement during a meeting in Canterbury. “The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.”
This three-year suspension is likely to be the beginning of a period in which the U.S. Episcopal Church, with 1.2 million members, and the Anglican Communion, with 80 million members, gradually drift apart. The dispute over same-sex marriage may be the immediate breaking point, but the tensions go much deeper. The Anglican Communion is a group of churches who trace their descent from the 16th-century Church of England as established under the Tudors. The American Episcopalians have been something of an outlier in the communion since the American Revolution in the 18th century when both “good” Anglicans like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton and “bad” Anglicans like Thomas Jefferson revolted against King George III. Most of the other branches of the Anglican Communion remained closer to the Church of England both financially and theologically.
In more recent times, the big news in the Anglican Communion has been the rise of post-colonial Anglican churches in countries like Nigeria and Uganda, with new converts flocking to church even as the older churches (like the Episcopalians and the Church of England) lost both members and influence. As a result, the center of gravity in world Anglicanism has been steadily moving toward more conservative positions on doctrines and moral standards, even as American Episcopalians have moved sharply toward the theological and social left.
Unless something gives, it’s unlikely that the American Episcopalians will be able to hold on to a place in the emerging Anglican Communion. The two sides see the current dispute very differently. American Episcopalians see the church’s embrace of gay marriage and new kinds of theology as a matter of conscience and Christian witness. Their critics in Africa and elsewhere see Episcopalians as having lost touch with the faith’s historical sources of authority. Neither Scripture, Tradition, nor Reason, they claim, support the Episcopal positions within the Anglican world. Besides that, many of the conservative Anglicans are from the developing world, where the Episcopalian decision to chart its own course regardless of the views of other member of the Communion looks less like conscience and more like neo-colonial arrogance and racial pride.
American Episcopalians often see the fight over gay marriage as akin to past fights over civil rights and the ordination of women priests. The same people, they note, who oppose gay marriage the most vociferously today, were often the same people who opposed equal rights for African Americans in the past. For many American Episcopalians, the move of their church toward a more inclusive and empowering approach to people of different races and sexual identities is all part of the Holy Spirit’s call to Christians in the contemporary world.
Their more conservative opponents retort that if the Episcopalians are so repentant about past racist behavior, they might look a little harder at treating the theological convictions of tens of millions of African Christians as backward and primitive. A little theological humility on the part of privileged Americans, conservatives argue, might help keep the churches together.
If history is any guide, both sides are part right and part wrong. Scholars of the future will find something to honor and something to deplore in the behavior of all of the factions in the family quarrel. God may ultimately be less interested in how people line up on the theological battleground than on how they work, in an atmosphere of contention and conflict, to follow the way of the Cross with an honest conscience and an open heart.
But be all that as it may, the two branches of the Communion are likely to continue to grow apart. American Episcopalians are becoming more “progressive” both theologically and politically, and believe that a mix of progressive social, economic, and theological ideas offers the only hope for continuing Christian relevance for postmodern, millennial America. African Anglicans, competing with even more conservative Pentecostals and Muslims in an atmosphere of religious revival and awakening, are unlikely to think they have much to learn from the members of a rapidly shrinking church in an increasingly secular part of the world. Whether the Episcopalians walk out of the Communion in protest against their increasing isolation, are pushed out by their fellow members, or simply drift away, we are probably seeing the latest stage in the unfolding saga of the Reformation in the English-speaking world.
The original Church of England set up by Henry VIII in place of the Catholic Church has been in a continuing process of fission and separation since the 16th century. The Puritans split off in the reign of Henry’s daughter Queen Elizabeth, and hundreds of new denominations broke away during the turbulent 17th century. Some of these denominations, like the Methodists and Baptists, have gone on to become large churches in their own right. Others, like the Quakers, have played an outsized historical role even if their numbers have not been large.
The future of Anglicanism in the United States, and perhaps in other places, is likely to become more complicated. The Episcopal Church will survive, but new Anglican congregations will also spring up. As the Episcopal Church drifts gently toward the exit from full membership in the Anglican Communion, the Communion will likely authorize other Anglican organizations in the United States who will begin to compete with the old franchise. With immigrants from Africa and disgruntled conservative Episcopalians banding together, the new organizations will gradually increase the presence of a more conservative Anglican movement across the United States. The Episcopal Church has been shrinking and looks likely to keep on shrinking to a point of financial crisis. Many of its parishes can no longer afford to pay the salary of a full-time rector, and with a few exceptions, the institutional infrastructure of the denomination, from seminaries to diocesan headquarters, is falling rapidly into decay. Whether the upstart Anglican implants can replace that declining network with a vigorous new denominational life remains very much to be seen.