Reports of the Death of the Episcopal Church are Greatly Exaggerated

“The Lord is displacing the Episcopal Church.” This pronouncement was made back in December by Bishop Bob Duncan, of the newly formed Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).

A quick scan of the media coverage of the new church reveals that the press has by and large bought this line, and gone along with the story that a select group of missional mavericks have ridden into crumbling church buildings as the white knights destined by God to preserve the “one true Episcopal church.”

While the media seems snookered by the idea that the US Episcopal Church has become moribund, one should not make the mistake of extrapolating from trend to the end. While ongoing Anglican antics by select liberals and conservatives representing the more polar extremes of Anglicanism make Monty Python’s Bishop sketch pale by comparison, the US Episcopal Church “is not dead yet.”

When I interviewed author Phyllis Tickle, she placed this current crisis into a much-needed historical perspective:

As Bishop Mark Dyer has observed, about every five hundred years, the church feels compelled to have a giant rummage sale. During the last such upheaval the Great Reformation of five hundred years ago, Protestantism took over hegemony. But Roman Catholicism did not die. It just had to drop back and reconfigure. Each time a rummage sale has happened, in other words, whatever held pride of place simply gets broken apart into smaller pieces, and then it picks itself up and to use Diana Butler Bass’ term, “re-traditions.”

Such historical nuances are notably absent in the current coverage of this Anglican “crisis.” Granted Henry VIII’s Tudor tirades presented a rather dubious background to the founding of the Anglican Communion—not to mention Bloody Mary’s BBQ of Archbishop Cranmer and Bishops Latimer and Ridley, as well as the role the Anglican Church played in the global colonization of the British Empire. When Christianity Today reported that for the past ten years, the Anglican Communion had been embattled due to controversies over sex, power, theology, and money, they were only off by about five hundred years.

Moving back to the other side of the pond, we must remember that the crises arising in American Episcopal circles following the Revolutionary and Civil Wars presented far greater hurdles than this current Bible battle. This is hardly the “biggest” split and challenge for Anglicans, as reported by the Washington Post and the New York Times, respectively. Moreover, when the Wall Street Journal terms this debate a “schism,” it brings to mind a Christian catastrophe like the Great Schism of 1064 that separated Roman Catholics from their Eastern Orthodox brethren. In comparison, a group of 100,000 Anglicans defecting from the 80 million member Anglican Communion resembled a case of the spiritual sniffles.

Furthermore, those who choose to interpret Anglicanism through contemporary evangelical eyes fail to see the full polity picture. Historically, while Anglicans do not reach a universal consensus on a number of social and political issues, they come together through their common worship as found in The Book of Common Prayer. Having found unity in communion, they return to the pews to continue their disagreements.

Such an ethos informed the Lambeth Conference, a gathering of bishops every ten years. Lambeth functions more like a gathering of international church councils to discuss common concerns than a group formed to enact doctrine that must be followed by all Anglicans. (Those wishing a more detailed analysis of Anglican polity can start by checking out Garret Keizer’s article in Harper’s.)

A meeting such as the GAFCON (the Global Anglican Future Conference), arranged in Jerusalem by these breakaway bishops, demonstrated a clear Anglican gaffe that was largely ignored by media reports. For instance, the Jerusalem Post reported that it was “a meeting for ‘orthodox’ Anglicans to be getting on with things, doing the work of the church.” Such analysis is refuted by Dr. Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, who observed, “The rationale of GAFCON is: ‘The Communion is finished; nothing new can happen; it’s time to split.’ No mention is made of the Windsor report, the proposed Anglican Covenant, or, indeed, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Advent letter, insisting as it does on scriptural authority, which GAFCON seems to regard as its monopoly.”

The effectiveness of this gathering appears to be exaggerated by the organizers. While some bishops chose to attend GAFCON in lieu of Lambeth, a much greater percentage of traditionalist and conservative bishops chose to remain within the Anglican Communion. In an Archbishop’s Pastoral Letter to Bishops of the Anglican Communion, Dr. Rowan Williams offered his personal reflections on the Lambeth Conference. In this letter, he emphasized the need for bishops to remain in communion while debating their differences:

There was much support for the idea of a “Pastoral Forum” as a means of addressing present and future tensions, and as a clearinghouse for proposals concerning the care of groups at odds with dominant views within their Provinces, so as to avoid the confusing situation of violations of provincial boundaries and competing jurisdictions.

This letter seems to make it unlikely that this breakaway province will be welcomed as full members during Lambeth 2018.

When these renegade bishops sounded the shofar, as reported by Jeff Sharlet, they engaged in yet another gesture that proved how beneath their cassocks, these Anglican reformers are actually reformed evangelicals. Perhaps a bit of digging might have unearthed the real reasons why evangelical Wheaton College was chosen as the site to announce this split instead of a more Episcopal setting. In particular, these bishops’ evangelical focus on sola scriptura topples the three-legged stool of scripture, tradition, and reason which forms the basis for Anglican theology. Such a theological shift raises far more concerns than questions about consecrating women bishops or openly gay clergy. (Emphasis on the word “openly” for homosexuals have always been present among the ranks of the ordained clergy.)

Also, one must take into account the pressure the increasingly powerful Global South, and the role select conservative bishops played in the formation of this province. Since the 1960s, church membership has grown by unprecedented amounts in the Global South. The Province of Nigeria now constitutes some 18 million members, making it the second largest province of the Anglican Church. Such statistics can give these archbishops considerable clout in pushing their agendas. One does have to question why select bishops chose to exert their influence around issues pertaining to homosexuality. Wouldn’t their provinces be better served if they had directed their efforts toward another resolution raised at Lambeth 1998 that called for international debt relief? Or lauding Lambeth 2008 for making the Millennium Development Goals one of the Anglican Communion’s top priorities? (To to be fair, the extreme liberal wing of the US Episcopal church managed to keep homosexuality at the forefront during church conventions, often to the expense of other key social issues.)

Lost in this entire debate are initiatives endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury that seem to be moving the Anglican Church forward as it remembers its past. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury joined 500 pilgrims for a day of devotion and worship that brought together fresh expressions of the church and the Catholic tradition of the Church of England. Also, the Archbishop is an official patron of Greenbelt UK, an international social justice and arts festival that draws close to 20,000 international visitors each year.

Such developments point to a phoenix rising from the Anglican ashes. One has to wonder why the media ignores initiatives endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury—choosing instead to profile a group of errant evangelicals, who are riding roughshod over centuries of church history.

bgthedoor@aol.com'

Becky Garrison contributes to a range of outlets including The Washington Post's On Faith section, The Guardian, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, Killing the Buddha, Believe Out Loud, and American Atheist. Her seven books include Roger Williams' Little Book of Virtues (2013), and Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (Jossey-Bass, 2006).