Will Gender and Sexuality Rend The Anglican Communion?

The following is a guest post by Becky Garrison

RD’s Joanna Brooks poses a question regarding the Church of England’s decision to consecrate women bishops: Will diverging perspectives on gender and sexuality determine the shape of the 21st-century Christian world?

The Revealer offers these additional questions on the debate:

It’s a question that only begs more: Does sweeping change cause schism or does incremental change cause it as well? Why would the divide last the next 90 years? How would a shift of Anglican-Catholics to Vatican loyalty change the Catholic Church? The Anglican Church? What will all this church resistance to cultural change mean for equality in the future?

As I have reported on RD previously, the media tends to greatly exaggerate the death of the Anglican Communion. In this instance, they made the mistake of assuming that UK Anglicans function like their US counterparts. A quick romp through church history will reveal that US Episcopal pioneers have a long history of rebelling against authority, a trait not shared by their UK bretheren.

The Rev. Maggi Dawn, Chaplain and Fellow in Theology at Robinson College at Cambridge, observes, “One of the glories of Anglicanism that—unlike many older and younger versions of Christianity—you are allowed to disagree with your leaders and say so out loud. They even welcome it.”

In this respect, those Anglican traditionalists who have chosen to break away from the Anglican Communion exhibit behavior one typically finds in American Fundamentalist circles. Like other religious and fiscal conservatives, they can be quite adept at utilizing the Internet, Christian media outlets, grassroots organizations and other vehicles to spread their message. Given the white noise they are able to manufacture, one can easily conclude that these breakaway rebels wield considerably more power than the evidence indicates.

According to the Rev. Steve Hollinghurst, Researcher in Evangelism to Post-Christian Culture, “What the last few days have shown is how weak the traditionalist voice is in the C of E. When the vote on women’s ordination to the priesthood went through about 20 years ago the compromise motion allowing alternative bishops was an inevitable part of it. Today it isn’t.”

Hence, I’m not convinced that the ordination of women bishops will create a schism similar to the Great Schism of 1064 that created a perment fissure between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, some US evangelicals and their traditionalist counterparts in the US and UK will continue to drift away as the Anglican Communion and the rest of Christendom struggle with the the ordination of gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex marriages.

In lieu of a schism, we seem to be undergoing a retraditioning of the church institutional. Religion scholar Phyllis Tickle places 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.”

Those seeking to keep up with this debate might want to check out Maggi Dawn’s list of online articles and blog postings, as well as Diana Butler Bass’ ongoing commentary.