The end of the Anglican Communion as we know it?

I don’t think Bishop N.T. Wright’s article in The Times today is in the obituaries section. But it might as well be. This is because in effect he is announcing the death of the Anglican Communion, at least in the form I have known it since I was a child. In those days there was a map of the Communion on our church wall, showing the geographical areas of each of the provinces. Probably the second largest of those areas was the USA, represented by The Episcopal Church (TEC – at least that is its name today).

But the step which TEC has just taken has in effect put itself outside that Communion. At least, that is what one of the most senior bishops in the Church of England (who is also one of the world’s top theologians) is now saying. Of course we have long been hearing this from supporters of GAFCON and the newly formalised (in England) Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. But now it is the loyalist bishops who rejected GAFCON last year who are starting to say that enough is enough. Here is how Bishop Wright starts:

In the slow-moving train crash of international Anglicanism, a decision taken in California has finally brought a large coach off the rails altogether. The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church (TEC) in the United States has voted decisively to allow in principle the appointment, to all orders of ministry, of persons in active same-sex relationships. This marks a clear break with the rest of the Anglican Communion.

Both the bishops and deputies (lay and clergy) of TEC knew exactly what they were doing. They were telling the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other “instruments of communion” that they were ignoring their plea for a moratorium on consecrating practising homosexuals as bishops. They were rejecting the two things the Archbishop of Canterbury has named as the pathway to the future — the Windsor Report (2004) and the proposed Covenant (whose aim is to provide a modus operandi for the Anglican Communion). They were formalising the schism they initiated six years ago when they consecrated as bishop a divorced man in an active same-sex relationship, against the Primates’ unanimous statement that this would “tear the fabric of the Communion at its deepest level”. In Windsor’s language, they have chosen to “walk apart”.

Wright then goes on to write very sensibly about sexual ethics and homosexuality, but that is not my point here.

It is not just the moderate conservative Bishop Wright who is taking this view. As far as I know the Archbishop of Canterbury has not spoken out since TEC’s General Convention decision was finalised. But, as reported by Ruth Gledhill, before the final vote by the House of Bishops of TEC Archbishop Rowan Williams said:

As for General Convention it remains to be seen I think whether the vote of the House of Deputies will be endorsed by the House of Bishops. If the House of Bishops chooses to block then the moratorium remains. I regret the fact that there is not the will to observe the moratorium in such a significant part of the Church in North America but I can’t say more about that as I have no details.

That is, Archbishop Rowan was saying that he regretted the decision by the House of Deputies which was later confirmed by the House of Bishops. From him that is strong language. This is part of Ruth’s commentary:

In fact the vote represents a direct snub to Dr Williams, who in his sermon to the Convention last  Thursday urged an opposite course of action. He said, ‘Of course I am coming here with hopes and anxieties – you know that and I shan’t deny it. Along with many in the Communion, I hope and pray that there won’t be decisions in the coming days that will push us further apart.

So, as Wright writes, “Both the bishops and deputies (lay and clergy) of TEC knew exactly what they were doing”, deciding to “tear the fabric of the Communion at its deepest level” and “walk apart”.

In effect, a large part of that world map of the Anglican Communion now has to be recoloured in grey, meaning no Anglican presence there. Or can the gap be filled by the recently formed “Anglican Church in North America”? Wright is unsure:

The question then presses: who, in the US, is now in communion with the great majority of the Anglican world? It would be too hasty to answer, the newly formed “province” of the “Anglican Church in North America”. One can sympathise with some of the motivations of these breakaway Episcopalians. But we should not forget the Episcopalian bishops, who, doggedly loyal to their own Church, and to the expressed mind of the wider Communion, voted against the current resolution. Nor should we forget the many parishes and worshippers who take the same stance. There are many American Episcopalians, inside and outside the present TEC, who are eager to sign the proposed Covenant. That aspiration must be honoured.

Indeed it would be wrong to rush into any decisions. But it seems that in the USA the point has now come where Anglicanism has divided into two separate streams, one liberal and one conservative. The question then is, how much longer can it remain united in the rest of the world, and particularly here in England?

0 thoughts on “The end of the Anglican Communion as we know it?

  1. Ruth Gledhill has now added her comments on this matter, in which she notes that there is a similar problem between the Anglican Communion and the Church of Sweden. I guess open schism just might be avoided if the Anglican Communion admits ACNA as well as TEC, but that won’t make anyone happy.

    Interesting that she mentions “the grand old tradition of the Durham prince bishops”. On Sunday I passed the sign at the border of County Durham “Welcome to the land of the Prince Bishops” – and I thought of N.T. Wright, even though I don’t think I was actually in his diocese (I was south of the river Tees – this was on the A66 which runs through an area which used to be the North Riding of Yorkshire but is now in County Durham).

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  3. With the Episcopal Church voting this way (and throw in the Anglican Church in Canada and Church of England), then who has really put themselves outside the Anglican Communion as a minority?!

  4. I am so heart-broken. I have found such a good home in my little Episcopal church by the sea…it seems so far away from all the hoopla and hub-bub… But is it? Will it be for long?

    I had planned to have my children confirmed there and myself as well. Now I am rethinking everything. Truly, I can’t tell you how disheartened I am.

  5. Kevin, the Church of England hasn’t voted the same way as TEC. It is deeply divided on such issues but would never have a clear majority for the same position as TEC has just taken. So really it is just TEC and the Canadians, and possibly a few smaller provinces, who have put themselves outside the pale. The majority of the Communion is certainly conservative because, at least if you discount the nominal Anglicans in England who sometimes get counted, that majority is in Africa. But probably before long there will be two Anglican Communions.

    Molly, don’t be too disheartened. It will probably take a long time before this affects your little Episcopal church. If they are conservative, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they end up in ACNA within a few years – although perhaps without their building.

  6. Paul Barnett is a serious influence in my part of the globe. Here is an email he sent to someone last year,

    Please not his last sentence,

    “These references are quite pointed and our growing appreciation of the importance of finding theology in the narratives seems to be telling us something. While it does not point to ordination in a pastorate it seems to encourage women having the freedom in witnessing to men, including in missionary situations (which some today oppose).”

    According to Barnett, women are allowed to witness to men in missionary situations. That is the kind of freedom that Barnett supports.

  7. Sue, I am not endorsing ACNA. But if it is able to accept supporters of women’s ordination as well as those against it might attract more and more relatively conservative Episcopalians and Canadian Anglicans, perhaps including Molly’s church and yours. Of course if you are not happy in a denomination which also has room for those who oppose women’s ordination, a position I have a lot of sympathy with, you will have to look elsewhere.

  8. At the Greenbelt Christian music festival, immediately prior to his ordination, Dr Williams said when interviewed on stage that “the church in it’s present form has to die. My job is to ease that process.” So I don’t think any of this is a surprise to Dr Williams. He is perceptive enough to have been able to see what needed to happen, though maybe not it’s specific outworking, and wise enough to let it happen without too much intervention.
    For Anglicans to make these extremely costly sacrificial decisions in order to remain in right standing with received biblical teaching must in the long term produce a stronger and more unified body of believers capable of carrying a much greater weight of God’s grace. And that we all need.

  9. Duncan, that’s an interesting quote. And I think it’s a correct one, certainly concerning traditional Anglicanism of every variety. I just didn’t realise Rowan recognised this. I’m not sure how well he is doing at easing the process. But it does make some sense of what he has been doing.

    However, with any dying patient the time does have to come when death has to be recognised and the life support system switched off. I wonder if Rowan or anyone else will have the courage to do that.

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  11. The issue of support for women’s ordination doesn’t divide cleanly along traditionally theologically liberal/conservative lines – there are Anglo-Catholics within the ACNA who are would be theologically liberal on some other issues, but conservative when it comes to women’s ordination.

    This really is one of the elephants in the room that is presently being ignored by the ACNA – and is possibly why the AMIA, CANA groupings chose for now not to pursue any kind of merger.

  12. Yes, women’s ordination is the elephant in the room. However, my former church, a leading church in the split in Canada, is soft comp, and although the congregation has not heard of Grudem, the clergy are committed and fully indoctrinated Grudemites. Barnett has come every summer to teach summer school and Grudem has been cited by a surprising number of clergy. I know there are also those who are uninfluenced by this, but people need to know what they are getting into.

  13. I’ll have to look into the ANCA more, so thanks for the heads up, Sue. Since the topmost person (or, heh, however you say that) in our little congregation *is* a woman, I doubt they will be looking toward the ANCA, and from the sound of it, I wouldn’t want them to, anyway.

  14. Molly,

    Some female pastors have joined it. One of the main bishops in Canada says clearly he is pro women clergy. But the ones I have met aren’t. Its a mixed bag. Sorry that I wan’t clearer on that.

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