Yesterday’s Washington Post had a story about an Episcopalian church in Virginia that is trying to decide whether or not to stay in the Episcopal Church or to break off and join the more conservative Anglican Church in North America. Already, four dioceses have made the break and dozens of churches nationwide.
There are plenty of jokes to be made about the fact that it is a bit late in the day for Anglicans to be worrying about schism. After all, their communion started as a schismatic Church, breaking with Rome not so much about any doctrinal issues as about issues of state, specifically the desire of the King to set his wife aside.
Most news accounts posit as a given that today’s schisms are the result of the push by gays and lesbians in the Episcopal Church to be accepted in their church and to be ordained to all levels of ministry, including the episcopacy. The consecration of openly gay V. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2004 is seen as the Rubicon by conservatives. This affirming stance has been criticized by more conservative Anglicans, especially the bishops from the growing Anglican churches in Africa, who hold that the Bible condemns homosexuality.
The problem, however, is not homosexual clergy. The problem is ecclesiology. The much vaunted "via media" that Anglicans pride themselves on has hit a fork in the road. If it had not been the issue of homosexuality it would have been another issue. They need to make a decision that is binding on the whole church, but they have no mechanism for doing so. They need a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as it were, but they very idea seems so un-British. Or, they need to decide that the Baptists and Congregationalists were right all these years, that the local church alone should guide its own destiny and that thoughts of a universal communion are delusional.
The statements coming from the Episcopal Church’s General Convention were purposely not inflammatory, but they did pass a resolution that dug in on their position. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury and to the other Primates of the Anglican Communion, assuring them that the new resolution affirming gays was no news at all. But for conservatives the Rubicon was already crossed. They want a guarantee of orthodoxy and the Anglican church, as a whole, cannot provide it.
For years, Protestants have considered Catholics somewhat servile because of our deference to Rome. "Roma locuta est, causa finita est" are not the words of theological liberalism to be sure. But, for two thousand years, the impulse to keep together, to put ecclesiology at the top of our concern, to take the Lord’s command that all may be one very seriously and to set up structures that facilitate that unity, that impulse has stood us in good stead. I am sure the Episcopalians might not want a Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at Lambeth, but I am glad we have one of our own in Rome.