The Episcopalian Rift

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.

8 years ago
If only we could put the Epsicopalians in charge of the CDF, we'd have the best of both worlds.  The CDF is a valuable institution as it eventually catches up with the times.  To say it is the guardian of unchanging doctrine would be to shade the truth a bit, since they have, indeed, changed over time.  In prior times, I am sure they found slavery and the ownership of women by their husbands perfectly fine.  I don't think they would now.  In thirty years, if there is still a CDF (which would prove the prophesies of St. Malachy false), I am sure they will look back on the issue of openly gay clergy and gay marriage as ancient history.
The CDF is not the entire Church.  Eventually, they will listen to the people of God and relent.  As I have said previously, the real push for acceptance won't come from gays themselves, but from their families.  Once most Catholic families are accepting of a gay and lesbian member, there will be great pressure for the Church to follow suit.
8 years ago
As a former Roman Catholic who became a member of the Episcopal Church two years ago, I'm sometimes accused of having left a sinking ship for a sinking rowboat!  For all that, I encourage you to meditate on the beautiful photo you published of Bishop Robinson and his partner.  Given the reputed high percentages of gay Catholic priests estimated by Donald Cozzens and others, I humbly submit that many such photos of current Roman Catholic clergy and laity might appear if the Church's culture and theology allowed for the reality of their partners. How would their lives, and the lives of the communities where they lead or belong, be changed by a willingness of the Church to accept gays and lesbians as children of God whose lives are not ''objectively disordered'' or ''intrinsically evil?''
The issue is indeed one of ecclesiology.  The Roman Catholic Church has few mechanisms for exploration and discussion when perceptions of reality change, whether those changes concern the movement of planetary and solar bodies, or of human bodies.
However imperfect the process and the proposed solutions might be, Episcopalians are moving towards an inclusive church that now includes married clergy, women clergy, and gay and lesbian clergy, with a rite for blessings of same sex marriages to follow soon.  It's a wonderful experience to worship God in a community which listens for the living word and struggles in a positive, respectful dialogue with how to respond.
8 years ago
I don't know Michael. I find it hard to
prescribe to our sisters and brothers in the Anglican Church. I am a cradle
Catholic who often wishes I could find a way to move over to the Episcopal
Church. This decision makes me want to move even more. They are, as many but by
no means all or even most of our Protestant brethren are too, way ahead of the
curve in justice for women and gays and are not mired in an archaic natural law
stance that has little relationship to the world of nature.
8 years ago
You know Michael, we really haven't stayed
together for 2000 years. Rather we have a long history of schism and torture
and other acts of violence and war in efforts to hold "us" together.
The result is a rather diverse (some will say divided but I prefer diverse)
Christian world. And this is quite true of just those Churches that are
“confessional,” i.e. accepting the Apostles Creed and/or the Nicene Creed as
defining documents. One could make the argument that the Nicene Creed is just
the founding document of the Imperial Church preparing to use of the state and its
apparatus for the corrosion of right belief.
8 years ago
Michael:
I think you're right in identifying the problem as one of ecclesiology.  The peculiar American trajectory of TEC didn't start with Robinson, but goes back at least as far as the unresolved controversies of Bishops Pike and Spong.
 
I suspect the real sources of this split are found in the very origins of the denomination. Whatever doctrinal and social forces produced the Anglican Church, it met the needs of the rising Tudor State. With the dissolution of the British Empire, major schisms within the Anglican Communion were only a matter of time. What's astonishing, then, is that the so-called ''Elizabethan Settlement'' has survived this long.
Africa has a very different history than the developed North and sees the matter of ecclesial communion through different eyes.  Those in the North - and especially in TEC - see themselves as ahead of the curve on issues of inclusion, comparing the evolution of thought on LGBT issues to that of slavery and emancipation.  Many Africans understand this as a matter of communal fidelity, comparing their witness to that of the Martyrs of Uganda and the heroes of African decolonization.
That said, I think the ecclesial wisdom of Catholicism (and to some extent, Orthodoxy) is not some body like the CDF, but an understanding of self as a true communion. American Catholics like to see themselves as cutting edge on so many issues, but to me, the most interesting ecclesiology comes from Africa and, to a lesser degree than before, Latin America.  I don't expect it to appeal to many in the North, but I the church of the future is south of the Equator.
8 years ago
Michael,
The topic that you have chosen to comment on is far more complex than you allow. Certainly, ecclesiology is part of the problem. However, it is not the only problem. Biblical hermeneutics is a far more central problem with regard to the presenting issue: sexual ethics. Ecclesiology only became an issue when the differing positions could not find a resolution, and thus sought to impose one on each other.
Ecclesiology has been the focus of the attempts to resolve the issue as well. The very significant developments represented by the Windsor Report and the more recent draft Anglican Covenant indicate that a debate regarding central authority and normative standards is underway in the Anglican world. The CDF and the papacy is not the only way to formulate a central authority. In some senses, the Anglicans are being true to their via media as they form a Covenant. It is not a person or an institutional manifestation of authority that will determine who is Anglican or not. It is a free decision by each Anglican province that they are prepared to live interdependently in a covenant. The reason that the recent Episcopal Church's General Convention resolution is a problem is because it makes clear that they do not accept the limits that covenantal life requires of them.
If it wasn't sexual ethics, would it be another issue? Certainly, there would likely have been any number of issues that will arise in a church community. Anglicans are also arguing about the role of women in ministry, which has ecclesioogical as well as sacramental implications. In the 70s and 80s, the TEC survived the confrontation with the rest of the Communion over the issue of women's ordination. Now, there are those that think that they will be able to repeat history, and preserve the TEC's role in the Communion while also going their own way on issues that divide. The context has changed, and it is not clear that the TEC will survive this one.
8 years ago
to Steve Schewe
The Catholic Church does accept gays and lesbians as children of God.
(what exactly is the difference between a gay and a lesbian, anyway?)  
Being gay/lesbian/homosexual/having-same-sex-attraction is not a sin.  (defining a child of God by a label may be the sin).  No matter how high the reputed percentage, it still remains: how one defines their own sexuality is not a sin. (polls and statistics don’t reveal truth, they only justify opinions).
I do agree with you, though. It is a wonderful experience to worship God – praise and thanksgiving - in community, not attaching labels to others, seeing people without prejudices, seeing people for who the are …children of God.
8 years ago
>>Episcopalian church
Sometime back, a news agency covering the new pope referred to the "Carmel Lite Nuns" and the "Crow's Ear" being carried.  While not so extreme, Episcopalian is a noun.  Episcopal is an adjective.
Treg
 
8 years ago
Michael, I agree that the problem for the Anglican/Episcopal Church is ecclesiological.  Brian makes a good point when he refers to the unresolved controversies stemming from Bishops Pike and Spong.  As can happen so easily, ideologies trump Jesus Christ.  It seems that belief in Christ (his divinity) has been watered down and in some cases, is almost non-existent in some, certainly not all mainline Protestant denominations.  My personal belief is that with the loss of the belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, unity of the church is lost, as well.  St. Augustine has much to teach us on the Eucharist and ecclesiology-the union of Christ with the church and in the church with individual believers.  One has to be in the unity of the Church, in that universal charity that binds the members together with their head, Jesus Christ, in order to profit from the receiptionof the Eucharist. In the Eucharist we receive "the sacrament of the unity of the body and blood of Christ", that is, not simply Christ himself but Christ insofar as he is united with his body the Church and with each member of the Church.  We should then, eat the Eucharist, our "bond of unity" lest we disintegrate.E
8 years ago
The difference with the Catholic Church is the possibility (a long shot in today's intellectual milieu, which regards everything as an open question) that not everything is relative or up for debate.  As Chesterton quipped, ''An open mind is really a mark of foolishness, like an open mouth.  Mouths and minds were made to shut; they were made to open only in order to shut.''  Your problem is not with the Church but with Christ: ''Who hears you hears me.''  It's called the teaching ministry of the Church, the Church that Christ promised the gates of the underworld would not prevail against.  
For your own sanity, please don't hold your breath for the CDF to change its tune on gay marriage, women priests, etc., etc.  What appeals to so many of the modern-day converts, seminarians, and religious is that the Church is a fixed point in a moral universe in which everything else has been cut from its moorings.  Oh, and that Jesus Christ guaranteed its perseverance.  Like a Pascal's wager, I'm going to put all my eggs in that basket.  Go ahead and join the Episcopal Church-it's going to be a very white, very upper-middle class, very highly educated, very American experience to be sure. As for me, I look for one, holy, catholic and apostolic in my Church.
8 years ago
I think what the Episcopal Church did by deciding that God has called and may call any individual in the church to any ordained ministry  was brave, and reflects a more gospel-correct view than the one we have in our church.
8 years ago
As an Episcopal priest, it is my opinion that your analysis of the present situation in my communion is absolutely correct.  Both the left and the right in the present crisis are deliberately choosing sectarian solutions.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the most articulate voice for a catholic solution, is being both mocked and ignored. 
8 years ago
Wow!
How's that unity thing working out for you guys?
How's that top down decision making thing working out for you guys?
8 years ago
I did find it hilarious when the Presiding Bishop wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury and said "Schism is not a Christian action."  Of course, a schism is how the Anglican Communion came to be.
Also, I will add in contradiction to many comments here that Catholic doctrine has never contrdicted itself and it will not "get with the times" as the teachings that Christ gives the Church are timeless.  Society must bend its will to the Church not the other way around.  That's what makes us one and catholic.
8 years ago
As a theologically conservative Anglican priest, let me add my perspective here.  I'm in basic agreement with Michael Winters that this vexing, prolonged crisis within Anglicanism has exposed a fatal flaw within our current polity structures at the international level, i.e., the inability to make a decision that could resolve this bitterly divisive dispute that would be binding on the whole worldwide Communion.  However, it must also be noted, that the flip side of that crippling weakness is the flexibility to adapt to local cultural contexts that comes from that same lack of any mechanism to enforce worldwide conformity.
 
As long as we were dealing with non-essential matters upon which disagreement could be allowed, this weakness was manageable.  But the Culture Wars have brought to the surface deep, irreconciliable differences within the Anglican world over matters that involve non=negotiable essential matters, such as the supreme authority of Holy Scripture.  I firmly believe that there is absolutely no biblical justification whatsoever for the ''gay is OK'' position, or the pro-choice position, but I am now among a small minority of Anglican clergy in North America in stoutly defending such views.  And as a result, I recently left the Episcopal Church and joined the new Anglican Church in North America.
I would agree however with#6, Nicholas Jesson, that biblical interpretation is at least as central to this crisis as ecclesiology.  It remains to be seen how this bitter conflict, this fierce battle for the soul of Anglicanism will play itself out.  But as a lover of John Henry Newman, one of the results I'm hoping for is the creation of some kind of new binding, transprovincial authorities that can finally restore order within Anglicanism.
Fr. David Handy, Ph.D. (Richmond, VA) 
 
8 years ago
As a theologically conservative Anglican lay person who, like Father Handy, is aligned with the Anglican Church of North America, I would respectfully suggest that there is an alternative to the choices offered by the author of this piece, either a CDF or a totally decentralized congregational decision-making process in terms of how matters of church doctrine are decided.  The alternative is the most ancient Christian way of arriving at a decision, it's called the concilior tradition.  Essentially, it holds that ultimate decisions are made in matters of doctrine neither by a pontiff (as our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters hold) nor by individual congregations (as most of our Protestant brothers and sisters hold), but rather by great councils of the church (as our Orthodox brothers and sisters hold).  The most obvious example of the concilior tradition is the Nicene Creed.
Despite what you're reading about what the Episcopal Church in the U.S., or the Anglican Church of Canada are doing, the global Anglican Communion has an official position on human sexuality, and that position is NOT at odds with either Scripture or the past 2000 years of Christian tradition.  The official Anglican position was reached through the concilior process and is expressed most clearly by the Lambeth Conference of 1998 in Resolution 1.10 (which you may find here: http://www.anglicancommunion.org/windsor2004/appendix/p3.6.cfm).  This teaching stands to this day as the official teaching of the Anglican Communion on human sexuality.
The problem we Anglicans are having is not how to determine matters such as this, but how to enforce them.  I'm sure we'll sort it out eventually, but the real crisis in Anglicanism is not how to reach decisions, but how to make them stick once the decision is made.  So far the four ''Instruments of Communion'' in global Anglicanism (the Archbishop of Canterbury, the once-a-decade meetings known as the Lambeth Conference, the ACC - or Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates Council) have proven themselves either unable or unwilling to resolve the crisis caused when minority parts of the church (in this case in the U.S. and Canada) ignore the teaching and mind of the Communion.  I'm sure we'll muddle through in the end, but it certainly is a bit messy!  However, the writer of this article is wrong, there is another option - the concilior principle!
8 years ago
Having read all this and more on the topic over the years, I cannot help but wonder if Romans 1:18-32 and Ephesians 5:1-20 have been expurgated from Protestant bibles.  Christians call the bible the Sacred Word of God.  Either it is or it isn't.  If it isn't, then we are all wasting our time and might as well sign up for Creative Hedonism 101 at our local colleges. 

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