Friday, February 25, 2005

Divorce, Anglican Style

No, we're not talking about Charles and Camilla. They're getting married, remember?

What we're talking about is the request of the worldwide Anglican Communion for the US and Canadian branches of the church "withdraw their representatives temporarily from a key governing body of the denomination" (NYT) in response to two issues: the ordination of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopalian bishop, and the blessing of same-sex unions.

What it means and why you should care below the fold.

So what is going on? See here for a full explanation, but the short version is that conservative Anglicans have been very upset with Robinson's ordination and the decision of some dioceses to bless same-sex unions.

The conservative groups, including several African and Asian bishops, wanted the Episcopal Church in the USA (ECUSA) and the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) to "repent" of their actions, or face outright expulsion from the Anglican Communion.

But that's not the way Anglicans do things.

The request for the North American churches to withdraw from the Anglican Consultative Council is an intermediate step. It gives those churches time to consider their positions before the controversy moves into a more serious phase. In this case, it gives those churches until 2008, when the next Lambeth Conference is held. If no apology or change of course is forthcoming by that time, the North Americans could be officially excommunicated.

The presiding bishops of the US and Canada are playing for time, but according to some reports, the two churches probably won't back down:

In the liberal camp, American Bishop Steve Charleston said the North Americans were unlikely to change their position.

"I think Gene is something of a champion of human rights," he told BBC Radio.

"Like people of color before him, they got tired of sitting at the back of the bus and it was time to stand up and say 'Here I am, I am an honest decent human being and you must treat me with respect.' That is essentially what Gene is doing and I honor him for it."

This BBC reporter thinks a split in the church is almost inevitable, despite statements to the contrary from various bishops.

What will come of this? Let's throw out some scenarios, roughly in order of their likelihood:

  1. Conservative churches in the US and Canada will use this as their excuse to bolt. This part will happen, whether now or in 2008. These churches have several options: they may become independent congregations, affiliate with another Anglican bishop more congenial to their outlook, or join another denomination or network. (Some churches have gone Catholic; others have joined splinter groups.) Whatever the case, look for the ECUSA in particular to a)lose some parishes and b)be tied up in litigation in the next couple of years.

  2. The conservative revolt spreads to other denominations. The most likely candidate is the United Methodist Church, which has a polity similar to the Episcopal church. Groups sponsored by Richard Mellon Scaife are also active in both denominations. The UMC is also vulnerable because of its historical North-South tensions, and newer divisions between traditionalist and evangelical camps.

  3. The revolt spreads beyond ECUSA and the UMC to unrelated churches. Most likely are the Presbyterians, but the ELCA and UCC could also be hit with church walkouts. (The UCC already has a problem with this, but the trend could accelerate.)

  4. The fracturing of political/ideological lines leads to a general realignment of denominations into two camps: conservative and liberal. It's unlikely that any new denominations will arise, at least not in the near future. But probably, we will see some new ties being forged, whether through new "meta-denominational" structures, or simple agreements to work on common causes.

    Again, realignment is unlikely, but it needs to be counted as a real possibility. Already, some Baptist congregations have left their associations and joined the UCC. In other words, it has happened that questions of polity and history have taken a back seat to affiliation based on acceptance of gays and lesbians. Particularly as mainline denominations face harsh realities with pensions and health care costs, there may be some impetus to work together with like-minded bodies.

One wildcard in this is the Pope's health, believe it or not. Nobody really knows which direction the Catholic Church will take when John Paul II inevitably meets his maker. Nor do they know how the future course of the church will be met in America. The next few years could turn out to be a fresh start--or they could continue along the same grim path already travelled in recent years. Don't discount Catholic influence; their liturgical reform in the wake of Vatican II led to an unparalleled wave of changes in Protestant worship.

After all this, why should you care? Well, there are a couple of reasons: first, this presents a real opportunity for liberal churches. Given the current dominance of conservative faith and politics in the US, churches that break away over homosexuality are unlikely to gain much ground from the issue. They've topped out.

But, if conservatives walk out, it might leave those left behind (ha, ha) feeling more free to take more progressive stands on issues--and a bit more determined to do so. Things might get a little more noisy, but in the end, the liberal voice may be strengthened by the whole mess.

And like it or not, religion and politics in the United States are mutually influential. A realignment in the church might be a real struggle in the short term--but it might lead to some exciting new possibilities in shared purpose and vision. That might in turn bleed over to the world of progressive politics, which is already showing signs of its own forced realignment.

At 4:12 PM, Anonymous Abby said...

As an Episcopalian, I am really disturbed by the possibility of schism. pastordan, you come from a much more Protestant tradition, but I am inclined to believe that our multiple denominations reflect both the creativity of the Holy Spirit and a great sin.

In other words, I think that unity is extremely important. I don't like what the report says, but I'm inclined to trust the Archbishop of Canterbury when he says..just read his speech.

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