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As Episcopalians meet, debate looms about their place in the Anglican world

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, left, and American Bishop Michael Curry pose for the media ahead of the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at St. George's Chapel in Windsor, England, on May 18, 2018. (Steve Parsons/Pool Photo via AP)

(RNS) — As the Episcopal Church begins its 79th General Convention on Thursday (July 5), it’s a good time to take note of the state of the erstwhile official faith of the American Colonies that became a stalwart of mainline Protestantism.

News stories from the convention will likely focus on the denomination’s slow decline, as well as debates over same-sex marriage and the treatment of women, revising the Book of Common Prayer and whether to use masculine pronouns for God. But over these discussions looms a greater confrontation, one that will touch the lives of millions of Christians in dozens of countries.

In July 2020, the archbishop of Canterbury will convene the Lambeth Conference, a decennial meeting of the bishops who are spiritual leaders to the world’s 80 million Anglicans. Between this week’s General Convention and then, the debate about who can rightly claim to be the legitimate expression of Anglicanism will reach a fever pitch.

The controversy got a preview last month as nearly 2,000 conservative Anglicans gathered in Jerusalem for the third Global Anglican Future Conference, or GAFCON, representing 50 countries and including 1,000 bishops and other clergy. Depending on whom you ask, GAFCON is either a conservative renewal movement within the worldwide Anglican Communion or a quasi-schismatic organization designed to undermine official church structures.

The Most Rev. Foley Beach, archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America. Photo courtesy of ACNA

You might fall into the latter category if you’ve never heard of Archbishop Foley Beach, primate of the Anglican Church in North America. Still small compared with the Episcopal Church, with about 1,000 congregations from Canada to Mexico, ACNA comprises mostly churches or dioceses that split from the Episcopal Church over disagreements about homosexuality, the role of women in the church and other doctrinal matters.

But millions of Anglicans, especially in the Southern Hemisphere of the globe where all Christian denominations tend to be more conservative, regard ACNA as the true faith and Beach as the American Anglican primate. At GAFCON’s Jerusalem meeting, he was elected chairman of its primates’ conference.

The mainstream media, including most reporters and commentators who specialize in covering religion, took little notice of the Jerusalem conference, which was actively discussed only by a handful of small Christian news sites and blogs. This is, in part, because Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, is not likely to tell the historic American church that it is out of communion with the rest of the world’s Anglicans, at Lambeth 2020 or anytime soon.

It is also because American reporters exhibit a parochial indifference to ecumenical Christian matters — they barely took note, for instance, of Pope Francis’ visit to the World Council of Churches in Geneva last month.

Their blindness extends to the rising power of the conservative tide in the Global South. In May, as Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry delivered a rousing homily at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, news outlets celebrated his church’s connections to Anglicanism’s rich traditions and history without remarking on the fight brewing over that same tradition. The image of Curry chatting with Welby during the endless processional was cheering, but it painted an inaccurate picture of the state of pan-Anglican relations.

Anglicans’ approaching dilemma should be a cautionary tale for other theologically diverse and geographically disparate Christian traditions.

After years of papering over vast theological differences with appeals to unity, progressive United Methodists in the United States and their conservative counterparts in places like sub-Saharan Africa and the Philippines are finding they may not be able to coexist in the same denomination in any meaningful way.

The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, presides over that house at the 2015 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Brian Baker

Catholics have centuries more experience with maintaining universality while also tolerating local variation in matters of practice. But even as they tout the integrity of saying so unequivocally and without apology, the Vatican and its bishops have counted the costs in the numbers of Catholics (and ex-Catholics) who vigorously oppose church teaching on marriage and sexuality.

There is a limit, in other words, to how much difference ecclesial bodies can abide before their constituents cease to be in communion with one another, organizationally or spiritually.

The onus is on Christians seeking to revise matters of faith and order to persuade the reactionary forces that the tradition can accommodate the change. Some denominations, for instance, have incorporated the ordination of women clergy into their churches without schism. Such is the case with United Methodists, who began ordaining women in 1956.

(This includes the breakaway Anglicans of ACNA, whose bishops recently put out a statement agreeing to disagree about whether to tolerate women priests, reminding us that schism often only leads to more schism.)

It could be that Welby will buy time until a majority of Anglicanism’s provinces agree with the Episcopalians (if ever). For now, GAFCON’s posture is that it has the authority to sanction the Episcopal Church for its accommodation of LGBT members and the elevation of female bishops — or at least that it has the raw power to compel the archbishop of Canterbury to do so. And at Lambeth they won’t likely be content to “agree to disagree.”

How it will all play out, God only knows. Or maybe she doesn’t.

(Jacob Lupfer, a frequent commentator on religion and politics, is a writer and consultant in Baltimore. His website is Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

Correction: This article originally stated that ACNA is one of the provinces of the Anglican Communion. While the Archbishop of Canterbury has called ACNA “an ecumenical partner,” it is not in the Anglican communion.

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Jacob Lupfer

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  • I write a Donald Lowery+ a priest in the Episcopal Church. ACNA is not and never has been recognized as a province of the Anglican Communion equal to the Episcopal Church. Neither ++ Rowan Williams the recent past Abp of Canterbury, nor ++Justin Welby the current Abp of Canterbury, nor ++John Sentamu the Abp of York has granted them the status of a province in the Anglican Communion. ++Justin Welby is in conversation with them, and I would say rightly so, but they are not at this time in Communion with the See of Canterbury. I hope reconciliation comes, and at the risk of getting in trouble with my more liberal friends, I have no problems with a parallel jurisdiction in North America. I would also note that the Church of England has female bishops. If the Episcopal Church is sanctioned or expelled over females in the Episcopate, so also should be the Church of England. At that point, I suspect the Anglican Communion will cease to exist, at least in its present form. If one throws out the Mother church, that creates an insurmountable problem in my mind.

  • For non-Anglicans:

    The Anglican Communion consists of churches in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. There is no other requirement. Beliefs across the Communion vary.

    When Reverend Lowery writes “ACNA is not and never has been recognized as a province of the Anglican Communion” he is saying that the Archbishop of Canterbury is not in communion with the ACNA which itself is organized as a church.

    More important is the GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference).
    GAFCON arose circa 2003 in response to a “false gospel” being promoted within the Anglican Communion, denying the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and promoting a variety of sexual preferences and immoral behavior leading to the perception that some parts of the Anglican Communion were departing from biblical teaching.

    Its most recent gathering was held in Jerusalem June 17 to 22, 2018.

    Some of its members ARE in the Anglican Communion. They exhibit a level of doctrinal agreement no longer present in the Anglican Communion and extremely unlikely to return.

    The primary difference between the Church of England and the Episcopal Church is that the Episcopal Church has embraced same sex relations – with minor exceptions at the diocesan level – and the Church of England has not.

    Both have suffered huge losses in membership over the last half century.

  • Dear Bob,
    Thanks for your words which clarify mine bery well.
    My real worry right now is the push for Prayer Book revision. We have not fully digested what The Episcopal Church received in 1979 from General Convention. Some of what is being proposed, at least in conversation and comments, raises my anxiety level. I am glad I will retire before a Book of Common Prayer, revised, appears in 2030.
    Kind regards
    Don Lowery+

  • I go back aways. For example, I had a chance to meet the late Reverend Canon Albert J. Dubois, Executive Director of the American Church Union, when he gave a presentation at the Community of the Transfiguration in Glendale, Ohio.

    What’s being proposed now is simply a projectile following its easily calculated trajectory over the decades and I have watched its progress. Once you realize that, your anxiety level should drop, at least as far as worrying about where it will land.

  • “The 1930 Lambeth Conference described the Anglican Communion as a ‘fellowship, within the one holy catholic and apostolic church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional churches in communion with the see of Canterbury.”
    – Colin Buchanan, Historical Dictionary of Anglicanism

    The above quote is technically accurate, but misses out on the complexity and richness of one of the world’s largest Christian faith communities, comprising 85 million people in over 165 countries.
    – The Anglican Communion website

    Many of the constitute churches of the AC embrace a concept of the AC as much more than just a reciprocity of relationship with the ABC. There is no compiled list of churches “In Communion” with the ABC. There is a list of the churches in communion with the CoE. And there is a list of churches in communion by way of the Anglican Consultative Council.
    Of late even GAFCON itself has contemplated their version of the AC possibly without an ABC. I would like to see how GAFCON feels when the ABC is a woman!

  • I’ve noticed a fun habit among defensive Christian zealots: when OTHER denominations are shrinking, it’s because they deserve it for straying from the path of righteousness. When their OWN denomination loses members, it’s because 1) no they’re not, and 2) the righteous way is a narrow path and loss of membership is just proof of how correct they are and the fallen secular world doesn’t matter anyway.

  • I’ve noticed a fun habit among anti-religious zealots: when a denomination or group that espouses what they absolutely detest is growing they like to talk about the historic inevitability of their eventual demise, usually citing something from the PEW folks.

    But when a “progressive” denomination like the United Church of Christ or the Episcopal Church comes a cropper espousing their favorite memes and mantras, they write things like:

    “I’ve noticed a fun habit among defensive Christian zealots: when OTHER denominations are shrinking, it’s because they deserve it for straying from the path of righteousness. When their OWN denomination loses members, it’s because 1) no they’re not, and 2) the righteous way is a narrow path and loss of membership is just proof of how correct they are and the fallen secular world doesn’t matter anyway.”

  • The more or less deceptive terms Christian and Christianity need to be replaced with words that indicate the fragmented nature of Jesus-derived churches. Some terms might be Christianism, Christainesque, Christianistic, Christic, Christianista. Christainista-militaritaristic, Christic-irenic, etc etc.

  • Don’t forget the term Christocentric! Very necessary label, especially these days.

  • “debates over same-sex marriage and the treatment of women, revising the Book of Common Prayer and whether to use masculine pronouns for God. ” They can call their idol whatever they want, they left Christ in the dust a long time ago

  • And we progressive Christians lay claim to “Christocentric” (Mk 9:38-41).

  • Thank you for writing this article. I appreciate you raising awareness of issues in the Anglican world which most Press seems to have ignored. I would add two things…first, the ACNA is not just a group of breakaway Episcopal congregations. Since most congregations who left the Episcopal Church lost their buildings in the process, ACNA congregations tend to have a very mission minded spirit, and are actively engaging in starting new churches from scratch. The Diocese Of Churches for the Sake Of Others, for example, consists almost entirely of new congregations with very little direct connection to the Episcopal Church. The second thing I would add is that there is not agreement within the Anglican Communion as to what is necessary to be a member of the communion. The majority of Anglicans worldwide recognize the ACNA as a province in the Anglican Communion. I know details concerning this can be fuzzy to those not directly involved, so I thought it worth clarifying. Again, thank you for covering this story.

  • Yes, I understand you’re an apologist for the “complexity and richness” of the deteriorating situation in the Anglican Communion.

    Just so we all understand my comments were 100% accurate.

  • No, yes.

    For non-Anglicans, “deposed” means “defrocked”, fired, dismissed.

    To “swim the Tiber” means to become Roman Catholic. A synonym would be “to pope”, as in “Clarence Cullam Pope, former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, poped on February 1, 1995, and was received into the Roman Catholic Church.”

    The late Canon Albert J. DuBois (1906-1980), former head of the American Church Union which is the American associate of the Oxford Movement’s Church Union, was “inhibited” – that is suspended – in 1977 from functioning as a priest in his diocese by the Rt. Rev. Jonathan G. Sherman, bishop of Long Island, pending a trial on charges of starting a new church. Canon DuBois answered the charges, pointing out that the General Convention of 1976 had started a new church by approving the ordination of women, but left the Episcopal Church leaving the charges pending.

    After the Second World War, Albert Julius DuBois, a chaplain in Patton’s army during the war and Rector of the Church of St. Agnes in Washington D.C., had been elected to be the first full time Executive Director of the American Church Union (ACU). Father DuBois. a Canon of the Episcopal Cathedral in Garden City, Long Island, New York, led the American Church Union until his retirement in 1974. The ACU was the largest and most active Anglo-Catholic organization in the country and, in fact, the largest unofficial organization in the Episcopal Church.

    Called out of retirement after the 1976 General Convention to briefly head the American Church Union, he tried to work with Anglo-Catholic bishops and priests to arrange for an alternate episcopal oversight within the Episcopal Church similar to the “flying bishops” in the Church of England. As his inhibition made clear, for the most part bishops of the Episcopal Church would have no part in such an arrangement.

    Viewing the beginning of what is now called the Continuing Churches (independent churches with an Anglican heritage but not in communion with the See of Canterbury) as a negative development based on an honest look at similar movements of the past such as the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Old Catholics in Europe, he made contact as spokesman for some parishes of the Episcopal Church with the Roman Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

    That body, after consulting with the US Bishops’ Conference, issued a protocol in 1980 setting out to conditions of the Pastoral Provision, as it was called, for the United States. Bishop Bernard F. Law (then) of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Missouri was charged with the implementation of the protocol, which allowed for individual (married or unmarried) clergy or clergy with their congregations, if any, to be admitted to full communion in the Catholic Church, provided due sacramental, spiritual and intellectual preparation took place together with Catholic ordination for the clergy and then formal incorporation into a local Latin diocese. Further, the Holy See would approve a liturgy for such groups that retained elements and characteristics of the Book of Common Prayer.

    Five former parishes of the Diocese of the Holy Trinity (of what is now the Anglican Catholic Church) led by Canon DuBois, the Rev. John Barker, head of the “Clericus,” an Anglo-Catholic priests’ conference, and Dr. Theodore L. McEvoy, head of its “Laymen’s League” were received into the Pastoral Provision and became Roman Catholic. Canon Dubois resigned from the Episcopal Church and died shortly thereafter.

    That Pastoral Provision is now the Ordinariate with its own liturgy, calendar, and bishops.

  • Just so we all are aware, the posts by the disqus poster of many names currently using the name “Bob Arnzen”, and more appropriately referred to with a concatenation of some of his many names, BobbyJoJack Arnzen Carioca, are never accurate, and are always tainted by his severe religious delusions and his egomaniacal mental disorder.

  • No, Arnzen. Those people don’t have beliefs, and are better for that.

    Just so we all are aware, the posts by the disqus poster of many names currently using the name “Bob Arnzen”, and more appropriately referred to with a concatenation of some of his many names, BobbyJoJack Arnzen Carioca, are never accurate, and are always tainted by his severe religious delusions and his egomaniacal mental disorder.

  • Many would suggest that bible literal Christians are not all that Christocentric. So I’ll throw out another term, term Biblio-Christian. And maybe Vengeance Christian vs Mercy Christian. At any rate Christians are not one.

  • Explain. Don’t just pontificate. Your point is rather meaningless to secular humanists, many of whom hold to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

  • Oh?

    Isn’t everything except what they might personally believe meaningless to secular humanists?

    How is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights working out?

  • It often verges on verbal masturbation. I have always wondered if he doesn’t get some sort of sexual satisfaction seeing his own comments on the page.

  • I unblocked you, you little pr-ck, because someone asked me privately to respond to “Wasn’t he a deposed Episcopal priest who swam the Tiber?”

    Thank you for reminding of why I blocked you, your inane focus on your own picayune sexuality issues to the exclusion of all else, and your own belly button.

    You literally have nothing to contribute to an intelligent conversation, certainly not about Anglicanism.

    Blocked again.

  • There is an agreement within the Anglican Communion as to what is necessary to be a member of the communion: you have to be in communion with the See of Canterbury.

    What you put your finger on is whether that is still a sufficient description of what it means to be Anglican.

    There seems to be a growing body of belief that if the Archbishop of Canterbury does not uphold the Anglican consensus, being in communion with him may not define being Anglican.

  • Uhhhh, I touched a nerve too close to home for the old boy! 😀

    Bye, bye Felicia!

  • it’s supposed to be the hallmark of all “Jesus derived groups.” But alas, these are rather difficult times for some of them, according to the headlines.

  • Jacob also misses a key point, which is that the Instruments of Communion prevent one province from telling another what to do. In other words, the ABC can’t be “made” to do anything, because there isn’t anything she or he can do and still be Anglican.

  • The Universal Declaration of Human rights is working out bteer than
    Christianity. There;s no ambiguity or way to justify hatred, sourness,
    condescension, bitterness, pettiness in the the Declaration. Apparently
    there is plenty of room all these apparent “gifts” in Christians and
    Christianity. The Social democracies, largely abandoning Christianity,
    are making good lives for all their citizens. Can that be said of the
    most Christian advanced nation, the USA? W, How is “Love thy neighbor” working out for you? Or is that another Christian failure?

  • Explain. Don’t just pontificate.

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights appears to have zero adherents, no members, and no results.

    Like your comments, it’s platitudes and jaw exercise with little to show for it.

    The United States is doing better than France, a social democracy which largely abandoned Christianity.

  • The ANCA is nothing more than a heretical schismatic group of reactionary “churches” and has no influence within the Anglican Communion. To state otherwise is an attempt to elevate its stature. There are two “rules” to be a Christian; 1) love God and 2) love one another. The ANCA rejects the second one and therefore fails the very fundamental test.

  • What does it mean to love? (Hint: read the Holy Bible) How do we know God loves us? (Hint: read the Holy Bible)

  • ‘Progressive’ Christians are more progressive than christian. Observing the ‘progressive christian’ ECUSA up close has revealed to me that they are wolves.

  • The Episcopal church would do better if they threw out the false teachers who are clamoring for open sin like so called ”gay marriage” which is not really a marriage that the Lord sanctions or approves of.They cannot feast at the Lord’s banquet table and get desert from hell’s pantry of false doctrine.They must choose between light or darkness, obedience or misery but they cannot have both and cannot serve two masters.This issue concerning the definition of marriage is the most important spiritual battle churches in America face right now,and as for me and my house there is no compromise, not one inch, the Lord has exactly dealt with this issue, and any other opinion outside of what has been revealed is the work of hell and the demons that live in that dark abode.No compromise!

  • Ah, another story about the difficulties within the Anglican communion caused (mostly) by the Episcopal Church of the United States (ECUSA). Facts are that ECUSA will be dead in about 50 years, give or take. And each of their bishops are desperately trying their best to be the one at the controls when the Episcopal ship hits the proverbial iceberg. The best thing for Welby to do is just to ignore what’s going on at ECUSA (the Church of England will probably also be dead in 50 years) and let the faithful Anglicans in Sub-Sahara Africa and the ACNA run the show.

  • I am a former United Methodist of 24 years,I now belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.To us there is no confusion on the definition of marriage,the Lord has made His position very precise and clear, through His Apostles and the First Presidency of the church.In 1995 our church leaders were inspired to draft and publish a short statement called ”The Family:A Proclamation to the World.” It is short and to the point, covering all the most important doctrines concerning the nature of the marriage relationship and the responsibilities that husbands and wives have to each other, to their children and to the society they live in.The Lord knew the utter foolishness and false doctrine that evil men and women would teach in these last days, and this Family Proclamation refutes most if not all of the garbage we are hearing on the media, or being taught from the pulpit by false sheperds who have sold their soul for the temporary praise of the profane and wicked.America is at a tipping point in our history, we will either obey the Lord and prosper or disobey and be swept off the stage, losing our place we could have had if we had not gone a whoring after false gods, both seen and unseen.

  • It’s always fun to read the comments and watch Christians fight among themselves and damn each other to hell for not believing exactly like they do. Christianity has a bloody history of torture, killings, and war between their various factions. And of course different denominations, different churches, and even different individual Christians proclaim that they alone possess the truth, and anyone who doesn’t agree with them is damned to hell. They have their church meetings/conventions, etc. where they argue endlessly, and a faction always goes away mad. They get so mad that not everyone agrees on the most minute things, that they split and go form new churches and denominations. Then the have their church trials where they drag people up and accuse them of heresy, and kicking them out. It’s a good thing there are laws against torture and killing, or they’d be doing it to the heretics. The point is, Christians fight over everything, and the fighting never stops. If it isn’t gays, it’s something else – and it’s always something. And then they wonder why more and more Americans and Europeans are declaring “no religion” when asked. Christianity has a 2,000 year reputation of fighting and arguing among themselves. I’m thinking maybe they’ve all got it wrong.

  • No, you did your usual.

    You asked a question, got an answer, and acted like a j-ck-ass.

    It is what you do.