The Anglican Church is a peculiar one. It is the official church of England and headquartered in London, but most of its adherents are outside the English-speaking world (especially Africa). It is a worldwide denomination without any centralized authority. Its nominal leader, Rowan Williams, was appointed by a British politician, Tony Blair, who happens to be Catholic. Overall, it is strongly orthodox, but it has a powerful non-orthodox minority.
All these factors contribute to the crisis that now exists in the Episcopal Church (an American branch of the Anglican church). Within the Episcopal Church, orthodox Christians (who hold traditional Christian positions on the person of Jesus and the authority of the Bible) find themselves in the minority; the majority “progressives” wish to make the faith more compatible with modern views.
Non-Anglicans are most familiar with the conflict over sexuality, but that conflict is merely a sideshow, next to central disagreements over the divinity of Christ, his unique redemptive purpose, the Resurrection, and the authority of the Bible. The conflict has simmered for a long time, and although the consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire (Robinson divorced his family to live openly with a gay partner) worsened existing divisions, it wasn’t until the election of Katharine Schori as Presiding Bishop that the conflict exploded.
Schori was seen as a compromise candidate, progressive but moderately so. She has proven to be anything but moderate, as she showed in an NPR interview before she even took office:
Christians understand that Jesus is the route to God. Umm– that is not to say that Muslims, or Sikhs, or Jains, come to God in a radically different way. They come to God through… human experience… through human experience of the divine. Christians talk about that in terms of Jesus.
A tolerant and multicultural statement this may be, but a Christian one it is not. Unfortunately, this is just one of Bishop Schori’s many statements denying basic tenets of the Christian faith, and she is far from alone. As just one other example, the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles recently apologized to Hindus for Christianity’s efforts to evangelize them.
Anglicanism has a long tradition of “comprehensiveness,” which refers to orthodoxy in central matters but tolerance in secondary ones. Unfortunately, the progressives have moved from secondary issues on to central ones, and their church soon will no longer be recognizable as a Christian one. (Schori’s NPR interviewer insightfully asked “What are you, a Unitarian?” Schori did not answer.)
It was in this context that the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh last year began the process of leaving the Episcopal Church. Several provinces of the Anglican Church offered to accept Pittsburgh into their fold, including the Southern Cone (in South America).
Many were loath to leave the Episcopal Church, feeling that it would be better to remain and try to change it from within. Those voices were undermined, however, by Katharine Schori’s decision to depose Robert Duncan, the bishop of Pittsburgh. Ordinarily, deposition of a bishop requires a trial, but that would have required an actual charge, and would have taken a considerable amount of time. Instead, Schori used a provision called “abandonment of communion,” intended to deal officially with the departure of bishops who had left for the Roman Catholic church. Safeguards exist to prevent a charge of abandonment of communion in controversial cases (such as a bishop who had not yet left), but Schori ruled that those safeguards were inoperable.
In the end, the vote to realign and join the Southern Cone was not close. Clergy voted 121-38, and laity voted 119-72 (including abstentions and spoiled ballots). Vote counters indicated that nearly every swing vote sided with realignment in the end. Archbishop Venables of the Southern Cone immediately moved to welcome the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and appointed Duncan its caretaker bishop until Duncan can officially be re-elected next month.
After the vote, Katharine Schori issued a statement, saying:
“There is room in this Church for all who desire to be members of it.” She also said schism is not an “honored tradition within Anglicanism” and is “frequently been seen as a more egregious error than charges of heresy.”
In other words, unity is more important than truth.
The struggle does not end with the decision to realign. All observers now expect that the Episcopal Church will quickly file suit in secular court to confiscate the property of the Diocese. Historically, church property belonged to individual dioceses, but in 1979 the Episcopal Church passed the Dennis Canon, which asserts that all church property actually belongs to the national church. In 2006, after a lengthy court battle, the Episcopal Church took control of the Church of St. James the Less and shuttered it, and it remains empty today. However, differences in legal circumstances suggest that the Diocese is more likely to prevail in this case.
The media is beginning to understand the nature of the conflict. Although generally still biased against orthodox Christians, they are beginning to understand that the conflict is not about homosexuality, but much more fundamental issues. For example, the New York Times wrote yesterday:
The movement is driven by theologically conservative leaders who believe the church has turned away from traditional biblical teachings on issues like whether Jesus is the son of God and the only way to salvation.