It was 1990. As an Anglican priest I was hosting a deanery clergy meeting in my parish on the Isle of Wight in England. We had gathered to discuss an initiative called The Decade of Evangelism, which was Archbishop George Carey’s idea to reverse the decline of the Church of England.
The whole range of Anglican churchmanship was represented: Anglo Catholic, Middle Church, and Protestant Evangelical. Within these three strands the men would be either liberal or conservative. Some would be charismatic, some not. Some were in favor of women’s ordination, others against. Within these groups were other subgroups determined by choice of hymn books, styles of worship, and class background. Clearly, there was not going to be much agreement on methods of evangelism.
A man from the neighboring parish summed it up. A young liberal from a privileged background, he drawled in a languid and superior tone, “Evangelism? I wouldn’t presume to tell my people what might be right for them spiritually.” The dean to his right nodded seriously, “That’s right, because there is no objective theology.”
For me, it was one of these “Aha!” moments. It would be another five years before I left the Anglican church to be received into the Catholic Church, but the dean’s comment clarified a truth about Anglicanism that I had not seen before.
The Anglican church as it was in the twentieth century is now in meltdown. When most white Anglo-Saxon Protestants think of Anglicanism, they think of a traditional and beautiful form of Christianity for the cultured and educated elite. Those who know and love the Anglican church know it by its greatness. It is the church of John Donne, George Herbert, and Lancelot Andrewes. It is the church of T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and Evelyn Underhill. By extension, the Episcopal church of the United States is the church with fine stone buildings peopled with well to do products of private education. It is the church with tasteful liturgies, high-end contacts, and a nice line in urbane liberal theology.
All of that is changing. A battle is going on for the heart of the Anglican church that is global in its scope and massive in its implications. Put simply, Anglicanism is going in two different directions based on two very different theological positions. The clash is between those who believe that Christianity is a supernaturally revealed religion that demands our submission and obedience and those who believe that Christianity is a human construction that can and should be adapted to the prevailing customs of the age.
The clash between these two divergent theological viewpoints has been going on in the Anglican church for a long time, but until recently the two sides were able to co-exist because of the compromising nature of Anglicanism. My deanery meeting on the Isle of Wight was a practical example of the way Anglicanism could hold together essentially contradictory conclusions. Recent world events, though, have stretched a confederation of contradictions to its breaking point.
The breaking point for Anglo Catholics—those who see the Anglican church as a branch of the ancient, Catholic, apostolic Church—was the issue of women’s ordination. Since the first Episcopal women were ordained in the 1970s, the stream of Anglo Catholics “coming home to Rome” has been steady. Indeed, several prominent converts have told their stories in This Rock’s Damascus Road. The once strong Anglo Catholic movement is now a shrinking and increasingly marginalized minority. They have seen their lay people and clergy leave in droves—either to Rome or to one of the more than ninety schismatic Anglican “continuing churches.”
For the most part, the Anglican Evangelicals didn’t mind women priests. They didn’t have a Catholic understanding of priesthood anyway, so women’s ordination did not present a problem. For them, the promotion of active homosexual lifestyles was the breaking point. Anglican Evangelicals of conservative tradition are hopping mad about the abandonment of traditional Christian teachings on marriage, but the problem is that they have nowhere else to go. Their Evangelical theology makes them suspicious of the Catholic Church, but they are also Catholic enough to value Episcopal forms of church government. They are either staying to fight for the soul of the Anglican church or they are pulling out to join the continuing churches or to forge new international Anglican-based alliances.
Out of Africa
The growth of the Anglican church in the global south adds another element to the crisis. Philip Jenkins chronicles the tensions arising from that growth in his excellent book The New Christendom. The Anglican churches in Africa and Asia were formed, for the most part, by Evangelical English missionaries in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Therefore the Anglican churches of Africa and Asia have mostly an Evangelical complexion. The growing churches of Africa are politically and theologically conservative. And, as Jenkins points out, there are already more Anglicans in Nigeria alone than in Britain, the U.S., and Canada combined. These Christians of the developing world belong to the first of the two divergent strands—they believe that Christianity is a divinely revealed religion that is to be obeyed. They therefore cannot condone an active homosexual behavior.
The Lambeth Conference is a once-a-decade opportunity for the world’s Anglican bishops to meet at Canterbury, England. At the last conference in 1998 the scenes were tense. American and British homosexuals greeted the African bishops with vocal protests. American liberals suggested that the African bishops would understand their position once they had “matured theologically.” The Africans responded that such comments sounded racist.
Although an uneasy truce was subsequently established, the bishops of the global south were outraged when in 2003 the Episcopal Church consecrated Gene Robinson as the bishop of New Hampshire—a clergyman who had divorced his wife in order to move in with his boyfriend. Around the same time, the Canadian Anglican church approved a form of blessing for same-sex unions, the Church of England appointed an openly gay bishop (who later stepped down) and began to consider the blessing of same-sex unions.
Since then the warfare has been open and the results bleak. Discussions between world Anglican bishops have ended in stalemate. One developing world bishop emerged from a long debate in London by saying, “The conversation was like playing tennis with someone on an adjacent court.” In other words, there are two totally divergent understandings of Christianity vying for the heart and soul of the same church.
The proponents of homosexuality see their campaign as a brave, pioneering crusade for justice. One Anglican bishop expressed it like this: “We have been in the forefront of liberation for women in the Church; now it is time we granted equality to homosexual persons.” On the other hand, the bishops from Africa and Asia (as well as conservative Evangelicals in the developed world) see the issue as one of immorality and decadence on a grand scale. Both sides stand firm as a matter of principle.
The Evangelical Anglicans have youth, vitality, and numbers on their side. They don’t want to leave the Anglican church. Instead they have been exerting extreme pressure to have the Episcopal church (the American branch) expelled from the Anglican communion.
When the Church of England voted to ordain women as priests, they came up with a “solution” to the problem of traditionalists who would not accept the innovation: Traditional parishes were allowed to align themselves with a likeminded non-territorial bishop. The so called “flying bishop” would come to the parish to do confirmations and to offer episcopal oversight. This was seen as a temporary measure until women’s ordination was universally accepted.
The measure is still in effect, and in England, it is growing in popularity. It has now become the way forward for those Anglicans worldwide who do not want to condone homosexuality. Evangelicals argue, “If Anglo Catholics who don’t want women priests can have their own sympathetic bishops, why can’t we have our own bishops who will not condone homosexuality?” Why not indeed?
The bizarre result of “flying bishops” is that of an episcopal ministry (which should by its nature be the focus of unity) condoning and promoting division. Episcopalians can now choose their bishop according to personal choice or congregational voting. This is a complete contradiction in terms. It is not episcopal government at all but old-fashioned congregationalism. If the wealthy Evangelical Episcopalians vote to side with their own brand of bishop, what will they do when they decide that they don’t like him or his successor quite so much? Will they vote to move to a different “continuing church”?
Exit Stage Right
Many other orthodox Anglicans are simply walking out on Anglicanism. Individual lay people and clergy have left in droves. In November 2006, Christian Century reported that the Episcopal church lost 115,000 members in three years. Numbers are not being replaced because Episcopalians have a low birth rate and the majority in the pews are over fifty.
In addition, parishes and whole dioceses are making plans to pull out of the Episcopal church. Since September 2006 eight Episcopal dioceses have started the process to request “alternative episcopal oversight.” In the fall of 2006, two large Episcopal churches in the Diocese of Virginia began moves to leave the denomination. If the votes succeed, as their leaders predict, the 3,000 active members of the two churches would join a new organization that answers to Nigerian Archbishop Peter J. Akinola, leader of the 17 million-member Nigerian church. The new group hopes to become a U.S.-based denomination for orthodox Episcopalians.
If a parish votes to leave the Episcopal church, its clergy will lose their pay, their pensions, and future employment opportunities. The parishioners will have to walk away from their church real estate or take on the diocese in a protracted legal battle in which the diocese will hold the members of the vestry personally financially responsible and pursue their personal assets in court.
The crux of the problem is stated by John Henry Newman in his Essay on the Development of Doctrine:
If Christianity is both social and dogmatic and intended for all ages, it must, humanly speaking, have an infallible expounder; else you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the lost of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties—between latitudinarian and sectarian error.
To put it another way, for Christianity to be relevant to the age in which it lives, and for it to expound the truth dogmatically across the ages, it must have an infallible authority. Without such an authority the attempt to make the church relevant to the present age and to pronounce dogmatic truth will result in either of two errors. The latitudinarian error is what Newman calls a “comprehension of opinions.” In other words, everyone’s opinion is as valid as the next person’s and the only virtue is total tolerance. The other error is “sectarian.” In this error unity of belief is maintained, but unity of form is sacrificed; that is, we all agree to split into an ever increasing number of sects, joining up with those who believe as we do.
Anglicans today have the two choices outlined by Newman: They can stay within the Anglican communion and accept whatever goes in the name of “unity,” or they can go the way of sectarianism by joining one of the continuing Anglican churches or seeking alternative episcopal oversight.
The Third Way
For those Anglicans who believe in the historical faith and wish to follow the “faith once delivered to the saints” without sacrificing their Anglican tradition, there is a third way. At present this third way is a very small and tentative option. Nevertheless it is a real option, one that serious Anglicans should consider.
Beginning in 1980, a pastoral provision has allowed married former Anglican priests to obtain a dispensation from the vow of celibacy and be ordained as Catholic priests. In addition, in 2003 Rome approved the Book of Divine Worship. This is an authorized book of liturgical rites based on the Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican rite is approved for “Anglican Use” parishes. At present there are only about six of these in the United States, but there could be more.
That means if an Episcopal priest and his people wish to leave the Anglican church, they can find a home in Rome. Their situation is similar to that of Eastern rite Catholic communities: They have married clergy and their own venerable liturgies and traditions, but they are also in full communion with Rome.
At present, this option is open only to Anglicans in the United States, but there is no reason why it could not be opened to Anglicans worldwide. Will many Anglican congregations take advantage of this open door offered by the Catholic Church? Could whole dioceses or even whole Anglican provinces come over? At present it does not look hopeful. Many are opting for the other two choices: staying grudgingly within the Anglican church or finding some sort of sectarian solution.
What Can You Do?
At this time many good Anglican believers are in genuine turmoil and anguish over the situation in their church. They are looking for some creative way forward. Unfortunately, many still have deep-seated misunderstandings and prejudices against the Catholic Church. Many more are genuinely unaware of the new options that are available to them.
Catholic Christians need to be informed so they can engage Anglicans in open discussion, praying that misunderstandings be cleared up and objections to the Catholic Church be lessened.
The heart of the matter is the question of authority. As an increasing number of Anglicans suffer the consequences of their present lack of authority, Catholics should throw a loving lifeline and pull as many as possible to the only rock on which to build a church: the rock on which Christ chose to build his church—a man named Peter.