A discussion starter from one who does not know the answer!
The present distress felt within most expressions of the Anglican family at this time is probably mostly the fault of Anglicans themselves. Certainly, the world, the flesh and the devil have intensified the situation, and they do so still, as they work in all lives and in our churches. However, there would certainly be points of tension, disagreements and crises (e.g., over the ministry of women, extremes in ceremonial, attitudes to divorce and remarriage of clergy and laity and so on) even if we were all more saintly. And possibly these would be severe – not as severe as they are now but severe all the same.
Looking at the history of the Church of England and that of the other provinces of the Anglican Family, one can advance this thesis: unity in and with comprehensiveness in a province of national church will exist and work only where there is a restraining authority or power at work, to cause members to believe that unity or cooperation are more valuable than division and secession.
In the Church of England particularly, the fact of this Church being Established in law and the National Church has served to create a kind of circle wherein unity (at least in terms of no schism) has been maintained for long periods of time. In the present period this unity is being tested to the utmost; but in terms of the General Synod and House of Bishops, though there is disagreement over this and that, there is no obvious schism and broken communion.
In the Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA loyalty by dioceses and parishes to the institution and to each other was of a high order – even through the civil war – until the 1970s. There was for a very long time a kind of loyal pride in the institution. As the tension caused by the adoption of innovatory doctrines from the late 1960s began to tell, it was loyalty by clergy to the good pension fund, to the fine health insurance, as well as nostalgia by laity to churches and graveyards, that kept this national family together, while the institution as such was losing its integrity and luster.
But, since the late 1970s, more and more clergy and laity have felt that the negative aspects of an innovating institution outweighed the material and social benefits of belonging and have left (so that membership has dropped from 4,000 to 2,000). Now in 2006 there is open division in The Episcopal Church between bishops and dioceses and within dioceses for the world to see; and each side seems ready to keep it that way for the time being at least.
In great contrast to the Church of Rome with its solid center in the Vatican, to which all parts look for authority and guidance, the Anglican Family has neither a patriarch nor an authoritative council of heads of the parts at the center. It relies on “instruments of unity” which have no legal authority and are not always given moral authority by the Family. So there is the potential at all times for each or any part of the Family (a diocese or a province) to go its own way in liturgy, doctrine, morality and discipline and be an acute embarrassment to others. This potential has become a grave reality in the twenty-first century and there seems to be no apparent way at the moment to solve the problems of division and broken communion caused by innovations and disorder in various dioceses and provinces. Centrifugal forces seem to be sending different parts of the Family away from each other and the instruments of unity appear to have no centripetal powers to bring them back to the one table.
So the Anglican Communion is hardly any more a Communion for it is more like a shaky federation as it argues over sexual ethics, “Windsor compliance” and the like. It appears that the Anglican Communion as truly a Communion will only exist in a decade’s time if it is much reduced in members (say from 38 to 25) and if it is more decidedly committed to a common Faith that is identifiable and all accept. This would leave other [liberal] Provinces to form their own progressive Anglican federation. But this is speculation. It is impossible to predict but most agree that optimism is hardly justifiable right now.
If the international Anglican Family now known as the Anglican Communion has problems in terms of unity in doctrine, morals, and Eucharistic communion, then how much more has the localized Anglican family in North America!! Let us move on to this heart-breaking theme.
The various secessions from The Episcopal Church since the 1960s (and not forgetting the secession of the 1870s leading to the REC) have NOT led to a united, traditional Anglican Church providing an alternative to the old ECUSA; but rather they have led to a variety of small groups or jurisdictions, each with its own bishops and canon law. Some of the more recent secessions of individual congregations (around 80 or so) have managed to create ties of one kind or another with overseas bishops from dioceses in the Anglican Communion. And The Anglican Mission in America became part of the province of Rwanda and the Convocation of Anglicans in America is part of the Anglican Church of Nigeria.
Looking at all these varied types of Anglican secessionists or new start-ups, one can see that they represent not only varieties in churchmanship (from casual liturgy to very formal Anglo-Catholic Missal Liturgy) and doctrine (from generic evangelicalism to extreme Tridentine Anglo-Catholicism), but also differences in mindset and ethos, and in their understanding of the Anglican Way. Within this broad spectrum, some hope to be made part of a new province that will be in fellowship with the “orthodox” provinces of the present Anglican Communion. Others (usually Anglo-Catholics) have founded and want to build up a “Traditional Anglican Communion.
What seems very clear is that none of these groups was guided in its origins or early stages by any vital sense of Anglican unity – lip service perhaps but not practical commitment. Rather each group for one or another [good] reason believed that it was right or necessary or expedient for it to come into being and to maintain its being by becoming an institution in separation from others and in competition with them.
So, anyone attempting to get all the various parts, or even a sizeable part of them, all together even for a one-day event to discuss unity or federation is attempting the impossible. In fact, experience to date by individual persons and by organizations shows that it is only possible to get together those who actually believe that they have something important in common to share or something to gain by being together. For any unit to sacrifice its independence or major emphases associated with its independent status, is a big thing indeed and few are even willing to consider this. Everyone it seems is waiting for everyone else to act first.
One may ask: Where is the group that really and truly cares for the unity of all Anglican believers (necessarily a unity in comprehensiveness not in uniformity)? Is there such a one out there somewhere?
Looking at what has been over recent decades and what is the present state of Anglicanism in North America, it is difficult to envisage any possibility at all of unity, even amongst those who define themselves as “orthodox” , for one discovers that “orthodoxy” is as varied as are the secessionist groups themselves, even though they agree on basics – the Apostles’ Creed and the general authority of the Bible, for example.
Perhaps – and I hate to have to make this point – the reality of the American supermarket of religions (check the yellow pages to see what is on sale), as part of the American enjoyment of “liberty,” is such a powerful centrifugal force on Christianity and on Anglican Christianity that it is (practically speaking) a major waste of time seeking to find Anglican unity amongst and between the secessionist groups. At best perhaps one can look for federations of the like-minded but even here a majority in the individual groups may prefer their institutional freedoms.
What appears to be true of the Anglican Way seems also to be true of other “Ways” – check out the Presbyterians and Baptists as a starter for with them as well there seems to be vast variety and no seeming desire for unity any more.
Perhaps what is written above explains in part why people go in one of two basic directions from the Anglican Way – (a) to the apparent security of the Roman Catholic Church with its strong and robust center and where the Church is truly visible as an institution; or (b) to the apparent security of the old Protestant doctrine of the Church as one but only in its invisibility, as seen by God where each member is united individually by faith to the Lord Jesus (here variety on earth of local churches does not matter in the least for it is the invisible, true Church that is real).
Will North American Anglicans ever really take basic unity seriously?
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)