A basic belief of Christians is "the providence of God;" that is, that God is ultimately the only ruler of the cosmos, that nothing happens without his knowledge and permission, and further that, as the Father of his adopted children ("the elect"), he both causes and allows things to happen to them and around them for their long-term true good.
Looking back over the last fifty years of Episcopalianism in the USA in terms of divine providence, I advance the following proposal or thesis—for others to reflect upon, accept, modify, improve, or reject. It provides an account of the lost possibilities offered by Divine Providence through the two major recent secessions from The Episcopal Church [TEC].
I begin with the schism of 1977 leading to the formation of the Continuing Anglican Church.
By this secession, God provided the opportunity and means for a committed group of Episcopalians to join together in orderly and godly ways to begin all over again—outside and away from TEC—The Anglican Way in America. And this is what they intended, even though in the Zeitgeist of the USA with its powerful centrifugal forces, they knew that their task would be very difficult. Further TEC intended that they should fail and worked to gain that end. Regrettably—as much by their own weaknesses and errors as by the machinations of others—the intended Unified Continuing Church lasted but a year or so, and then divided into what became small competitive jurisdictions—and from these have come more small groups since 1980.
I suggest that this opportunity provided by Divine Providence to recreate the Anglican Way in the USA was missed and not utilized and this was a most serious failure—indeed a tragedy; and, thirty years on, there are only a few signs of those who trace their roots to the original seceders of 1977 actually working together as one or even desiring to do so. If anything, they are in danger of getting more entrenched in their divisions, because of their having created elaborate separated, canonical machinery to govern each of their separated denominational units. Bureaucracies are easy to set up but difficult to dismantle!
Now I move on to the schism that is associated with the consecration of Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as a Bishop in the TEC (but not in the catholic Church of God!) in the twenty-first century. In protest, parts of, and whole, congregations left TEC looking for temporary Episcopal oversight from some friendly bishop from overseas, in the hope that a new Anglican Province for America will be founded soon (arising particularly from the support and efforts of "the Global South" ) and that that they would have a rightful and natural home in this new Body.
It is very possible that by and through this secession Divine Providence was giving to Episcopalians in the USA a second major chance to reform themselves and to be renewed by the Gospel and the Spirit. However, what was also needed, due to the complexities of the Anglican Communion of Churches, was godly patience by all—i.e., those wishing to be orthodox in the USA and their supporters overseas—at least until the major get-together of Anglican bishops in England in July 2008. At this Lambeth Conference the negotiations could take place, it was hoped, to make it possible to gather together within the USA at a later time the various seceding congregations and groups into some orderly unit and then make this the beginnings of a new Province—blessed initially at least by the Global South and probably, later, by other Provinces as well. Meanwhile TEC would cease to be the American Anglican Province, because a majority of Anglican Provinces would not be in communion with it, and thus TEC would become an independent, liturgical Unitarian Church.
Most regrettably in the period of testing and waiting, patience recently ran out; Lambeth July 2008, it seemed, was too far away; righteous anger and holy indignation made their impact; Africans long held down by British colonialism flexed their new muscles and took (precipitous?) action! Here again the opportunity provided by Divine Providence for a path to reform and renewal appears to have been blown. And this time blown first in Africa and then in the USA.
Contrary to the basic (and historical) rules of the fellowship that have joined the 38 Provinces in a Communion of Churches, a growing number of African Provinces has decided formally (a) to invade the territory of TEC (which the Lambeth Conference as a body in session has not yet formally judged to be apostate) and (b) to set up dioceses or networks within it—up to now we have Rwanda, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya doing do. Further, these new units have been given their own bishops, who personally invade the historical territory of the local TEC bishop and who also are—strangely— in geographical competition with each other (via overlapping networks and dioceses). Looked from above with a bird's eye view, a real web of intricate overlapping has been created, which will be extremely difficult to unite (bearing in mind also that there are several TEC dioceses which intend to be part of a new Province if it ever comes into being, and that churches like the REC also wish to be part of this projected Province).
Even as continuing Anglican Bureaucracies have been relatively easy to set up but will be most difficult to dismantle, so this setting up of a variety of interlocking and overlapping networks and dioceses by African Provinces will be much more difficult to dismantle than they were to set up!
To ponder these things deeply bring sadness to the Anglican soul, for there seems to be no way out of the huge mess and problem we have created for ourselves on American soil.
If one were to predict—on the basis of what has previously happened in American history—one would have to say that the possibility of the most recent Secession leading to a new Province is remote, and that the more likely result is even more types of Anglican bodies, to join those whose origin is connected to 1977. Overall this points to the further contraction of the number of Anglicans in the USA which was at its height in 1967 with around four millions. Counting all now, TEC and the seceders, it is half of that number while the population has grown massively since 1967.
Anyone, who can discern the Providence of God clearly to see how the LORD our God will lead us out of this confusion and disorder that we have brought upon ourselves, and into godly unity in truth and charity,needs to speak as a prophet of the Lord right away unto his diminishing and sorrowful Anglican people.
Dr Peter Toon July 1, 2007.