For nearly all US history, to think of Episcopalians or of Anglicans was to think of The Protestant Episcopal Church (later called “The Episcopal Church”). Only in very recent times are we required of necessity to think of “Church” in the Anglican sense of being both The Episcopal Church (TEC) and those groups, denominations, jurisdictions, networks and associations using the term Anglican or Episcopal but outside TEC.
So the state of the “Church” that we observe is that of being primarily divided, and divided in at least two senses—(a) organizationally, as already indicated; and (b) doctrinally, in terms of what is true teaching and what is right conduct.
How we evaluate this situation depends on a lot of things, but here let us focus on just one of them—the form of words, expressions, phrases, titles that we use to describe the departing from or leaving of The Episcopal Church to form congregations, networks, dioceses and the like. Let us examine briefly the three major departures from The Episcopal Church of people intending to create a new form or revive an old form of Anglicanism or Episcopalianism.
First of all, a committed, small group of Evangelicals left The PECUSA in 1873 and formed The Reformed Episcopal Church using the 1785 Prayer Book (the Latitudinarian Book rejected by the English Bishops) rather than that of 1789. To the General Convention of The Protestant Episcopal Church and to many of the Evangelicals who stayed within it, this departure was schism. However, though they did not use the word, for those exiting it was re-alignment, for they saw themselves as restoring a right relation and line with denominations that were truly Evangelical and true heirs of the Reformation. The PECUSA had lost its Protestant character, they believed, and they needed to restore it by re-aligning for only thus could they remain Evangelical.
Secondly, a somewhat larger group left TEC in 1977 and formed at the Congress of St Louis the Continuing Anglican Church. They rejected the arrival of female clergy in TEC and were concerned about the liturgical innovations in the pipeline (which led to the 1979 Prayer Book of TEC). They saw their departure as an act of continuation of the historic Anglican tradition, a tradition which they believed TEC was losing; and they intended to align with Anglican Churches overseas that did not embrace innovation in Ministry and Doctrine and Liturgy. For The Episcopal Church this departure was open schism and caused some high churchmen inside it to begin to use the expression, “schism is the worst kind of heresy.”
Right now in 2007 we seem to be towards the end of a continuing saga of departure that started ten years ago and accelerated after 2003. Here the exiting is because TEC has embraced doctrine, especially in sexuality, that embraces immorality and calls it holiness. Those departing claim that they are engaging in the process of re-alignment, of joining orthodox Anglican provinces abroad and thereby remaining genuine Anglicans. From within TEC the seceders are seen as creating and engaging in schism.
Let us now focus on the words, schism and realignment. If we take dictionary definitions and seek to remove all emotion then one may say that in all three cases of departing from TEC there is both the fact of schism and the attempt to realign.
However, psychologically, it is most important that those departing use only realignment to refer to what they have done for this puts a positive spin on their activity and raises it to a good, and even noble purpose. Through this frame of reference they can see everything connected with their departure from TEC, and their arrival in a new sphere, positively and give themselves to pursuing it more cheerfully and sacrificially. They say to themselves, “Not schism but realignment, and, indeed, necessary realignment.”
From the other side, within the walls of TEC, the word schism is necessary to describe what happens, because it underlines such ideas as (a) that those departing have cut themselves off; (b) they have forsaken their heritage and friends; (c) they have brought division where there was none before; and (d) they are causing unnecessary trouble at home and abroad. They say, “It is schism, not realignment, and schism is the worst kind of heresy.”
From even a minimal acquaintance with the political scene in the U.S.A., one can see that there are very definite frames of reference or mindsets present around and within the political agendas and activities of the two major political parties in the U.S.A. And so it is also with the “parties” in the Anglican “Church” of the U.S.A. To recognize this is to gain some preliminary understanding of how people feel and why they speak and act as they do. Likewise, what the Global South Provinces from abroad are doing in terms of creating congregations of their own on U.S.A. soil is, from one perspective, very clearly aiding and abetting schism; but, from another, it is making the process of alignment easier and quicker. And which words are used matters a lot for the words are the outward expression of a deeply embedded frame of reference.
First Sunday in Advent 2007
The Revd Dr Peter Toon