In the U.S.A. seceders from a congregation or denomination assume without question their right under God to form a new congregation or a new denomination, usually according to a specific blueprint. There are hundreds of examples of this since the American Civil War. In fact, this right and its consequences lie at the heart of American religion.
And this right was in essence what the secessions from The Protestant Episcopal Church assumed in both 1873 and 1977—the one to restore the Evangelical character of Anglican Protestantism and the other to restore the Episcopalianism of the 1950s, before the revolutionary 1960s. One group created The Reformed Episcopal Church and the other group the various Continuing Churches.
But the secession planned by the four dioceses of S-J, F-W, Pittsburgh and Quincy from 2008-9 is different in a basic principle. Here there is no claimed right to set up an autonomous local ecclesial entity; rather there is an attempt to be validated and authenticated by an overseas ecclesial entity! That is, there is an intention to become part of, by adoption, an overseas Province that is in good standing within the Anglican Communion. For to be within the Anglican Communion is seen by these dioceses as the sure way to be a part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church and not be in schism. So what is planned is a movement from one Province (judged to be seriously in error and so perhaps not in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church) to another Province (judged to be orthodox and within the Church of God).
Here then is the innovation in American Protestantism! It is the negation of the right simply to secede and create one’s own thing in favor of the lesser right to transfer from one local Province to another which is overseas.
Let us be clear. Other options are available to the four seceding dioceses but these are rejected.
One is to form together a Province in embryo and patiently wait for full recognition from overseas Provinces; and in the interim simply be in fellowship with overseas dioceses and Provinces and seek to unite the Common Cause Partners.
Another is to join the missions from African Provinces (Rwanda. Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda) already on U.S.A. soil and enter the Anglican Communion via the back door as it were by uniting and working with one oir all of these.
These two possibilities are rejected because, it appears, belonging to the Anglican Communion in a clear and observable manner is fundamental to their belief system. They are not even sure about membership of the Communion via the missions of Rwanda etc.
In a sense, one could say that the four dioceses are imitating what the churches of the former thirteen colonies did in 1788-9 when they asked the Church of England to authenticate their Prayer Book (edited version of BCP 1662) and also declare that they were in full communion with the mother Church. Both were granted from England (see the Preface to the American BCP of 1789-1928).
This said, the innovatory position adopted by the four dioceses is not without its difficulties, practical and theological. The practical begin with the lively interest of the leadership and lawyers of PECUSA in their intention to secede; and the theological begin with the ecclesial reality of the Anglican Way in North America. I deal only with the latter for the former is well known—many law-suits.
It is not well known that Lambeth Conferences from 1867 to 1998 have only been consistent in their many Resolutions in a few matters; and one of these has been the territorial integrity of a Province and within it of a diocese. No other position is so clearly and often articulated as this, which means that in the few cases where there are overlapping jurisdictions they are seen as a problem and one to be solved (e.g., the American and English dioceses overlapping in Europe).
Here then is the oddity in the U.S.A. At the same time as the four dioceses are insisting that their full integrity as members of the Catholic Church can only be maintained through transfer to another (territorial) Province overseas, they are actually supporting the invasion of the PECUSA territory—but not interestingly theirs— by at least five overseas Provinces from Africa and South America.
By any measure, this is inconsistent thinking! If these overseas Provinces are right to invade with the Gospel Mandate, then the four dioceses logically should join these missions for they are already on U.S.A. territory. Further, they should declare that they think that the Lambeth Conference teaching over 150 years on the integrity of Provinces is wrong—at least with respect to the U.S.A. in 2007-8!
Consider what will be the situation in 2009 if the plans of the four dioceses go ahead and PECUSA is unable to stop them.
There will be at least five—buy probably more—missions from overseas Provinces organized into dioceses and networks with multiple bishops and with separate administrations; there will be multiple single congregations with a bishop somewhere overseas in another continent; there will be four dioceses belonging to overseas Provinces (e.g. Southern Cone); there will be multiple, small Continuing churches, the Reformed Episcopal Church and other groups yet to emerge. And over against all these variations there will be the Episcopal Church, in which are congregations and dioceses claiming to be orthodox (e.g. Dioceses of Dallas & Springfield), even as the Province of the U.S.A. is still regarded by many Provinces as a true Province of the global Anglican Communion!
Either there is here in this bewildering variety an absolutely new form of comprehensiveness in the Anglican Way in North America, a form never envisaged before; or else, there is the shattering of the Anglican Way into many parts (and like Humpty Dumpty no one—except a Moses or Joshua or David or Solomon— may be able to put them together again). Secession is relatively easy; reconciliation and unifying are relatively difficult!
The Revd Dr Peter Toon; December 5, 2007; firstname.lastname@example.org