Peter Toon Jan 1 2008
I am very conscious that the Anglican Communion is fracturing even as I write, and this is something I regret deeply.
In general, I begin my attempts to understand the complex and divided nature of the American Episcopal or Anglican ways from the church polity assumed in (a) the Formularies—BCP, Ordinal & Articles—and (b) the intention of The Protestant Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. when it took over the C of E in the former colonies in the 1780s.
Naturally I seek to do this in the context of American religion and the multiple Christian bodies present in the USA in 2008—a context which is very powerful indeed in terms of shaping attitudes and mindsets.
First of all, I take as a given the doctrine that the Anglican Way is to be a united way: it is to be one unified structure in one geographical area or region. So whether it be present as a national Church (England) or a national denomination (Wales) there is to be one Anglican Body in one specific region— usually called a Province, wherein are dioceses, and in which are parishes.
There is nothing whatsoever in the classic Formularies or in historic Canon Law or in the writings of the standard divines of the Anglican Way that suggests that there can be two or more Anglican denominations or provinces competing for souls from the same population on the same turf. And with a few embarrassing exceptions scattered across continents and through time, there has not been such competition in Anglican history—that is until very recent times in the U.S.A.
In the second place, I concede that the Formularies and Canon Law do not specifically state what is to happen when, in the judgment of the wise, it is believed that a given province, or part thereof, has fallen into most serious error, infidelity, and apostasy. As the Anglican Communion of Churches does not have either a central authority like Rome, or even an ecumenical Patriarch with his Council of Bishops like Orthodoxy, just how it is to be determined first, that a province is in serious infidelity and, secondly, how it is to be called to repentance, disciplined or expelled are not stated clearly anywhere. (In recent days the events that led to the writing of The Windsor Report and then the events that occurred because of it, provide a case study in the problems of determining what is error and disciplining an erring province, once that province is deemed to be such.)
In the third place, looking back on the history of The Episcopal Church from the 1970s to the present year of 2008 one can see two ways of dealing with perceived apostasy: one was the primary method of 1977 and the other that of more recent days.
(a) Various people on the inside, deeply desiring to be released from what they judged to be infidelity or serious error, take action; but coordinated action ceases beyond the point of the initial exit from the Episcopal Church so that secession leads to varied results. Instead of, as it were, one opposition being found gathered and organized outside the walls, there are several, and they do not have a united command. Gradually each one creates a denominational apparatus of its own.
(b) From wholly on the outside, that is from Provinces overseas, offers are made to care for those who decide to become secessionists; but again, these offers are not carefully coordinated from abroad and they lead not to one joint form of help in the form of one alternative church jointly sponsored by various overseas Provinces, but rather to several different churches. Once planted each group of churches creates a denominational apparatus of its own.
One may claim justly that what was needed in both instances was one opposition, one united body and one organization. What was needed was a sound Church as a definite alternative to the erring and apostate old one. But, tragically, what arose from the different types of secession was a group of churches—home-grown and foreign implanted—all in opposition to The Episcopal Church, and also to some degree in competition with each other and with only minimalist plans by some of the new churches for getting together.
So there is the old province—judged by many but not all to be apostate—and, instead of the one new Church to replace it as a Province in the Anglican Family , there is a growing cluster of both home-spun and foreign created churches, all claiming to be the alternative or an alternative to the original, old Church. Further, both the old Church and the various forms of new churches (from the 1977 secession and the more recent secessions) each claims to be the church for the whole nation, the true Anglican denomination for America. (Thus the scene looks like the situation with other Christian bodies in the vast American market of religions, where there are multiple forms of them, in both parallel and overlapping modes as well as in competing ones.)
In the fourth place, how is it that devout and intelligent persons knowing both intellectually and experientially the facts as above stated, are able to make claims for their own small group of being the Anglican denomination for the nation?
Here are some of the possible explanations:
a. Their bishops are in the historic succession and can show a line through the laying of off hands back to the apostles. [This is of course only a part of the doctrine of apostolic succession—another is succession within a See, a place!]
b. They belong to large Anglican provinces abroad and these provinces have determined for them their mission and place in the American scene, which is to go ahead full steam with minimal or no regard to the presence of other Anglican claimants to the U.S.A. territory. [Here one wonders whether the Primates overseas really understand the complex nature of American religion!]
c. They accept that religious expression and freedom are different in the USA from other places and that therefore in the U.S.A. situation there is a valid place for parallel and overlapping and competitive Anglican jurisdictions. [This viewpoint may be said to be latent in every American breast!]
d. They do not really think about the matter deeply and do not see it as a problem. They are pragmatists and work hard at what they have chosen to do.
What is common to all these ways of thinking is that they do not take seriously (a) the Anglican principle of one Province in one geographical area; and (b) one replacement Province only if the original is apostate.
So finally, In all this, where is THE ANGLICAN CHURCH? I for one do not know!
Is it in the faithful parts of the old Episcopal Church – dioceses like Fort Worth? Or is it in one of the 1977 continuing bodies? Or in the new churches—say the Nigerian, CANA? Or in some or all of the new churches? Or where? Or has it really disappeared leaving only bits of itself behind in various manifestations ?
It seems, until the situation gets clearer, that all that we can be sure about is that (a) we can try to live as mere Christians in an Anglican Way as individual believers, using the BCP for devotions, (b) we can seek to mold our families in Anglican prayer and devotions, and (c) we can worship and work in a local church wherein major aspects of Anglican doctrine, worship and devotion are upheld in a generous spirit, whatever be the full name on the notice-board.
The fact of the matter in 2008 seems to be this: Once we get past the local congregation into the denominational or jurisdictional structures of the various competing churches then we are into deeply problematic areas, where right now the mud is so deep that we shall inevitably get stuck.
Thus we should be most careful in making any serious claims of authenticity for any one grouping beyond the local level—and if we have any energy and wisdom to seek to reconcile and unite competing Anglican groups.