Reflections from an observer of these events in these years.
If we can fix a point in the 1990s when the minds of “orthodox Episcopalians” in The Episcopal Church [TEC] began seriously to look abroad, primarily to Africa, for help to maintain their presence in their own Church, and even an Anglican witness in their own country, it was most probably during 1995.
At the General Conventions of 1991 and 1994, as well as at Diocesan Conventions and House of Bishops Meetings in that period, conservative organizations had spent much time, money and energy lobbying to restrain the liberal, progressive agenda of the leadership of TEC and to persuade its moderate majority to opposite that agenda. Yet things got worse not better in TEC, as seen in the increasing prominence of the extreme feminist agenda and the call for full rights for gay persons.
So ten Bishops associated with the American Anglican Council, led by James Stanton of Dallas, decided to challenge what was going on in sexual innovations. They chose the case of the ordaining of a “gay” man, who lived with his male partner, in the Diocese of Newark; and they brought the ordaining bishop Walter Righter, an assistant bishop there, to an ecclesiastical trial. The trial was held in the small Cathedral in Wilmington, Delaware.
Righter admitted to doing the ordaining, and the ordained man and his partner were present for the whole trial. So also, and this is important to bear in mind, was the third wife of Walter Righter. The bishop had been married three times and all his wives were alive in 1995 and thus, by traditional Christian rules, not only had he engaged in serial monogamy but also he was now living (1995) in adultery.
I was present at the trial (sat right by Mrs Righter III) and I read the various court papers. It was then, and remains today, a mystery to me why these ten “orthodox” bishops did not challenge also, if not solely, Righter’s primary sin, his adultery. Indeed, several of the lawyers working for Righter, when they came over to speak to Mrs Righter III remarked on the oddity of the case against their client from a traditionalist viewpoint, actually citing the words of Jesus on divorce, and wondering how the “orthodox” bishops understood Jesus!
Righter was found not guilty of heresy because he violated no core doctrine of the Church, no doctrine within the Creed, for example. The failure to gain conviction in a case that seemed straightforward to the Ten Bishops and their supporters in the American Anglican Council and other organizations was a major blow to them. It was becoming apparent in their circles that TEC would not, by its own volition, change its course. but would, rather, continue to pursue an approach fuelled by modern doctrines of human rights, personal self-fulfillment and human liberation. The minority in TEC who wished to retain “orthodoxy” as commonly known in the 1990s (i.e., the worship, doctrine and discipline of the TEC 1979 Prayer Book) began to make their plight known to sympathizers around the world, and to look abroad for relations and alliances with friendly primates and bishops.
So the American story began to be told in earnest around the Global Anglican Communion and initially no-one did this more widely and often than Bill Atwood of The Ekklesia Society, itself founded in 1995. He travelled vast distances to bring together an international alliance to stand with the marginalized American minority; and he also channeled aid to needy parishes and dioceses.
Out of the friendship, alliances and networks created from 1995 onwards, and very much cemented at meetings before, at, and after the Lambeth Conference in 1998, the strategy later developed of (a) the adopting of American Episcopal congregations leaving TEC by overseas bishops; and (b) the creation of networks and groups of churches outside TEC and directly under the pastoral authority of overseas Primates; (c) the consecration of bishops by overseas provinces for specific missionary work in the U.S.A. totally outside TEC; and (d) the adoption of whole dioceses of TEC by an overseas province.
In 2008 we are very familiar with these developments, but we sometimes forget that they have occurred very quickly and much against any prediction or expectation of the early and mid 1990s.
The high point of this development that began in 1995 thus far is the cooperation of the “orthodox American Anglicans” (i.e., Common Cause Partners led by Bishop Duncan) with the Primates of Nigeria, Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda in the organizing and (also most importantly, funding) of the Conference/Pilgrimage in Jerusalem in mid-June 2008. For many involved this is seen as an alternative to the Lambeth Conference of July 2008 and also the beginnings of a rejection of the centrality of the See of Canterbury and the Mother Church of England in the Anglican Family.
Those who have left TEC to unite with African or South American Provinces in the last eight or so years have in the main taken the supposed orthodoxy of the TEC, before it adopted its radical sexual agenda, with them (i.e., its Formularies—liturgy, ordination rites and catechism— as contained within the 1979 Prayer Book).
This commitment to TEC formularies is one important reason why this movement in general can so determinedly oppose same-sex partnerships and all “gay” sex, and, at the same time, have within its ranks as clergy and laity, and often in leadership positions, a very large percentage who are divorced and remarried and engage in serial monogamy. The 1973 Canon on Marriage of TEC, the wording of The Marriage Service in 1979, and the rules established by diocesan bishops for marriage discipline from the 1960s onwards, all served to make remarriage in church after divorce common rather than rare—that is in accord with the American divorce culture!
Therefore part of the modern “orthodoxy” of the Common Cause Partners includes the tacit acceptance of divorced and remarried members in the context of the statement that “the ideal” (notice this word—as something to aim for but not necessarily the divine commandment) for marriage is two persons in a one-flesh, hallowed relation for life, until the death of one spouse. And let it be said, not a few of their courageous and committed leaders, who have suffered because of their secession from TEC, are divorced and remarried.
Despite the Theological Statement of Common Cause that it is committed to the classic formularies of 1662, the reality on the ground is that the 1979 formularies provide the major mindset and guidance to most congregations. And to the surprise of some participants and observers, this does not seem to bother their sponsoring African and South American provinces: Why? Possibly because Nigeria has a Prayer book from the 1990s like the American 1979, and parts of the Southern Cone actually use the 1979 Prayer book of TEC in its Spanish form. Further, they regard the homosexual aberrations as so much more sinful than the heterosexual failures they for the sake of the greater good they ignore the marital situation within the American divorce culture.
Thus as we bow low before the Almighty Father in the Name of the Lord Jesus in prayer for the prosperity of the Anglican Way in America, the questions arise:
Can these former Episcopalians now become Anglicans truly be the first-fruits of a new, truly biblically-based, orthodox Anglican “province” in North America?
Is their movement and realignment truly the beginnings of a real Reformation?
Is their long-established failure in terms of godly marriage discipline, displayed so clearly in (a) the basic mindset to bring Righter trial in 1995, and (b) the large percentage of divorced and remarried persons in their membership and leadership, always going to be there to haunt them, or can they make a new start with on a new foundation?
One thing is sure and that is that God our Father is the God of mercy and grace, and that he forgives, cleanses and heals us if we are penitent; but, we cannot forget in approaching him through His Son that he is also the God righteousness and holiness, and he wills that his Church, for which his only-begotten Son shed his precious blood, be pure even as He is pure.
And so we pray to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit:
Lord have mercy,
Christ have mercy,
Lord have mercy.
[For an excellent account of how “Episcopal Dissidents” forged links with Africa between 1995 and 2002, read Miranda K. Hassett, Anglican Communion in Crisis: How Episcopal Dissidents and their African Allies are reshaping the Anglican Communion, Princeton University Press, 2007]
The Rev’d Dr Peter Toon www.pbsusa.org firstname.lastname@example.org