Who speaks for historic Anglicanism?
As a child I used to watch the television game show called “To Tell the Truth.” Three individuals would appear before a panel claiming to have had an unusual experience or to be a member of some profession or trade. They would answer the panel’s questions about their work or other relevant matters. In the end the panel would try to guess which of the three was the real astronaut or holder of the record for deep-sea diving. At the moment of truth the real candidate would reveal his or her identity by standing while the other two remained seated.
The Worldwide Anglican Communion is engaged in such a contest just now. The recent ceremony joining two male priests in the diocese of London featured language directly reflecting the marriage rite of the Church of England as reported in The Telegraph in June. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury responded in a joint statement with Archbishop of York John Sentamu, “Those clergy who disagree with the Church’s teaching are at liberty to seek to persuade others within the Church of the reasons why they believe, in the light of Scripture, tradition and reason that it should be changed. But they are not at liberty simply to disregard it.” As one observer wrote of this tepid response, this sends the message, ”Keep trying, we’ll eventually change our minds.”
In the face of deep divisions facing the Communion many are asking, ”Who are the true Anglicans?” Is it those who support ongoing dialogue in the face of deep disagreement? This stance is a hallmark of the Anglican Church historically. Or are the true Anglicans those who say the time for dialogue is past, faithfulness to Christ and the Biblical revelation requires action not words. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams presiding at this decade’s Lambeth conference states that the Worldwide Anglican Communion is facing one of the most “severe challenges … in its history.” The kettle of controversy ignited earlier this decade continues to boil over.
The catalyst for Archbishop Williams’ statement is the effort by African and Asian bishops to call the church back to biblical and evangelical roots. The Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) met in Jerusalem from June 22-29. They issued a statement of historic significance. The GAFCON statement expresses three distinct concerns about the Worldwide Anglican Communion, and comes to some startling conclusions. As a student of church history, I would say the significance of this document cannot be overstated.
The three concerns of the statement are: 1) “the acceptance and promotion within the provinces of the Anglican Communion of a different ‘gospel’ which is contrary to the apostolic gospel;” 2) the declaration by provincial bodies in the Global South that they are “out of communion with the bishops and churches that promote this false gospel,” resulting in a realignment of parishes in Western churches with other provinces of the global Anglican Church; and 3) “the manifest failure of the Communion Instruments to exercise discipline in the face of overt heterodoxy. The Episcopal Church USA and the Anglican Communion of Canada, in proclaiming this false gospel, have consistently defied the 1998 Lambeth statement of biblical moral principle,” with impunity.
The document acknowledges the historic significance of the see of Canterbury but denies that recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury is necessary for Anglican identity. In light of the inaction of the Anglican Communion leadership in failing to address the concerns expressed by the bishops of the Global South they write: “We can only come to the devastating conclusion that ‘we are a global communion with a colonial structure.’”
The GAFCON statement can be viewed at:
Archbishop Williams, responded in part by saying, “By what authority are Primates deemed acceptable or unacceptable members of any new primatial council? And how is effective discipline to be maintained in a situation of overlapping and competing jurisdictions?“ He also urges the bishops to keep waiting. The bishops of the Global South seem to be asking, Waiting for what, the universal apostasy of the Communion?
You can view his entire response at:
Here in the U.S. the division within Anglicanism is highlighted by the schism between conservative evangelicals who are seceding from The Episcopal Church in the United States (TEC) and the liberal wing of the church. The lightning rod for the division is two-fold: first, the 2003 ordination of openly gay bishop Gene Robinson of the diocese of New Hampshire supported by the liberal wing, and secondly, the removal of many parishes, and at least one diocese from communion with TEC. The point of conflict is lawsuits over property rights filed against the seceding parishes, including 11 here in Virginia.
For now, at least, Virginia courts are deciding in favor of the conservative groups who have affiliated with the Anglican District of Virginia (ADV) and the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). A recent decision of the Fairfax County Circuit Court upheld the right of the parishes to split from the TEC based on an 1867 Virginia law designed to accommodate church property disputes in the post-civil war era.
Predictably, the two groups have responded very differently.
Statements on the websites of the ADV and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia make an identical claim from differing perspectives. In their own mind at least, each is carrying the banner of the “true Episcopal Church.” These claims are summed up in two succinct statements from each group:
The ADV site states “While we disagree with their (TEC’s) decision to walk apart from the worldwide Anglican Communion, we acknowledge their right to do so. We would hope that they would acknowledge our right to remain faithful to the tenets of faith that have given comfort to our forbearers who built the churches TEC and the Diocese are now trying so hard to take.”
The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia site says that “The Diocese remains steadfast in its commitment to current and future generations of loyal Episcopalians and will continue to pursue every legal option available to ensure that they will be able to worship in the churches their Episcopal ancestors built.”
Well put, but claims to represent ancestors are hard to prove. There is a subtle but important difference between remaining true to inherited faith-tenets and remaining ensconced on property in the name of the “Old Guard.” Is the diocese of Virginia prepared to say that true Episcopalians are those who carry a particular bloodline as opposed to fealty to a particular doctrine?
The question of fidelity to the historic faith is central to communions which rely on apostolic succession for validity such as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or the Anglican Church. They see themselves as stewards of a trust passed down from previous generations by the apostolic authority of the bishops of the church. It was a dispute over the nature of episcopal authority that caused Sir Thomas More to lose his head (literally) when defending the doctrine of the primacy of the bishop of Rome during the Protestant Reformation in England in 1535, depicted so well in the 1966 movie “A Man for All Seasons.”
The purpose of the doctrine of apostolic succession in the patristic (early post-apostolic) church was two-fold: to preserve doctrinal purity and ecclesiastical unity. At least in theory, the Anglican communion opted to make doctrinal purity primary when these two purposes came into conflict during the Reformation in 1535. Charitably, let us say, the Anglican church severed unity with the Roman church in order to preserve apostolic truth rather than the more crass motive of political independence from the intrusive authority of the Roman bishop and his representatives known as legates. Otherwise, the entire house of cards collapses since neither ecclesiastical unity nor doctrinal purity would have been at issue.
Those who feel conscience-bound to remain in the tradition of succession, do well to commit themselves to the primary purpose of succession – the doctrinal purity of the church.
Will the real Anglican Communion in the United States please stand up? As an observer with no personal claim or association with either party, I cast my vote unwaveringly for the ADV, CANA,GAFCON and their commitment to the historic doctrines of their faith. Let’s hope the courts continue to do so as well.