Over time, church denominations come and go, but one, now known as The Episcopal Church (TEC)-formerly part of the Church of England, and then the Episcopal Church, USA-has had a special spot in American history.
Its first congregation: Jamestown, Va., 1607. Its prominent members: George Washington and one-fourth of all U.S. presidents, as well as many of the country's most notable and influential citizens. Its social prestige: high.
And now, in the aftermath of last month's triennial Episcopal Convention in Columbus, Ohio, (see "Nothing resolved," July 1/8), denominational unity that has been cracking for years now seems shattered. Among the post-convention moves by theological conservatives:
• Seven TEC dioceses, dismayed by the election of pro-gay-agenda Bishop Katharine Schori as the church's next presiding bishop and primate (top leader), say they are looking for "alternative primatial oversight." Several other dioceses are poised to join them. All are distressed by TEC's failure to repent for consecrating a partnered gay, Gene Robinson, as a bishop in 2003.
• Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, leader of the two-year-old, theologically conservative Anglican Communion Network, told supporters that "pastoral and apostolic care has been promised without regard to geography. . . . The shape of this care will depend on a very near-range international meeting." The Network's members include 10 dioceses and nearly 1,000 parishes.
• One of the largest Episcopal churches, Christ Church of Plano, Texas, announced it will leave TEC "as soon as possible." The church, whose rector is evangelical activist David Roseberry, has nearly 5,000 active members. Bishop James Stanton of Dallas, also an evangelical, said he supports Roseberry and the church. As for the church property, "It's theirs," he said, "They paid for it." TEC may fight for the property in the courts.
• At least two other TEC megachurches, Truro Church and The Falls Church in northern Virginia, have been negotiating with the local diocese over their properties (worth $27 million combined). This month both churches announced plans for a 40-day "discernment" period in the fall for prayer, fasting, and discussion over whether to leave TEC. "There's no predetermined outcome," said Rev. John Yates of The Falls Church. Two dozen other Virginia churches also are reportedly discussing a possible exit.
• Archbishop Peter Akinola, primate of the Anglican Church of Nigeria who considers TEC's "revisionism" of Scripture and doctrine a blight on Anglicanism, appointed Truro rector Martyn Minns as "missionary bishop" to a cluster of churches known as the Convocation for Anglicans in North America. Akinola established the churches as a safe haven from TEC for African immigrants, but he may have bigger things in mind.
Foreign bishops aren't supposed to trespass on TEC's turf. Akinola said he "deliberately held back from the move" but decided to go ahead after the convention showed TEC was committed more than ever to an "unbiblical revisionist" agenda. (Among other actions, the convention declined to address the matter of clergy offering same-sex blessings, called on church members to oppose any state or federal amendments that would prohibit same-sex marriage or civil unions, and rejected an amendment putting the church on record as affirming biblical authority.)
Meanwhile, theological liberals are not backing off. The diocese of Newark, N.J., announced the candidates for its next bishop, among them a partnered gay, Rev. Michael Barlowe of San Francisco-despite the convention's call for no more consecrations of non-celibate gays for at least three years.
Left trying to glue together the pieces of a badly-cracked shell is the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Several days after the convention ended Williams issued "reflections" that included a rebuke of TEC for unilaterally consecrating a partnered gay bishop in 2003. Lacing his paper with references to Scripture and Anglican teaching, he also warned against accusing churches of blind bigotry when they say they cannot remain fully in communion with TEC because of what it did in 2003.
Williams clearly was trying to buy time to keep the Anglican Communion (see sidebar below) from unraveling. He called for an Anglican Covenant to which all members could subscribe. He also suggested the Communion could have two tiers of membership: constituent and associate (for those who couldn't go along with everything the majority decided). The proposals would take years to implement; others weren't waiting.
Williams also noted that "actions have consequences-and that actions believed in good faith to be 'prophetic' in their radicalism are likely to have costly consequences." Outgoing TEC Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold cautioned people not to read too much into Williams' statement. Much discussion remains, he said.
Many outside TEC also will be talking. Theologically, Anglican Communion churches in England and America tend to be predominantly liberal, but those in the global south are overwhelmingly conservative. It doesn't sound like the global south archbishops want to wait for years of talk and pulse-taking to make their call. Judgment Day for The Episcopal Church may be just weeks away.
Beginnings: The Church of England (COE) arose from a break with Rome under Henry VIII in the 1500s; the Protestant Reformation in that same era had an effect on it. (Anglicans adopted the "Thirty-Nine Articles," their defining doctrinal summary, in 1563.)
As the British Empire expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, the church went with it. At first, the COE appointed bishops to lead the churches that were springing up in the various lands. Over time, those churches, as the nations they were in, became independent and self-governing. Yet they continued to look to the COE as "the mother church."
Seeking ways to express their unity in communion with one another, all the bishops began meeting together with their counterparts in a "Lambeth Conference" every 10 years (beginning in the 1860s). Thus was born the Anglican Communion, with the Archbishop of Canterbury (Rowan Williams, right)-head of the COE-as the titular head.
The Communion is a work in progress. There is no central set of legally binding rules. Consultation, collaboration, and persuasion are the order of the day.
Four entities function as "instruments of unity": the Archbishop of Canterbury (no church can claim membership in the Communion without being in communion with him); the decennial Lambeth Conference of the world's Anglican bishops (each subject to invitation by Canterbury); the Anglican Consultative Council, made up of representatives of the 38 provinces who meet every two years; and the primates, or top bishops, of the provinces, who meet more frequently.
In 1888, the Lambeth Conference adopted the Lambeth Quadrilateral, a doctrinal summary to mark boundaries for unity within Anglicanism and for ecumenical purposes. Its four points:
(a) The Bible, as "containing all things necessary to salvation," and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith; (b) the Apostles' Creed, as the baptismal symbol, and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith; (c) the two sacraments ordained by Christ-baptism and the Lord's Supper; (d) the historic episcopate (apostolic succession).
Some 77 million people in 38 "provinces" (countries or geographical areas) are members of the Anglican Communion, making it the third-largest communion in the world, after the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy. The last few decades have seen rapid growth in the so-called global south, especially in Africa. The rapidly growing Nigerian church is estimated at more than 16 million strong-representing 20 percent of the entire Communion. The Church of England is the largest province, with 26 million members, but only a small fraction attend services regularly.
TEC membership is now 2.2 million and has been steadily declining since 1969. TEC lists more than 7,200 congregations in 100 domestic dioceses and 13 in Latin America, the Caribbean islands, and Europe. Each is headed by a bishop and a standing committee.
Total Sunday worship attendance is said to average 800,000.