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John Sentamu (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

End of an empire?

Religion | Confessing Anglicans throughout the world challenge British leadership

Issue: "Trouble in Egypt," June 2, 2012

A London meeting of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FCA) in late April called for major restructuring of the global Anglican Communion, including moving away from a "British Empire" model of leadership. Some proposed replacing the office of the archbishop of Canterbury, the appointed Anglican leader, with an elected chair. The FCA is a conservative renewal movement within the Anglican denomination, which has been wracked with controversies over biblical authority and homosexual ordination. The FCA says its purpose is "to proclaim and defend the gospel throughout the world, and to strengthen the church worldwide by supporting and authenticating faithful Anglicans."

Anglican membership has plummeted in England and America (home of largely liberal Episcopalians) but soared in areas of the global South. African leaders, typically more conservative than many Westerners on scriptural interpretation and social issues, have argued that their numerical dominance should translate into greater denominational power. Ugandan-born cleric John Sentamu, the archbishop of York, has emerged as one of the leading candidates to replace the retiring Rowan Williams as the archbishop of Canterbury. But FCA leaders such as Nigerian Archbishop Nicholas Okoh called for more fundamental changes that would de-emphasize England's traditional leadership in the denomination.

In the United States, some Episcopal congregations have left the mainline denomination and joined theologically conservative "missionary districts" of African Anglican churches. Liberal Episcopalians have fought to hold onto their emptying church buildings, and on April 27 one of the breakaway congregations, The Falls Church Anglican, lost an appeal to keep its property in a legal dispute with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. The diocese had sued the congregation and six other seceding congregations in order to retain church property and bank accounts.

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Because of the latest ruling, Falls Church Anglican will have to pay the diocese $2.8 million and vacate the church's historic buildings completely by May 15. Falls Church Anglican and a smaller Falls Church Episcopal congregation had both been temporarily meeting at the Falls Church property, which has two meeting areas, a small older sanctuary, and a larger modern one. Average weekly attendance in 2010 was reportedly 2,000 people at Falls Church Anglican and 74 for the Episcopalians. The 74 will now have the whole building.

Untrue to their schools

Emily Herx (Courtesy Kathleen DeLaney/AP)

Two lawsuits are raising questions about the ability of Christian schools to fire employees for moral lapses or actions contrary to the schools' religious mission. Last June a Fort Wayne, Ind., Catholic school released an English teacher, Emily Herx. She apparently had sought in vitro fertilization treatments: Official Catholic doctrine disapproves of them. When the church's priest became aware of the treatments, the school dismissed Herx because of "improprieties related to church teachings," as the school put it. Herx is suing the diocese and school for discrimination.

In the second case, Heritage Christian Academy in Rockwall, Texas, last fall fired a science teacher and volleyball coach, Cathy Samford, when she became pregnant outside of marriage. The school said this violated her contractual requirement to set a good moral example. Samford is planning legal action against the school.

January's Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC may shed legal light on the legitimacy of both dismissals. In Hosanna-Tabor, the court ruled unanimously against a fired teacher at a Lutheran school in Michigan, saying she could not sue for discrimination because of the "ministerial exemption," which protects churches from lawsuits by ministerial employees. Cases like Herx's and Samford's could help clarify whether every teacher at a religious school is by definition a religious employee, thus falling under the ministerial exemption. -Thomas Kidd

Thomas Kidd
Thomas Kidd

Thomas is a professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.

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