The American Episcopal Church (ECUSA) has rejected the sober warnings of the worldwide Anglican communion and is continuing its happy drift from orthodox Christianity.
On November 2, Gene Robinson, a non-celibate homosexual, was consecrated as bishop of the diocese of New Hampshire in a service that the denomination's leaders blessed. Immediately, many leading Anglicans in Africa announced they were in a state of impaired communion with that diocese (and some with the denomination), and many American parishes and dioceses began separating themselves from ECUSA. These are but the first steps in a break that may take years to become permanent.
The Anglican primates (heads of the provinces) met in October to sternly remind the American church that Robinson's election does not represent the teaching of Anglicanism, and to warn that, if ECUSA moved forward with the consecration, "The future of the Communion itself will be put in jeopardy." (One Canadian diocese was similarly warned about blessing same-sex unions).
While emphasizing their "deep regret" regarding the actions of ECUSA, the primates essentially blessed a "divorce" from ECUSA by (1) allowing dissenting minorities to seek alternative bishops, and (2) recognizing as a foregone conclusion, maybe even a right, that provinces would declare themselves out of communion with the Episcopal Church.
The document called for a 12-month study to create a new polity that would hold the communion together. But there is likely no structure that would allow conservatives to stay in communion with provinces that openly bless same-sex unions and ordain practicing homosexuals.
This church split is particularly sad. This was Protestantism's longest cross-cultural effort at institutional unity. It has worked for some 200 years (as Anglican provinces have only slowly become independent since the colonial era). As such it has been a positive witness for Christ, who prayed for unity among his disciples (John 17:11). Such unity—less formal and driven more by common mission—is what evangelicals seek when we gather for the international Lausanne conferences.
What's also sad is ECUSA's blindness. Many Episcopal liberals (as well as the secular media) are portraying conservatives as schismatic for separating themselves from the denomination. The reality is that ECUSA has rejected the counsel of 37 other provinces (not to mention the teaching of nearly every other Christian denomination, and that of the church historic for almost 2,000 years). The conservatives are desperately trying to jump from the Episcopal ship onto the landmass called orthodox Anglicanism while the ECUSA sails away all on its own into uncharted waters.
But the split is also a sobering lesson. It was not merely the repeated failure of the Episcopal church to discipline rebellious bishops (such as James Pike and Walter Righter), nor the inability to slow down, let alone stop, the ordination of actively gay priests (which has gone on unchecked for a decade). More than anything, as Philip Turner, dean of Yale's Berkeley Divinity School, put it, the denomination has been fascinated with proclaiming "an enlightened religion attuned to the latest trends"—which in the end put it at odds with biblical teaching. When push came to shove, trends won out.
This last bit that should give us pause, because one thing we evangelicals have a knack for is discerning cultural trends and shaping ministry to fit them. To be sure, most ministry entrepreneurs are quick to point out that they are careful to distinguish the shape of ministry (culturally tailored) from the message and aims of ministry (anchored to the truth we know in Jesus and from the Bible).
But we should remember that when Episcopalians first came up with the grand idea of becoming more relevant to the world, they made the very same speech.
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Christianity Today's earlier coverage of the Anglican Communion's strife includes:
The Gay Bishop's Global Fallout | How each of the 39 provinces in the Anglican Communion have responded to Sunday's consecration.
Translating the Anglican Primates | Interpretations vary widely on what last week's statement means, how forceful it was, and what's next. (Oct. 21, 2003)
Anglican Leaders Criticize Episcopal Church, Canada's New Westminster Diocese on Homosexual Actions | Future of the Anglican unity "in jeopardy," they say, but don't break communion—yet. (Oct. 16, 2003)
Anglicanism's Communion of Saints | Under the somber portraits of their predecessors, Anglican archbishops will discuss the fractious issues of the church and homosexuality. (Oct. 15, 2003)
Florida Bishop Defies Episcopal Church Head | The consecration of a new bishop becomes the latest battleground between Frank Griswold and the American Anglican Council. (Oct. 10, 2003)
Reimagining Anglican Bonds of Affection | Orthodox American leaders begin describing what realignment of the Anglican Communion might look like. (Oct. 09, 2003)
Conservative Episcopalians Challenge Church Politics as Usual | "A Place to Stand" conference combines unofficial convention, pep rally, and communiqué to Anglican leaders. (Oct. 08, 2003)
Our Brothers and Sisters, the Episcopalians | The Episcopal Church needs our help. Here's why we should give it. (Oct. 03, 2003)
To My Episcopal Family | Final thoughts from the Episcopal Church's General Convention. (Aug. 08, 2003)
Bishops Sanction 'Resources,' Not Rites | Having confirmed gay bishop, Episcopal leaders turn to discussing same-sex unions. (Aug. 7, 2003)
Darkness in the Afternoon | Openly homosexual Episcopal priest cleared of misconduct, confirmed as bishop (Aug. 6, 2003)
The Bitter Harvest of Sexual Ideology | No one wanted the Gene Robinson bishopric debate to take this sad turn (Aug. 5, 2003)
Deputies Slice into the Gordian Knot | The Episcopal Church's House of Deputies approves Gene Robinson as New Hampshire Bishop. The House of Bishops will vote today. (Aug. 4, 2003)
Praise the Lord and Pass the Condoms | Southern Hemisphere primates warned that approving Gene Robinson would place the church outside most of the world's 72 million Anglicans. "You'll get over it," responded about 60 percent of the House of Deputies. (Aug. 4, 2003)
Gene Robinson Takes Questions in a Church called Gethsemane | Speaks on reparative therapy, potential schism, and whether he really "/left" his wife for his male lover. (Aug. 4, 2003)
What in the World Is God Doing? | For Episcopalians, the night may be darkest before the dawn. (Aug. 4, 2003)
Integrity Doles Out God's Not-So Inclusive Love | The Integrity Eucharist has become a triennial sort of mass pity party. (Aug. 1, 2003)
Gay Rites Would Not Bless Ecumenism | Could also impair Anglican work overseas. (Aug. 1, 2003)
Gene and Me | My history with the openly gay man elected bishop of Rochester. (July 31, 2003)
Anglican Communion Frays | Bishops worldwide chastise Canadian bishop who approved gay unions. (July 09, 2003)
The African Lion Roars in the Western Church | Anglican liberals are fretting, conservatives rejoicing, and all are scrambling to their history books: whence this new evangelical force on the world scene? (June 27, 20 03)
Anglican Diocese Endorses Same-Sex Unions | Traditionalists walk out, issue global call for outside intervention. (July 12, 2002)
Commission Will Try to Resolve Tensions Within Anglicanism Worldwide | Group will examine strains over homosexuality, as well as role of Archbishop of Canterbury. (March 20, 2001)
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