In the past year, two Anglican congregations in the US have left their more theologically conservative denomination for the mainline Episcopal Church.
Formed in 2009, the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) is known for taking in breakaway Episcopal congregations and clergy, though these two departing churches—Resurrection South Austin in Texas and The Table in Indianapolis—didn’t have previous ties to the Episcopal Church.
Both were church plants belonging to the Church for the Sake of Others (C4SO), an Anglican church-planting movement that predates ACNA and, for the past decade, has functioned as a diocese in the denomination. Its parishes span across California, Texas, the Midwest, and the South. Very few of its clergy or churches were Episcopalian before, and many of its members come from evangelical backgrounds.
Some Anglicans see C4SO as less conservative than others in the denomination due to its focus on justice and since it’s among the dioceses that ordain female priests.
Clergy at the departing churches attributed their decision to a range of issues where they felt out of alignment with the ACNA as a whole and for which they faced backlash from fellow Anglicans online.
They cited their convictions around the inclusion of women in leadership, hospitality toward sexual minorities, opposition to white supremacy, treatment of people of color, and response to abuse victims in the church (including a contentious investigation in the Upper Midwest Diocese).
Though LGBT inclusion was not named as the primary impetus for either church’s withdrawal, it became the impasse for the more theologically conservative minority who decided not to stay during the transition to local Episcopal dioceses.
“Everyone in our church was in agreement about women and people of color, and even our concerns about the sexual abuse investigation. [The sticking point] was around sexuality, and their concern I think is legitimate,” said Shawn McCain Tirres, rector of Resurrection South Austin, which voted in July to leave the ACNA.
“We tried to create a lot of space for people to say, I’m not there. I had to reiterate many times … we just want you to remain and receive the kind of hospitality that we have long extended to those who have been on the other side of this issue.”
McCain Tirres spent months discussing concerns first with C4SO bishop Todd Hunter and then with his parish, which draws about 150 attendees each Sunday. Two weeks ago, with more than 80 percent of the congregation voting, the majority were in favor of seeking affiliation with the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.
Hunter will visit Austin this weekend to meet with the dozens of Anglicans “left behind” by Resurrection South’s transition. During an initial gathering following the parish’s vote, C4SO leaders hosted a time for lament, Eucharist, and healing prayer.
“There are people who are brokenhearted. They lost their church—and not just the place where they meet every Sunday, but their community,” Hunter said. “They feel abandoned theologically because they thought they had joined something that was orthodox on human sexuality.”
At a follow-up gathering on Sunday, he hopes to listen to congregants and discuss next steps, asking whether they want to join other local churches or start another community of their own. Texas is home to more ACNA congregations—well over 100—than any other state.
Many of the leaders that first formed the ACNA went through challenging disputes over churches, property, and credentials as they left the Episcopal Church. Because of this, they have set up their denomination with an easier process for churches that opt to leave, though departures have been rare over the denomination’s 14-year history.
“Congregations are accorded a healthy level of self-determination and respect,” said Andrew Gross, the ACNA’s canon for communications and media relations. They have the right to disaffiliate, with their property, after consulting with the bishop of their diocese.
Matt Tebbe, a co-rector at The Table in Indianapolis, said he spoke with friends at Resurrection South Austin about what he and his church went through when they disaffiliated nine months earlier. Though the transition came with a bit of culture shock (“I don’t speak mainline”) and with the grief of leaving friends in C4SO, “the fit has been so much better” with the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis.
He said he feels the support of fellow Episcopal clergy in the area—with the ACNA, he had to face the fallout when he would post on social media decrying white supremacy or love of mammon. According to Tebbe, “The Table has never been in 100 percent agreement about the way the ACNA frames human sexuality and gay marriage,” and since last October, its Episcopal affiliation has allowed the church to offer a broader welcome to the LGBT community.
A third congregation, St. Mary of Bethany in Nashville, had left C4SO in 2021, citing ACNA’s posture of “always moving forward” and the place of LGBT Christians in church life, but did not join another denomination.
“The Anglican Church in North America has just over 1,000 congregations, and therefore three congregations leaving because they changed their theological commitments is not exactly a trend,” said Gross. “However, because of the Anglican Church in North America’s history, one would expect or at least hope that number to be zero, so I understand why it has raised some eyebrows.”
“If there is a lesson to be learned, it might be that even denominations that have been very clear about their theological perspective over the last decade are not immune from the ramifications of the cultural shift that is continuing to play out across the West.”
After three departures from his diocese in two years, the bishop of C4SO is reconsidering his role in helping these churches. For the congregations in Austin and Indianapolis, Hunter said his approach involved “giving them a lot of space” and “being very patient with their exploration.”
“Here’s what I regret and what I’ve learned: that while I’ve done a good job caring for the clergy, I don’t think I’ve done a good job caring for the people in the church who are not progressive,” he said. “By the time I’ve stepped in, everything’s too far gone.”
Going forward, Hunter is working with C4SO leaders and their canon lawyer to develop a clearer process for how and when the bishop “can have his voice in a church earlier, so that it doesn’t get to a place where it’s very far off from not only just what I teach, but what the rest of the diocese expects.”
Like other C4SO clergy, Hunter has been called out and labeled communist, Marxist, and woke for his concern for racial justice and for ordaining women. He says his willingness to engage in conversation attracts the sort of people who are asking questions and deconstructing faith.
“It’s fascinating in online and other spaces to be criticized for these things … I am thoroughly committed to orthodox Christianity,” he told CT, “but I’m equally committed to figuring out how to live that out winsomely and truthfully, without engaging in culture wars constantly.”
Jeff Walton, Anglican program director for the Institute for Religion and Democracy, said the departures from ACNA—each from church plants in urban centers—may reflect deeper divides in a denomination largely comprised of Christian transplants.
“These departures are indicative of a disconnect between two groups within the ACNA: former mainline Protestants, including former Episcopalians, standing against revisionist theology, and post-evangelicals reacting against cultural hallmarks of their prior church homes, such as complementarianism or Christian nationalism,” Walton said.
“The Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others is among the largest and fastest growing dioceses in ACNA partly because it can speak to those originating from an evangelical, charismatic, or Pentecostal context. These three departing parishes were all within C4SO, but this isn’t exclusively a C4SO problem. It’s a post-evangelical problem.”
Walton refers to the ACNA as a small but “heavily transited parcel of ecclesial real estate.” As of June, the denomination includes 1,003 congregations, according to Gross. Its last annual report indicated a membership of nearly 125,000.
As a historic mainline denomination, the Episcopal Church has a much longer scope. Its last report, from 2021, tallied around 6,300 congregations and over 1.6 million members. But it’s also experiencing ongoing declines that accelerated during the pandemic, with one in three Episcopal churches reporting a drop in attendance by at least 25 percent since 2019.
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected. A previous version said St. Mary’s in Nashville, which left ACNA in 2021, joined the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches. Though some clergy initially moved their orders to the communion, the church remains unaffiliated.