Anglican Church on the brink of schism?

By  Tony Gosgnach, Catholic Register Special
  • November 28, 2007

{mosimage}BURLINGTON, Ont. - The word “schism” is increasingly being used to describe the state of affairs among Canadian Anglicans in the midst of intensifying disagreements over liberalized theology and a growing acceptance of the blessing of same-sex unions.

A challenge by Anglican Primate Fred Hiltz to a two-day conference held here in late November brought the battle to the brink. Christian Today reported that Hiltz has prepared a letter to be read in all Anglican parishes on Dec. 1-2 on recent developments.

The latest was the conference here organized by what is being called the Anglican Network in Canada, a refuge for Anglicans who reject same-sex blessings and prefer more traditional theology.

At the Crossroads Centre in Burlington on Nov. 22 and 23, almost 300 Canadian Anglicans met at the Building a Solid Rock conference, where they announced the formation of a new ecclesial arrangement that will allow them to remain Anglicans, yet also be faithful to their understanding of the scriptures.

The arrangement was made possible after a Nov. 9 vote by the synod of the conservative Anglican Province of the Southern Cone in South America. Under its archbishop, Gregory James Venables, that province has agreed to provide ecclesial oversight for disaffected Canadian Anglicans who feel the Anglican Church of Canada has drastically departed from scriptural orthodoxy, especially in the moves to bless same-sex unions.

According to the Globe and Mail, Hiltz’s letter is expected to tell Anglicans that Venables’ action is a violation of the Anglican Communion. He is also expected to warn Anglicans that if they split, they will be leaving their church buildings behind.

The Burlington conference followed closely on the heels of several recent moves by different Canadian Anglican dioceses on same-sex blessings. The diocese of Niagara on Nov. 17 became the latest to adopt “the local option,” which allows individual clergy “whose conscience permits” to bless the marriages of gays and lesbians. Niagara joins the dioceses of Ottawa, Montreal and New Westminster, B.C., in recognizing such unions in some form.

Niagara Anglican Bishop Ralph Spence, who backed the move, initially held back on allowing same-sex blessings when a vote in his diocese supported them in 2004. However, he told the media “the ground shifted underneath us” when the dioceses of Ottawa and Montreal took the stances on same-sex blessings that they did earlier this year. He will allow the blessings to take place as soon as a protocol is worked out.

On the opposing front, two retired Canadian Anglican bishops have quit the Anglican Church in Canada and joined the South American church. Bishops Malcolm Harding and Donald Harvey both handed in their minister’s licence to show their displeasure with the direction of the Anglican Church in Canada.

Last June, the Canadian Anglican General Synod, meeting in Winnipeg, decreed that the blessing of same-sex unions does not conflict with the core doctrine of the church. However, a motion to approve such blessings failed to pass.

The place of homosexuals in the Anglican Church and disputes over liberalized theology have been points of contention worldwide for the last several years. Some U.S. Episcopal parishes have quit their local dioceses and chosen to align themselves with what they see as more biblically faithful dioceses in the Third World.

The Anglican Network in Canada was formed two years ago to serve as a potential “lifeboat” for Canadian Anglicans who oppose same-sex blessings. “We are now launching that lifeboat,” said director Cheryl Chang in Burlington.

The network is asking Canadian Anglican parishes to have a vote, preferably this coming February, on whether they wish to remain within the Anglican Church of Canada or prefer the oversight of the Province of the Southern Cone. There will then follow a large-scale conference in Vancouver on April 25, at which Venables is due to be present to more formally welcome Canadian Anglicans to his diocese.

Chang said Anglicans choosing to leave are fully cognizant of the complications that may lie ahead. “It’s likely to get messy. We expect priests to be fired and congregations to be locked out of buildings or attempts to evict them. We have asked for an act of grace from the Canadian church to let parishes discern their future without threats and intimidation, but we shall see how they respond.”

Anglican theologian J.I. Packer was at the Burlington conference, offering a theological perspective on the current “global realignment” in the Anglican church.

“We are, as you would expect, being accused of schism, because we are separating from our existing diocesan organizations,” he said. “My reply, and the reply of others, is that this is no schism.”

The Canadian Council of the Anglican Church has written to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, asking him to stop Venables from his attempt to set up a rival Anglican Church in Canada. So far there has been no response.

(Gosgnach is a freelance writer in Hamilton, Ont. With Catholic Register files.)

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