Pray for Anglican Church in crisis

  • September 28, 2007
It hurts to see the Anglican Communion breaking up over the issues of openly gay clergy and same-sex unions.

During the many years I was part of it, I loved Anglicanism, and, though I am very glad to have moved on to Catholicism, I still love a great deal about it. The traditional language of the Book of Common Prayer, for example, is one of the triumphs of literature in the English language — stately without being stuffy, beautiful yet straightforward, always ringing clear as a bell.

{sidebar id=2}The tragic break of the English church with Rome during the reign of Henry VIII was not the violent rupture that overtook many churches of the Reformation in Europe, and Anglicanism was able to keep alive many parts of its inheritance from medieval Catholicism, including magnificent ritual, great preaching and a tradition of personal holiness.

But lacking a central authority to keep its various tendencies sound and orthodox, Anglicanism, early on, opted for a kind of liberal inclusiveness about matters of doctrine and practice to keep things running smoothly. One could be, and can be, a fire-brand evangelical, a High Church ritualist or a modernist, and still in good faith call oneself an Anglican. Such inclusiveness — such reluctance about making differences into matters of contention that might break up the Communion — made it easy for me to remain an Anglican during the years I was, in fact, moving closer to Rome.

From time to time, however, this culture of tolerance came into crisis. Some bishop, for instance, might openly break with the faith of the ancient creeds and prompt a heresy trial. The decision of several churches in the Anglican Communion to ordain women clergy and bishops was felt by some parishioners to be an unacceptable breach of long-held tradition, and they subsequently left and formed breakaway congregations.

But nothing has rocked Anglicanism like the 2003 consecration of an openly homosexual bishop in the United States. According to the national office of the U.S. Episcopal Church (the American Anglican Church), about 60 of the more than 7,000 Episcopal parishes have split off and organized themselves in networks led by Anglican bishops as far away as Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, where theological conservatives are the majority. Three dioceses, in Pennsylvania, Illinois and California, have made moves to break with the national church. Earlier this year, the national primates of Anglican churches around the world set a Sept. 30 deadline for the Americans to promise not to consecrate another gay bishop or approve an official prayer service for same-gender couples — or face consequences that could lead to expulsion from the Communion.

At the time of this writing, U.S. bishops and Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, were deep in a crisis meeting in New Orleans, trying to work out a settlement acceptable to all parties. Few observers gave the meeting any chance of success.

Finally, it appears, traditional Anglican inclusiveness has been decisively tested by propositions — not theological, interestingly enough, but moral — which a great number of Anglicans, especially in the global south, just can’t swallow. In a recent Sunday morning sermon to more than 2,000 worshippers at an Illinois church, according to the Chicago Tribune, Nigerian Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola denounced the Episcopal Church’s liberal stance on homosexuality and “spoke against sexual sin, saying unity must come from transformation and obedience to God.”

“Fornication is fornication. Adultery is adultery. . . . These are the areas of primary evangelism,” Akinola said.

He is right, of course. But his criticism goes to a deeper problem at the very heart of Anglicanism. How did a church, presumably rooted in Scripture and the Catholic creeds, let itself get into such a predicament? Why did it break with the consistent moral teaching of Christianity in all times and all places, and appoint a bishop who openly flaunts his dissent from that teaching?

The answer, I believe, is the inexorable logic of Protestantism, which afflicts Anglicanism as much as it does every other church of the Reformation. That logic entails one rejection of Catholic tradition after another, in a chain of consequences that can be slowed, as it has been in traditional Anglicanism, but never stopped. The current crisis in Anglicanism is finds its ultimate cause in the Reformation itself.

I take no pleasure in writing these things. Watching the Anglican Communion disintegrate, Catholics certainly have no reason to be smug. Instead, we should pray for our Anglican brothers and sisters, that the Lord will grant them wisdom and insight in this difficult moment.


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