No one asks me why I’m becoming Orthodox – at least no one who knows me. For many years I have been quite open about the fact that if I ever left the Episcopal Church my likely destination would be Antioch. But friends do ask, "Why now?"
It is hard not to know what is happening in the Episcopal Church these days – we’ve been making the headlines a lot. But for those who have somehow missed the story I’ll recap. In 1998, the last Lambeth Conference (a decennial gathering of all the bishops of the Anglican Communion) passed a resolution affirming traditional sexual morality by a large majority. While some bishops questioned the need for the resolution on the principle that the Church’s teaching on sex went without saying, others were distressed by the liberal drift of some of the Western provinces – particularly the Episcopal Church, USA, and the Anglican Church of Canada – and wanted to lay down a marker. Five years later, the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster began permitting same-sex unions and the American Diocese of New Hampshire elected the openly gay Gene Robinson as bishop, despite numerous warnings of dire consequences from the rest of the communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, responded by appointing a commission to reflect on this challenge to the unity of the Anglican Communion and to propose a way forward. The result was the Windsor Report, which placed some demands on ECUSA and the ACC. At its General Convention in 2006, ECUSA produced a last-minute, half-hearted half-response to Windsor. It was universally dismissed as inadequate. Today, more than half of the Anglican provinces are no longer in full communion with ECUSA, which has proceeded blithely on its way, in near-complete denial of its emerging pariah status.
So . . . after decades of liberal drift in the North American provinces of the communion, why have Anglican traditionalists finally reacted now? Gene Robinson is neither the first heretic nor the first sinner to be elected a bishop in the Episcopal Church. If we did not leave the church over Bp. Spong, why should we leave over Bp. Robinson? Personally, I thought this was the wrong time and the wrong issue, but the bishops of the Anglican Communion did not ask my opinion before setting in motion the process of excommunicating the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada.
Is it really all about homosexuality? For some Evangelicals, I’m afraid it is. Matters of sex have a tendency to stir the passions, and arguments about sex can draw visceral reactions in a way that debates on other moral questions do not. There really are some homophobes in the churches.
But the current tide of events is driven less by homophobia than by opportunism. Conservatives of various stripes have been increasingly upset with the liberal drift of the Episcopal Church for at least four decades. In the past, however, as a shrinking minority, they were not able to do anything about it. But by 1998 the rapidly growing, conservative churches of Africa were ready to flex their muscles and make their mark on the Anglican world. Homosexuality was simply the first issue to come along since conservatives attained a preponderance in the Anglican Communion. Therefore this was where they chose to take their stand against the advance of revisionism and launch the reconquest.
Communion and Covenant
In the aftermath of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention last year, Abp. Rowan issued his reflection, "The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today," in which he proposed the creation of a formal covenant to define the commitments of Anglican churches in communion with each other. Provinces (and perhaps dioceses and even parishes) that endorsed the covenant would be constituent members of the communion with representation in official bodies. Those that did not endorse the covenant would no longer be full members of the communion.
For me, as an Anglo-Catholic, this was a hopeful moment – a plausible way forward that would preserve the Anglican Communion by excising the heretical minority in North America, along with any other factions that could not live within the consensus of the communion as defined by the covenant. But almost immediately the Archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, and others of his ilk began to downplay the importance of the communion and to break ranks with Canterbury and the other provinces and their primates.
The African Evangelicals do not lose any sleep over catholic niceties like tradition, unity, and (most important) ecclesiology. The African-sponsored break-away jurisdictions in North America have been formed by protestant means according to protestant principles. No Anglo-Catholic parish could join these groups without betraying its catholic ecclesiology.
I don't think this is an accident. The Africans are not just trying to separate from revisionist heresy; they are also maneuvering to set aside the catholic elements of Anglican ecclesiology and to exclude those of us who would insist on maintaining them. They might tolerate Anglo-Catholicism as a "worship style," but they will not accept the theology embodied in that worship – a theology on the ascendant in official Anglicanism throughout the 20th century.
Just two weeks ago, Abp. Rowan named the members of the Covenant Design Group, which will draft the covenant. But, without strong support from the provinces, the covenant is fading in relevance before its drafting has even begun.
Heresy vs. Schism
Unlike most of those departing the Episcopal Church these days, I am running not from heresy, but from schism.
I’ve never been all that worried about being in communion with heretics. The notion that it would somehow taint my orthodoxy is a bit silly. Why, rather, would my orthodoxy not compromise the purity of their heresy? If orthodoxy is stronger than heresy, that must surely be the case. If this were just a straightforward contest between orthodoxy and heresy, it would be better to stay in the church, proclaiming the truth, until the heretics give us Anglo-Catholics the boot. Unfortunately, the Episcopal/Anglican endgame is not playing out in such a straightforward way.
The Elizabethan Settlement, the modus vivendi by which Christians of differing theologies were able to maintain their integrities within one national church, has come unraveled. The Church of England no longer makes a serious attempt to be THE Church OF England, but settles for being just one sect among many. Its tradition of "comprehensiveness" is falling by the wayside, allowing the centrifugal forces of its various factions to pull it apart. This disintegration is playing out even more quickly within the North American provinces and at the international level.
The Revisionists who have come to dominate the Episcopal Church have slowly tightened the screws on everyone who is not down with their agenda. They are trying to exclude traditionalists, conservatives, and even moderates and those who are undecided on the issues du jour from having a voice in the church. Meanwhile, the various schismatic Evangelical denominations are forming on a basis that excludes anyone who does not share their theology. In the process of trying to exclude each other, the Revisionist protestants and the Evangelical protestants are both excluding the Anglo-Catholics. The way things are breaking down, it appears there will be no place for us in the emerging post-Anglican churches of North America.
The Church of England recently began the process that will eventually lead to the consecration of women as bishops. In reaction, Anglo-Catholics in the UK are likely, at some point in the next five years, to flock to Rome en masse. It is rumored that a document on this subject has already crossed the Pope’s desk. I think that Benedict, unlike John Paul II, will not let the Anglo-Catholics in the Mother Country slip through his fingers.
Where does that leave Anglo-Catholics in the US? I doubt our remaining bishops in Quincy, Fort Worth, and San Joaquin will have enough clout to do much for those of us outside their own dioceses. Perhaps the more tolerant of the liberal bishops will find a creative way to let Anglo-Catholic parishes in their dioceses remain in communion with Canterbury. But the fact that Canterbury is having trouble holding onto its own Anglo-Catholics will make communion with Canterbury increasingly irrelevant to us.
Anticipating all of this, American Anglo-Catholics are already beginning to trickle away to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Of my original demographic peer group at St. Paul’s, I am the last remaining Anglican, the rest already having departed for Antioch or Rome. We did not discuss this among ourselves – that would be difficult, given our current geographical dispersion – but it appears we all came to the same conclusion independently: there is no future for those of our ilk in Anglicanism.