What's Ahead for the Fractured Anglican Church?

Daniel Burke | Religion News Service | Friday, December 05, 2008

What's Ahead for the Fractured Anglican Church?


December 5, 2008

United in their aversion to the liberal drift of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, a group of conservatives on Wednesday (Dec. 3) launched a new North American branch of the Anglican Communion.

Leaders of the new conservative Anglican Church in North America count about 100,000 members, including four dioceses that recently voted to leave the Episcopal Church. In contrast, the existing U.S. and Canadian churches count more than 2.8 million members.

With their increasing acceptance of homosexuality and liberal theology, the U.S. and Canadian branches of Anglicanism have essentially removed themselves from the communion, the conservatives argue.

"Work done today marks five years of labor in attempts to get together," said Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan, who will lead the new church. "We have come together to form a province that could be part of the Anglican world."

But a number of significant hurdles lie ahead for the Common Cause Partnership, as the conservatives' umbrella group is known. The self-declared province will need t

-- Gain recognition from leading Anglican archbishops;

-- Win the favor of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the communion's spiritual leader;

-- Overcome serious theological discord among its own members.

"It's like starting a new business," said the Rev. Kendall Harmon, a conservative leader from South Carolina who is not formally affiliated with the splinter group. "It's a whole lot harder than people think."

Here's why:

Recognition

Under Anglican rules, formal recognition of a province usually requires the assent of two-thirds of the communion's 38 primates -- or leading archbishops. But Wednesday's unprecedented announcement raises new questions.

Bishop Martyn Minns, a leader in the Common Cause Partnership, estimates that nearly a dozen primates will support its new venture, about half the number it needs for recognition. Gaining the approval of more primates may prove difficult, said the Rev. Ian Douglas, of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.

"What happens in one province could set a precedent and come back to their own (province)," said Douglas.

Similar concerns could be raised by the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), a 70-member international body that must also approve the new province, said Douglas, who sits on the council.

In an essay published online, the Rev. Ephraim Radner, a leading North American conservative, argued that these obstacles are nearly insurmountable.

The new province "will probably not be recognized at the primates'

meeting as a whole or even by a majority of its members," he said. "Nor will it be recognized at the ACC. Thus it threatens to be yet another wedge in the breakup of the communion."

Canterbury

The new province would also need the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who as the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, binds its 38 worldwide provinces together.

But leading conservatives, including several high-profile African archbishops, have dismissed the archbishop as a relic of the Church of England's colonialist past, which may alienate the 58-year-old prelate.

A spokesperson for Williams issued a short statement on Thursday, saying that "there are clear guidelines set out ... detailing the steps necessary for the amendments of existing provincial constitutions and the creation of new provinces."

"In relation to the recent announcement from the Common Cause Partnership in Chicago, the process has not yet begun," the statement concludes.

The Episcopal Church, meanwhile, is determined not to let secessionist conservatives take church property with them. Protracted legal battles will cost each side millions in lawyers' fees.

Theological Diversity

Duncan said the new province "will gather representatives from ... across cultural lines, across churchmanship lines, and across lines of division over the ordination of women." That, however, may be easier said than done.

The 11 groups that compose the new church include evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics, charismatics and others, who use different prayers, ordination standards and organizational ground rules.

According to the constitution released late Wednesday, each diocese, cluster or network in the newly declared province will have significant autonomy on women's ordination and other matters.

But already, Bishop Jack Iker of Fort Worth, Texas, whose diocese seceded from the Episcopal Church this year, has declared himself in "impaired communion" with female priests ordained in Pittsburgh.

"The new grouping is, in the eyes of many," said Radner, "representative of diverse bodies whose theology and ecclesiology is, taken together, incoherent, and perhaps in some cases even incompatible."

That bodes ill for the denomination's future, Douglas said. "Those who have been quick to separate themselves out in the past have that as part of their operational DNA," he said.

Still, not everyone is writing off the new church.

"We cannot predict the future," said David L. Holmes a professor of religious history at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., "but my hunch would be that this new Anglican denomination will persist over the years."

Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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