The past three weeks have been some of the most momentous in the history of the Anglicanism — by some reckonings, let us not forget, the second largest Christian denomination in the world.
To recap: The Anglican Communion — the global network of national churches symbolically headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury — has been splitting apart ever since The Episcopal Church (historically, the Anglican province in the United States) approved the consecration of a non-celibate gay bishop in 2003. In response, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primates of the various Anglican Provinces called for an “Anglican Covenant” that would clarify the Provinces’ duties to one another. In the meantime, they asked TEC to refrain from blessing same-sex unions or consecrating bishops living in sexual relationships outside of marriage. Whether Anglicanism would survive as a global church hinged on whether TEC would honor these moratoria.
As of three weeks ago, we know the answer: No. TEC’s bishops voted overwhelmingly to approve resolutions (i) stating that individuals in same-sex unions may be called to “any ordained ministry” and (ii) calling for the development of liturgies for the blessing of same-sex unions. Despite subsequent tergiversations from TEC, these resolutions constituted a frank repudiation of the Anglican Communion’s call for moratoria.
Two weeks later, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a long statement announcing that efforts to hold Anglicans together had failed. The Archbishop now envisions a “two-tiered” Anglican church. One tier would be fully Anglican in the sense that member Provinces would be in full communion with one another and abide by the Anglican Covenant. The other tier would be in some as-yet-undefined sense less than fully Anglican – Anglican-identified, perhaps. TEC would clearly fall into the second tier.
Theologically, the outcome is sad but also encouraging. A more coherent Anglican church has emerged out of the crisis. Just a few years ago, even the most optimistic of those who conceive of Anglicanism as a third branch of the one Catholic church (the others being the Roman Catholic church and Eastern Orthodoxy) could not have imagined that the Anglican Provinces would move to strengthen their “instruments of communion” and bind themselves to a common Anglican Covenant. Anglicans have long had to experience their Catholic identity vicariously — that is, by preserving tenuous resemblances to the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches, whose claim to be Catholic is not in doubt. Now that vicarious experience is becoming more meaningful. The Archbishop of Canterbury himself argues that Covenant Provinces must, before making decisions, consult not only with each other but also with “ecumenical partners” (i.e., the Roman and other churches). The Vatican, meanwhile, has welcomed the emergence of a more unified Anglicanism. The Anglican Communion may yet become the “third branch” of the Catholic church that the Oxford Movement championed.
As for American Episcopalians, they can only experience their break with the Anglican Communion as exhilarating. For years, TEC prided itself, somewhat pretentiously, on its “Anglican comprehensiveness” – that is to say, its ability to tolerate a variety of approaches and doctrines within the same church. That tradition has now been superseded in favor of a new, dominant tradition of New Prophecy. Like some modern Pentecostals, TEC believes that God introduces new revelations into the world – for example, through congenital sexual appetites — that can supplant scripture, tradition and even reason. New Prophecy has quietly established itself as the official orthodoxy of TEC, most of whose dioceses have been waging a slow war of attrition against orthodox priests and parishes. Many, perhaps the majority of Episcopalians believe it would be positively sinful to remain affiliated with a global church that rejects New Prophecy. That TEC has taken such a courageous stand against the Anglican Communion fills them with joy.
TEC’s position is not at all dire. Despite its anti-intellectualism and declining membership, TEC will always be the public face of “Anglicanism” in the United States. Just look around Manhattan: Trinity Church in lower Manhattan sits reproachfully atop Wall Street like a patient hostess amidst unruly guests; the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Fifth Avenue crowns Carnegie Hill with two massive piers standing like the very pillars of best society. TEC is the church of Groton School in Massachusetts and St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire – to this day, potent reminders that the former Protestant Establishment never exactly disappeared. TEC visibly admonishes onlookers: We were here first. Even TEC’s New Prophecy is pitched almost exclusively to upper class whites.
Episcopalianism is now inconsistent with Anglicanism. Remarkably, Anglicanism is just another example of the immigrant experience in America – that is, the experience of standing on the outside looking in. TEC will always be there for those who feel that they truly belong. Whether it had any valid theological claims was always beside the point.