Will the Episcopal Church break up?

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Jan. 14 2004 11:36 AM

Where Anglicans Fear To Tread

Will a schism destroy the Episcopal Church?

The Episcopal Church—the mannerly denomination of 11 American presidents and of scores of academics and corporate titans—appears headed for implosion. Put the emphasis on the word "appears."

After two decades of debating gay rights, last summer Episcopalians elected an openly homosexual man, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire. On that August day in Minneapolis, dozens of conservatives walked out of the church's national convention, many of them wearing ashes on their foreheads as a sign of mourning. Immediately, Anglicans worldwide weighed in on the decision—including some formidable leaders. Archbishop Peter Akinola, head of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, condemned Robinson's election as "a Satanic attack" on the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church, which is the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion. (The Church of Nigeria serves 17.5 million people and ranks in size second only to the mother Church of England.) By last month, Akinola and nine other conservative bishops worldwide had publicly protested or cut official ties with the Episcopal Church over the gay bishop.

Meanwhile, American conservatives began laying plans for some sort of breakaway. The upshot is that on Jan. 19, a group of conservative Episcopal parishes and dioceses calling themselves the Network of Anglican Communion Diocese and Parishes will convene for the first time in Plano, Texas. So far, about a dozen of the church's 100 dioceses have expressed interest in joining the group.

What happens next is anyone's guess—except that whatever it is will be messy and public. Yet as bad as this situation sounds, it's entirely possible the Episcopal Church will emerge more flexible and resilient, and not necessarily crippled or diminished, from the biggest crisis gripping Anglicans since Henry VIII's break with Rome.

Why? First of all, a schism isn't likely, despite the grim predictions. Three Episcopal schisms—in 1873, 1968, and 1976—produced tiny splinter denominations with no official Anglican Communion affiliation. Today's conservatives don't want that; they want the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Communion, to allow a parallel Anglican province separate from the Episcopal Church and made up of conservative parishes, priests, and laity in North America.

Once they have that in place, they want the Network province to win recognition from the Archbishop of Canterbury as the authentic "Episcopal Church"—and push aside the current Episcopal Church as the legitimate face of Anglicanism in America. (There are 38 autonomous churches in the 77 million-member Anglican Communion, including Episcopalians in the United States.)

In October, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams brought together the heads of the 38 churches for an emergency meeting. Conservatives say that during the meeting Williams encouraged them in their quest to build their network—and that he supports the idea of the parallel province. But liberals say even if Williams actually did support the parallel "Episcopal Church''—an idea they dismiss—at this point there is no legal way for him to "unrecognize" one province and replace it with a new one. The archbishop has few actual powers, his title notwithstanding. Theoretically, the Anglican Communion could draw up a legal structure that could allow for such powers—so that Williams could make this kind of organizational change—but no one seems to know exactly how that would be accomplished.

The Episcopal Church is, theologically speaking, a way station between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Anglicans (for these purposes the term is synonymous with Episcopalians) call this via media—an approach to morality, worship, and teaching that tries to take into consideration all sides and find a balance. What is distinctly Anglican, therefore, is not a theology, but a theological method. Anglicans treasure this idea and invoke it frequently when mired in battle—essentially, it's a foundation of the denomination. Even the most conservative Anglicans hold to via media: They are protesting and threatening schism while still trying to stay in the Anglican Communion.

Another consideration is that conservatives' anger stems from trying to place a moral code—opposition to homosexuality—onto a church that has historically allowed for fuzzy boundaries. A hallmark of Anglicanism is the ability to hold philosophies in tension—Catholic and Protestant, liberal and conservative. If you're looking for perpendicular theology, join the Southern Baptists; the Episcopalians are not your people.

Finally, it's not clear that a majority, or even a large minority, of Episcopalians are upset with the Robinson decision. Half of all Episcopalians are converts from other denominations. They chose to become Episcopalians, and presumably they like being Episcopalian. So, why would half of the denomination leave the church they purposely embraced—fuzzy theology and all—in the first place?

While conservatives say that the Episcopal Church will hemorrhage members as a result of the church's liberal position on gay rights, statistics seem to tell a different story. The church has been openly, frequently, and vehemently debating homosexuality for 20 years. Yet between 1991 and 2001 (the latest available figures), the number of Episcopal communicants was up nearly 16 percent. This is because, beginning in 1994, the church added another category to reports sent each year by parishes: "others active in congregations." This means people who regularly worship, give money, and actively contribute their time, but who haven't yet officially joined the church. In 2001, that figure was almost 200,000 people. 

All of this points to an Episcopal Church that will take its punches and remain standing.

Conservatives who really, truly want to leave the denomination will do so. But the majority of them, because of the legal and tradition-based problems associated with splitting, will stay in the church and just be unhappy. The denomination's bureaucracy, as it always seems to do, will find a way to accommodate their unhappiness, probably by allowing them to officially dissent from the national church's position. Meanwhile, liberals already in the church will congratulate themselves, and the controversy will put the Episcopal Church on the map for other liberal Christians who hadn't heard much about it before—and who might be inclined to join as a result.

So, for the next months and years, conservatives and liberals alike will pray, cry, and battle each other. They'll hold meetings and issue pronouncements. There will continue to be an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire, and conservatives won't like it. There will be threats of schism, emergency summits, and more pronouncements. Still, the most likely outcome is that all of them—conservative, moderate, liberal, gay, and straight—will remain in the same church, holding the whole squirmy mess in delicate balance.

Deborah Caldwell is a senior producer for Beliefnet, an online magazine about religion and spirituality.