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Dissent is a centuries-long Episcopal tradition

Church that formed in ferment of Reformation may be facing new crossroads.
By Greg Mellen
Staff writer, Long Beach Press Telegram

Monday, August 15, 2005 - LONG BEACH — Fissures in the Episcopal Church are certainly nothing new. In fact, many say it is the diversity of the congregants and their beliefs that makes the church vibrant and relevant.

Diversity is what allows Episcopalians to have very structured and ritualized High Churches and more relaxed and socially active Low Churches. It is what allowed radical thinkers such as bishops James Pike and John Shelby Spong to rise to positions of power, while simultaneously questioning the literalism of the Virgin Birth and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And sometimes, it is what drives parishes from the flock.

When All Saints Church of Belmont Heights and St. James and St. David's parishes left the national church after the ordination of an openly gay bishop, the blessing of same-sex unions and other doctrinal changes, it was a sign that for some congregations, diversity has its limits. The three breakaway parishes have since aligned themselves with an Anglican diocese in Uganda, a decision that has met with a variety of responses.

Some may see the breakaway congregations as reactionary parishes that are on the outer fringe of the faith and out of touch with modern society. Others may see them as the leading edge of a much larger and ominous trend that could ultimately rend the Episcopal Church and shake the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Already, Anglican leaders from around the globe have repudiated the Episcopal Church and declared varying levels of diminished relations. As the Episcopal Church continues with its current policies, those relations could become more strained.

"I think it's safe to say the Anglican Communion won't look like it has in the past. I think Anglicanism is from now on permanently changed," said the Rev. Gregory Wilcox of St. Mary of the Angels, a parish that split from the Episcopal Church in 1977. "The Episcopal Church committed itself with the consecration of (V. Gene) Robinson and the continued dissolution of doctrine. It has committed itself to this path."

One of the larger active groups in the U.S. that is trying to restore conservatism to the Episcopal Church from within is the Anglican American Council. Formed in 1996 with nine bishops and representatives from more than 20 parishes, the AAC now has 29 chapters and affiliations with 41 schools and organizations.

There have been suggestions that the Anglican American Council could eventually evolve into a second more conservative Anglican Church in the United States.

Others see the latest dustup as just another minor skirmish.
 

Frank Kirkpatrick of Trinity College wrote in the spring 2004 edition of "Religion in the News' that "the threat of schism has been, as Mark Twain said of obituaries announcing his death, greatly exaggerated."

The decline of the Episcopal Church, however, has not been a source of laughter for leadership.

Worldwide, Anglicanism has been growing and now has 77 million adherents. However, the Episcopal Church has been in steady decline for 40 years, from 3.6 million in 1965 to fewer than 2.3 million.

Some connect that slide to the church's march toward social liberalism.

As the Rev. Beau Davis, an Anglican priest in Los Feliz, says, "(The Episcopal Church is) trying to be loving and trying to be inclusive, but you can't throw Scriptures out."

"The Episcopal Church is dying. They're shuttering churches," said the Rev. Donald Ashman, whose Anglican Church of Our Saviour was one of four parishes to break away from the Episcopal Church in 1977. "If these churches are successful, it could open the floodgates."

Since its founding, the Anglican Church has been one of revolt. It is, after all, a "Protestant' church.

In the early 1500s, the Roman Catholic Church was quaking with dissent. Martin Luther launched the Reformation with his scalding attacks on papal abuses and indulgences.

Soon the Calvinists, Presbyterians, Puritans and Congregationalists, Anabaptists, charismatics and humanists were seeking their own paths, setting doctrine and redefining their relationships with God and their churches.

Amid the upheaval, King Henry VIII of England, frustrated by the refusal of the Roman Catholic Church to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and allow him to marry Anne Boleyn, decided to join the tide away from Catholicism. When Henry formally broke ties with Rome in the 1530s to create the Church of England, or Anglican Church, he created a fractious sect of the Christian religion.

That tradition has continued. From the disputes that set Anglican groups such as Pilgrims and Puritans at odds, to the breaking off from England and establishing the Episcopalian Church in the United States, the worldwide Anglican Communion has rarely lacked for commotion.

That trend in the U.S. church has become particularly noticeable in the last 30 years. In the 1970s, there was the ordination of women throughout the clergy, changes to the liturgy and Book of Common Prayer and a trend toward humanism or social conscience.

Those moves led a number of clergy and parishes to leave the Episcopal Church. In 1977, about 2,000 bishops, clergy and lay people met in St. Louis and created the Affirmation of St. Louis that, among other things, accused the Episcopal Church of "unlawful attempts to alter faith, order and morality."

From those meetings, a number of Anglican parishes organized and created dioceses and Anglican organization apart from the Episcopal Church.

More recently, new battlegrounds have emerged as the church has dealt with issues of homosexuality in the clergy, blessing of same-sex unions and ever-evolving issues of biblical orthodoxy and interpretation of Scriptures.

A group called Anglicans on-line lists more than 60 Anglican churches, dioceses and larger organizations that are not formally recognized or "in communion' with the worldwide Anglican Communion.

These churches may be completely Anglican in heritage and origin, but are simply not recognized by the See of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of Anglicanism. Many of them exist across a wide spectrum of orthodoxies and conservatism.

For example, two groups, the Anglican Church in America and The Anglican Church of America, have very different outlooks despite strikingly similar names. The former espouses more conservative values, while the latter is a member of the International Communion of All-Inclusive Churches. In both groups' Web sites, they note that they should not be confused with the other.

A number of dioceses that have remained in the Episcopal Church have elected to withhold funding to the national church. Virginia, one of the cradles of Anglicanism in the United States, reduced its contributions by more than $1 million. Nationally, funding for the church was down by 12 percent in 2004.

This year, there are pockets of discontent across the country. In Connecticut, a group of priests faced being defrocked for their opposition to the ordination of Robinson. In Alabama, a second congregation has left the fold. In Tempe, Ariz., a parish of 400 split from the Episcopal Church and left its building behind. In Lexington, Ky., a second parish severed ties with the national church. In Philadelphia, a parish defied its bishop by not only keeping a defrocked priest as rector, but elevating him to a bishop of the Anglican Church in America. In New Westminster, Canada, two congregations ended their affiliation with the Anglican Church of Canada, which also blesses same-sex unions.

Whether these events are just part of the normal ebb and flow of opinion and dissent in a large church or the sign of major fracturing, remains to be seen.

The congregants of All Saints Church and St. James and St. David's parishes say for them the split with the Episcopal Church is final and irrevocable.

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August 15, 2005 in American Anglican Countil (AAC), Churches Not In Communion, Diocese of Los Angeles, St. James, Newport Beach, CA | Permalink

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