A lovely word, that. Schism. Makes you think of armies of angry men wearing helmets and carrying pikes while battling against each other back and forth across the countryside for the sake of their Christian faith.
Only this one is happening in the 21st century, not the 16th. The battle is a bitter one, even if it is bloodless this time around.
On Monday, according to the Times Online, the Anglican Church will divide into two separate bodies. The issue is a doctrinal dispute that pits conservative and mostly third-world bishops against their liberal counterparts in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain:
The Anglican Communion will be split tomorrow [Monday] when conservatives representing more than half its total membership will announce the formation of a new orthodox body to be a stronghold against liberal views. It will be schism in all but name.
The new global Anglican fellowship will act within the legal boundaries of provinces such the Church of England that make up the existing Communion but, in North America, it will declare its independence from the ultra-liberal Episcopal Church and from the Anglican church in Canada.
A slight quibble here: the Episcopal Church, on average, is ultra-liberal, but a significant portion of it is still traditional and devoted to an authentic Christian liturgy. Some of the dissent is geographically concentrated, so that whole dioceses in various parts of the country are likely to jump ship and join the rebels.
The fellowship represents a direct challenge to the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and the Primate of the US Episcopal Church, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
Millions of Anglicans and entire provinces in the Global South — an Anglican grouping of 20 provinces that embraces India, Africa, the West Indies and the Middle East — want nothing more to do with their former colonial masters who have adopted a theology that they find too liberal.
The new fellowship represents the most severe blow to Church unity in the West since the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.
The big difference between the earlier schism and the current one lies in the market share of Christianity that can be claimed by the Anglican Church. In the United States and Canada, Anglicans represent only a tiny slice of the population, and an effete metrosexual one at that.
The crisis in the 16th century tore the social fabric of England apart. Up until that point, the Church of Rome was the only game in town, and the results of the schism were written in fire and blood and slaughter for generations afterwards.
This time the general public can hardly be expected even to notice the Great Schism. If it weren’t for the phrase “homosexual bishop”, the story would gain no attention whatsoever.
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It will shake up the structures of the Anglican Communion and could force it, in order to survive, to become a federation of provinces — a model that has been fiercely resisted by Dr Williams who is staking his archiepiscopacy on retaining unity under the present worldwide Communion of 38 provinces with him as “primus inter pares”, or first among equals of the primates of each province.
Archbishops and bishops, mainly from the Global South provinces of Africa and Asia, have been meeting in Jerusalem to draw up plans to deal with an unrepentant liberal wing of the Anglican Communion. Jerusalem was chosen for the founding of the new Anglicanism as a place that represents a Christianity older than that of Canterbury.
One province, Nigeria, has already deleted all reference to Canterbury from its constitution.
The 300 bishops and archbishops in Jerusalem, of whom more than 100 are boycotting the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury in July, claim that they do not want to form a separate church and have no plans to “walk away” from the 80 million-strong Anglican Communion.
Instead, they insist that it is the liberals in the churches of the West who have broken unity by walking away from Biblical truths and the teachings of orthodox Christianity.
Legal structures in provinces such as England, where the Queen is Supreme Governor of the Church, and in Australia, make schism practically impossible. Any parish that chose to leave would sacrifice property and recognition.
So instead fellowship policy is to reform from within, and to attempt a take-over of the Church by evangelicals working inside existing structures.
Evangelical Anglicans! Until very recently I considered this phrase to be an oxymoron, but Dr. Michael Nazir-Ali has changed my mind.
Significantly, the new fellowship will include many churches that have split from the Anglican Communion in the past over earlier doctrinal disputes.
Those meeting at the Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem include bishops from the Church of England in South Africa and the Reformed Episcopal Church in the US. It also includes bishops such as Martyn Minns and David Anderson, consecrated by the Church in Nigeria to serve conservative US parishes but not invited to the Lambeth Conference by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Ironically, this means that the new fellowship will enhance unity by bringing back into the fold many of those who have left or, as they would see it, been forced out.
Liberal parishes that have embraced the “no-bodily-resurrection and no-Virgin-birth” theology of the late 20th century are failing, while evangelical, Bible-based churches such Holy Trinity Brompton, St Helen’s Bishopsgate and All Souls in Langham Place in London are bursting at the seams. For years they have been engaged in “church planting” — founding new outposts of conservative orthodoxy in the heart of dying liberal parishes. The programme is likely to be stepped up under the new fellowship.
More than 600 Church of England clergy representing almost as many parishes are expected to swear allegiance to the new body when they meet on Tuesday at All Souls, Langham Place, which is regarded as Britain’s evangelical flagship.
The fellowship was given a boost in North America on Friday when a judge ruled that a group of 11 parishes in Virginia could keep their property after breaking away from the Episcopal Church. Lawyers from the Episcopal Church will appeal, but the case is being watched closely by dozens of other parishes and at least three dioceses that also plan to break away.
I’ll have more to say about the Virginia parishes later on. They are in the diocese to the north of us, which includes Northern Virginia, i.e. the Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy. Our diocese, Southern Virginia, is bad enough, but the Diocese of Virginia is one of most liberal bastions of the Episcopal Church. To have secessionist parishes within it tears at the very heart of the denomination.
The trigger for the new movement was the 2003 consecration of an openly gay bishop, the Right Rev Gene Robinson, in New Hampshire and the authorisation of same-sex blessings in the New Westminster diocese in Canada.
But to the conservatives, these events were merely the logical conclusion to years of movement away from the Christianity of the Early Church Fathers — the writers and teachers in the first five centuries of Christianity — the Anglicanism of the Reformation and the enthusiasm of the 19th century revivals of Anglo-Catholicism and evangelicalism.
The prime movers in the new fellowship are the Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, the Archbishop of Uganda, Henry Orombi, the Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Peter Jensen and the Archbishop of Kenya, the Most Rev Benjamin Nzimbi, who led the committee drawing up the final communiqué in Jerusalem.
Bishop Gregory Venables has also played a leading role. His Southern Cone diocese encompasses six countries in South America and he has already taken one US diocese, San Joaquin, in California, into his province and is in negotiations with Pittsburgh and Forth Worth. Significantly, Bishop Venables is a close friend of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is understood to regard the Jerusalem proceedings with equanimity. Unlike many of the bishops at the Jerusalem conference, Bishop Venables will be at the Lambeth Conference.
Dr Jensen and Archbishop Orombi will be among the new fellowship’s leaders at the All Souls meeting in London on Tuesday to recruit England’s conservatives.
Dr Jensen said: “American revisionists committed an extraordinary strategic blunder in 2003. They did not think that there would be any consequences.
“Now if they did not believe that there would be consequences, that is an arrogant thing, I have to say. But I don’t know them, so I really cannot say. The consequences have been unfolding over the last five years. Now their church is divided; it looks as though there will be permanent division, one way or the other.
“All around the world the sleeping giant that is evangelical Anglicanism and orthodox Anglicanism has been aroused by what happened in Canada and the United States of America. It was an act of folly.”
The fellowship will draw up its own Book of Common Prayer, devoid of what it sees as the liturgical inanities embraced by many modern Anglican service books. Instead it will be loyal to the original formularies outlined by Thomas Cranmer, the 16th-century Archbishop of Canterbury and incorporated into the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
The fellowship will also decree an orthodox approach to reading the Bible and will draw up a universal catechism, a feature central to Roman Catholicism but lacking from modern Anglicanism.
These are marvelous events, ones that ten years ago would have seemed impossible. Three cheers for the post-colonial bishops, and the provinces of Africa, Asia, and South America!
The big struggle in the current schism is over property, at least on the liberal side of the argument. The progressive portions of the Anglican Communion may not have the numbers, but they certainly have the money, and the Presiding Bishop in the United States took the issue of the secessionist parishes to court.
A lot of capital is tied up in the property and endowments of the dissident parishes, and there was no way the Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori was going to let those plum parishes get away without a fight.
I’ve always been told that parish property reverts to the diocese when a congregation decides to seek a divorce. The disaffected church can leave, but only if the plant and the bank accounts stay behind.
But that was an ecclesiastical ruling, and hadn’t been tested in a secular court. The Most Rev. Dr. Schori decided to roll the litigation dice and put the issue to the test in the courts of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Unfortunately for her and the liberal rump of the church, the judge ruled against the ECUSA.
According to today’s Fairfax County Times:
On Friday, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia received another blow in its fight to retrieve eight properties from 11 congregations that recently left the church.
In early 2007, the 11 breakaway churches affiliated themselves with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), a conservative missionary branch of the Church of Nigeria and other Anglican archbishops.
The breakaway was precipitated in 2003 when the Episcopal Church, which is the American branch of the Worldwide Anglican Communion, voted-in an openly gay bishop, Eugene Robinson, in New Hampshire.
In January 2007, two of Fairfax County’s oldest Episcopal churches, the Falls Church and Truro Church, made headlines by leading a secession of 11 parishes from the Episcopal Church, including the Church of the Epiphany in Oak Hill.
The group joined CANA, led by controversial Archbishop Peter J. Akinola, who has openly called for outlawing same-sex relationships in his own country.
The value of the eight properties in question is estimated at about $40 million. Both sides have already spent more than $2 million each in litigation costs.
As you can see, this conflict is not about trivial doctrinal differences like predestination or the transmigration of souls. This is about a truly serious issue, namely forty million bucks.
At the center of the litigation is the controversial Civil-War-era Virginia “Division Statute.” The statute (Va. Code § 57-9), provides that when a religious denomination or diocese experiences a “division,” member congregations may determine by majority vote which branch of the divided body they wish to join.
It also states that this determination governs the ownership of property held in trust for the congregation.
This past April, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows ruled that the congregations, which now comprise the Anglican District of Virginia (ADV), properly invoked the division statute, stating that church majorities are entitled to church property when there is a division within their denomination.
This past Friday, Bellows threw another bone to the breakaway churches, ruling the statute as constitutional.
The reporter let slip with a little editorial opinion there, didn’t he?
“Specifically, this court finds that the statute, as applied in the instant case, does not violate the Free Exercise or Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment, nor does it violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, nor does it violate the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment,” Bellows wrote in the conclusion of his 49-page ruling.
“Today’s ruling upholding the constitutionality of the Division Statute in Virginia is regrettable and reaches beyond the Episcopal Church to all hierarchical churches in the Commonwealth,” the Virginia Diocese said on its Web site on Friday. “We continue to believe that this Division Statute is clearly at odds with and uniquely hostile to religious freedom, the First Amendment and prior U.S. and Virginia Supreme Court rulings. We are unwavering in these beliefs and will explore fully every option available to restore constitutional and legal protections for all churches in Virginia.”
Actually, what the ruling is clearly at odds with and uniquely hostile to is the prospect of the Diocese of Virginia getting to keep the $40 million. Two million down the drain, and nothing to show for it.
The rump church is planning an appeal. Its pockets have historically been deep, so this may go on for a long time.
But the long-range prospects for the reactionarily liberal portion of the church are not good. Its congregants are failing to breed, and its watered-down politically correct theology appeals to very few believers. The ECUSA, at least in its current form, is a spent scene.
When the money runs out, what will be left?
At least the African bishops have the loaves and the fishes.
Note: The Times Online article linked and quoted above (by Ruth Gledhill, the Religion Correspondent) was altered several hours after I first accessed and copied the text. I’m including the earlier version here because it is longer and has more comprehensive information. The linked article is unfortunately now quite different, and there is no cached version available on Google.
Hat tip: K.