With some 77 million members world-wide, the Anglican Church is the world's third-largest Christian denomination. Last week, the Church's American arm, the U.S. Episcopal Church, reached decisions on gay rights that promise to break apart the world-wide Anglican Communion. This brings the future of one of the world's largest Christian congregations, particularly in the third world, into doubt.
The current crisis is the culmination of tensions initiated in 2003, when the Episcopal Church brought the global congregation to the brink of schism over its election of a gay bishop. An uneasy balance has held ever since, until last week, when the General Convention of the U.S. Episcopal Church in Anaheim, Ca. made two key decisions regarding its gay members. First, the Church announced its willingness to ordain gays and lesbians to every level of its ministry, including bishops. As their resolution states, "God has called and may call such individuals to any ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church." The Convention went farther, however, leaving open to its bishops the possibility of blessing same-sex unions, and requesting the creation of a liturgy specifically for gay unions at the next general meeting, in 2012. In making these changes, the Church leaders cited recent law in some American states that allow gays and lesbians to legally marry.
The Anaheim resolution threatens to break a church that has teetered for several years on the edge of rupture. The new commitments overturn a 2006 resolution promising that there would be no further gay bishops. That resolution was itself an effort to calm the tensions in the world-wide communion resulting from the 2003 election to the New Hampshire diocese of Gene Robinson, who is openly gay and in a long-term partnership with a man who has since become his legal husband. Initially, some more conservative American dioceses split off from the Episcopal Church to join other, more traditional branches of the Anglican Church world-wide. This rupture within the American Anglicans came to a head last month, as traditionalists and conservatives within the Episcopal Church broke away and founded their own congregation, the Anglican Church in North America. Against this backdrop, the General Convention of the remaining U.S. Episcopal Church chose to go against the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams' express wish that no further divisive decisions be made, choosing instead to fully enfranchise its gay members.
Those conservatives that are remaining with the Episcopal Church (at least for the moment) are deeply uneasy. At the end of the convention, some 25 conservative bishops signed a statement to "reaffirm our commitment to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this church has received them." Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams spoke bleakly of a communion in "grave peril" as a result of the U.S. Episcopal Church's resolution. And some bishops promised outright rebellion, with the bishop of the Diocese of Dallas, Tx. sending a letter to his clergy stating, "We will not consent to the election of a bishop living in a same-sex relationship, and we will not allow the blessings of same-sex relationships."
The Anglican communion is a loose confederation of regionally self-determined groups of churches. The Archbishop of Canterbury is its titular head, but does not have the power to enforce doctrine on the churches using the Anglican liturgy. And increasingly, those churches have gone in divergent directions, with many of the American churches having a progressive attitude, while the congregations in the developing world have been overwhelmingly conservative. As the communion has gained popularity in Latin America and Africa, tensions with the progressive stance of the American church have worn at the world-wide union. And in fact, the current crisis has been forced in effect by the American church's progressiveness. The American Episcopal church allows the ordination of women, and is in fact headed by a Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori. She is both the first woman bishop and the most powerful bishop in the church. Her role has been to very strongly push the church in a progressive direction, from the ordination of Gene Robinson to the granting of permission to bishops to bless gay unions. But her confirmation as a bishop was opposed by many of the same congregations that are now breaking with the church—and in fact, many of those congregations refused from the beginning to recognize her leadership. In effect, in bringing the church to the point of schism, Jefferts Schori played out the repercussions of her own ordination.
The full impact of the schism in the Anglican Church for ordinary church-goers is unclear. "I think for many in the local churches, they don't like or understand the conflict," William Sachs, an Episcopal scholar and author told The Washington Post. "For them, the local church is supposed to be a place of sanity. So what may happen is simply the diminishing power of the national church as people lose interest in its continued fights." From a worshipper's perspective, a church that was already conservative or progressive will probably remain much as it was. For gay members of the church, however, the developments of the last week are a painful reminder of the sharp divisions within a community of faith.