Anglicans: “Semi-Schism” Forthcoming?

It appears the long-awaited, long-feared day may be soon at hand: The worldwide Anglican Communion, in the midst of a years-long whirlwind of debate between anti-gay and pro-gay members, seems poised to play hardball with its American branch, the GLBT-affirming US Episcopal Church. According to the Washington Blade, the denomination plans to exclude the US church from full participation as punishment for daring to appoint an openly gay bishop and for refusing to go along with a moratorium on future elevations of GLBT clergy.

“There is no way in which the Anglican Communion can remain unchanged by what is happening at the moment,” Archbishop [of Canterbury, the denomination’s figurehead] Rowan Williams wrote to the Anglican Communion’s 38 primates.

“Neither the liberal nor the conservative can simply appeal to a historic identity that doesn’t correspond with where we now are,” Williams wrote.

His letter was billed as a “reflection” on where the church stood following last week’s General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of Anglicanism. Episcopalians brought Anglican differences to a crisis point in 2003 by elevating V. Gene Robinson, who has a male partner, to be bishop of New Hampshire.

Rejecting demands from conservatives in Africa and at home that they elect no more gay bishops, Episcopalians voted instead to call for “restraint.” And in a communion where women bishops are the exception, Episcopalians ruffled some Anglicans by electing Katharine Jefferts Schori as their presiding bishop.

In short, the Episcopal Church didn’t cave completely to Anglican demands and, therefore, must be punished.

Here is the plan being formulated: The Archbishop of Canterbury proposes two levels of membership in the Anglican Communion. Anti-GLBT churches would hold full, “constituent” membership status; pro-gay liberal churches would be relegated to “associate” membership. (Call it Jim Crow for the perceived “rebels.”) The goal is to ensure that the membership designation is chosen by the regional regulating body in charge, not by the leadership in England. All provinces will have an opportunity to sign a “covenant” that lists the traditional, anti-GLBT standards — no gay ordination, no blessings of gay marriages or unions. The denomination fully expects that the US church and other liberal-minded churches in Canada, New Zealand and even Scotland will refuse to sign the document. At that point, those churches will have two choices: completely sever ties to Canterbury or remain in the communion as associate members, as second-class citizens.

That may be a tough choice for some. I certainly can’t tell people what to do. When I struggled over leaving the Roman Catholic Church over its inhumane treatment of women and GLBT people, it was inordinately painful — but it was a necessary step to honor my own personhood. I still miss the denomination of my birth, but I don’t regret leaving it for a second.

Sometimes schism is necessary for the greater good. In “One Broken Body,” a 2000 Baltimore City Paper investigation on Protestant churches and the increasingly high-pitched war over homosexuality, I looked into the phenomenon of denominations breaking apart:

The prospect that some… seek and leaders of those churches are working desperately to avoid — schism, disunity, breaking up — has a history as old as Christianity and is woven into the denominations now visiting these questions. Christianity itself was founded when the first followers of Jesus left Judaism behind. One of them, Peter, founded the Catholic Church. When that church became vastly wealthy and powerful, its authority was challenged in a series of uprisings that created a new pole of Christianity. The very meaning of Protestantism comes from the root of its name: protesting against the religious status quo for the right to consider different ideas, to reach different conclusions, to worship in different ways, to find authority in a completely different place.

Religious beliefs — especially when tied to a powerful church-equals-state system that governs moral precepts, land ownership, taxation, and commerce — can lead to vast, bloody wars. Europe was stained red by all the fighting in the 16th and 17th centuries: bloody insurrections to stamp out the teachings of John Calvin in the Netherlands and France; the costly defeat of Catholic Spain’s once invincible armada; the murder of inconvenient wives before England’s King Henry VIII decided to break with Rome and establish the Church of England.

Decades and decades of war led to the establishment of U.S. Protestantism’s mainline denominations during and after the Revolutionary War. Calvinism led to the Puritans; its ethic of hard work, order, democracy, and a strict adherence to Scripture now lives on within the Presbyterian Church (USA) and other, smaller Presbyterian denominations. The Episcopal Church is the American offshoot of the Anglican Church, created by Henry VIII. The autonomous Methodist Episcopal Church was constituted in 1784, at the historic Christmas Conference in Baltimore.

Infighting has remained a major and ongoing (if far less bloody) presence among U.S. denominations. People take their most deeply held beliefs seriously. And when they perceive their church to be straying from those beliefs, or when issues of the day create differences between personal conscience and denominational stance, the sense of betrayal or aloneness is strong–so strong that the only options might be to fight or split.

Slavery was such an issue for some denominations, including the Methodists. Northern Methodists opposed the practice and those in the South embraced it. In 1844, the tension led to schism, leaving two churches: the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. (The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the African Methodist Episcopal [AME] Church were set up for people of African descent prior to the mainstream Methodist split; they still exist today, using the same doctrine and system of governance as the current United Methodist Church.)

But, as the Methodists showed, schism can lead to reconciliation. In 1939, slavery had been long abolished and the two bodies, which both had assimilated into the general behaviors of American Protestantism, came together again (along with a smaller group, the Methodist Protestant Church) as the Methodist Church. As one body, however, there were still conflicts–governed by a General Conference and smaller regional conferences, one Central Conference was set up specifically for African-American Methodists who had not aligned with the all-black AME churches. That segregation ended in 1968, the same year that a union between the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church led to the formation of the United Methodist Church.

Slavery divided the Presbyterian Church into two as well; reunification did not happen until 1983. “Historic Principles, Conscience, and Church Government,” a report issued that year, says schism, though monumentally painful, is sometimes the only way to go. “It is perhaps fair to say that no knowledgeable member or officer of the church can agree with every requirement in the ‘Form of Government,’ and with every position which the church takes on every issue,” the report says. “Scripture is our highest authority and no church governing body may bind conscience contrary to Scripture. It can, however, interpret Scripture and require that those who disagree either submit or withdraw peaceably. Because of the right to withdraw, the individual conscience cannot be bound by actions of the church.”

In other words, schism can be a valuable protection for the Christian of conscience who cannot uphold his or her denomination’s laws and does not agree with the institution’s interpretation of Scripture. People of conscience can worship with those who share their beliefs and avoid those who, in their estimation, exclude and/or persecute those with whom they disagree. Methodists and Presbyterians are no strangers to schism; many in those faiths realize that sometimes the only option for everyone’s best interests is to break apart. For some, this can lead to more honest worship, a more joyous relationship with fellow church members, and even spiritual salvation.

Still, when a person is deeply committed to a church or denomination, leaving it can cause great suffering. Such a move, for most dissenters, must be considered only as a last resort.

When I first reported on the subject more than five years ago, the Anglican Communion — which has more than 70 million members around the globe — was “less fractured over homosexuality than its Methodist and Presbyterian cousins,” but I predicted in 2000 that its “fissures over homosexuality… might be widening.” It saddens me to know that I was correct. Sad or not, however, a breakup of the Anglican Communion may be for the best.

And it’s already under way: The Associated Press reports today that Christ Church Episcopal, a conservative, anti-GLBT Episcopal church in Plano, TX, is cutting ties to the national church over its recent choice of a woman as presiding bishop.

“The mission of Christ Church is to make disciples and teach them to obey the commands of Christ,” said a statement approved by Christ Church’s leaders this weekend. “The direction of the leadership of the Episcopal Church is different and we regret their departure from biblical truth and the historic faith of the Anglican Communion. … We declare our intention to disassociate from ECUSA as soon as possible.”

It’s sad, but if Christ Church’s members must leave ECUSA to follow conscience, I have to respect that. I do respect that. They are doing, for them, what is right. When anti-gay conservative Episcopalians meet next month to discuss how they should proceed, they doubtless will do what their conscience dictates as well. As they should.

The proposed two-track Anglican Communion membership proposal will be discussed at this summer’s primates’ meeting and at another scheduled for next February. Final approval could come at the Anglicans’ 2008 Lambeth Conference in 2008. That day could also wind up being Decision Day for the Episcopal Church USA and others. Will they choose to affix their names (and souls) to an anti-gay (and arguably anti-Christian) creed? Will they accept second-class status? Or will they have the courage of their convictions and walk away, heads held high, to pursue their own path of love, tolerance and equality for all of God’s children, the path they believe the Creator wants them to follow? Only time will tell.

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