Anglican Dispute: What May be Lost
The Rev. William L. Sachs, Ph.D.is Executive Director of the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation in Richmond, Virginia.
The dispute over homosexuality is only the tip of the iceberg of Anglican conflict. The larger fracture concerns division over how to frame Anglican identity and mission. It is not immediately apparent, but Anglicans even differ over what the church has lost or could lose. On one side there is a perceived threat to orthodox belief among Anglicans; on the other side there is a perceived compromise of the church’s call to embody the Kingdom of God for the sake of justice for all. The contending sides both perceive challenges for which homosexuality is the defining issue. How Anglicans understand and address the church’s challenges, and whether they can agree on them, will determine the church’s nature and prospects for years to come. There is no greater sign of division. Both advocates of inclusion and exclusion of homosexual persons have made this issue definitive and fear for the church’s integrity if their position is not upheld. A sense of threat to Anglican integrity motivates both sides.
Most of the world’s Anglicans are not so motivated. Most do not stake the church’s future on one issue. Most, regardless of how they view homosexuality, see the church in a broader light. Soon after the consecration of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in 2003, it became clear that even in the Episcopal Church of the United States the majority of clergy and laity refused to be defined by their stance on homosexuality. As the issue raged, over two-thirds of Episcopalians regretted the conflict and wished it could be resolved. Most took centrist positions reflecting aspects of the fears and hopes of both sides of the gay issue. Above all most took a broad view of the church’s nature and ministry, presumed that the church should encompass different points of view, refused to link the church’s prospects to the one issue, and looked for effective ways to move forward together.
What has been diminished is the church’s historic middle ground, and the influential approach to mission and church life that it fostered. Broad agreement among Anglicans, the ideal of unity Anglicans have pursued, and the influence that ideal have given Anglicans have all eroded severely. Anglicans have long staked out a centrist view of themselves that has permitted significant variation. To say one is Anglican is to open a range of possibilities. This fact has not diluted the church’s witness but has empowered it. Out of their own diversity Anglicans have derived a view of mission that has embraced significant differences while being rooted in consensus about essential aspects of the faith and in common processes designed to encourage unity in the midst of diversity. Let me explain what this has meant historically and what it could mean in the midst of conflict over human sexuality.
A broad, centrist view reflects the historic mainstream of Anglicanism. Anglicans have always had activists and even eccentrics in their midst. But rarely has church life been so defined around conflict between minority, activist positions and never has division become so profound, or so threatened the church’s future. Instead Anglicans have a legacy of embracing difference and managing conflict that can arise from it. One of the most prominent and historic divisions among Anglicans has been that between so-called high and low church factions. That is, some embraced a style of worship, and the theology underlying it, reflective of the church’s Catholic heritage. Other Anglicans embraced a basic approach to ritual while taking an evangelical stance emphasizing biblical authority and the church’s mission.
While this conflict has receded, for nearly three-hundred years tension between high and low Church parties challenged Anglican unity in England and beyond. It became a contest for the correct expression of Anglican identity, but it was one that neither party ever finally won and neither could have won, a lesson that should be learned today. Even in eighteenth-century England, and certainly by the late nineteenth century in North America, Anglicans had become too diverse for one form of belief and practice to prevail over others. The nature of Anglicanism mitigates against dominance by one or another particular faction. Yet such contests have been continuing facts of Anglican life.
In part this is because the church never developed mechanisms to create a prescribed unity, and they would have failed if the attempt had been made. The Whig hegemony of the first half of the eighteenth century in England sent high church Tories to the political margins. But the high church party endured while in political exile. This is the closest Anglicans have come to uniformity, but it was the fruit of political hegemony not religious unity, and the church has never pretended since that uniformity could be found. Activists in the conflict over homosexuality may imagine prescribed adherence to particular forms of belief and practice, but it cannot be realized. Anglicanism has been a balancing act throughout its history and Anglicanism became even more so as it expanded beyond Britain and North America.
The high church – low church fault line remains discernible, and has fuelled conflict over homosexuality. If such tension could not be erased in previous eras, it has had to be managed. In part managing such tension occurred naturally. In Britain, and later in North America, church parties became defined by geography and by affiliation with key institutions. Thus certain regions, cities, dioceses and even parishes became noted for their style of ritual, leadership, and interpretation of Christian tradition. Liturgy could vary noticeably, especially as Anglo-Catholicism took shape and as evangelical and charismatic influences sharpened low church identity. Even theological schools embraced the style of one or the other church party. All claimed to be Anglican and generally remained linked to one another.
The links that preserved unity amid tension have centred on form and forum. First, while at times bitterly divided, the high and low parties rarely broke from one another and the church. All claimed loyalty to the Book of Common Prayer, to the church’s English heritage, and to the see of Canterbury. Over time the Lambeth Quadrilateral also gained general assent as the closest Anglicans could approach a doctrinal confession. At the same time Anglicans generally acceded to the roles of such bodies as the Lambeth Conference and the Anglican Consultative Council, though the name of the latter is revealing. Anglicans sought to be in communion with one another, to consult and to honour those consultations. Such bodies never bore the authority exercised in local and diocesan and provincial settings. But authority has not been the basis of unity; consultation and communion have been. Anglican unity has never been rooted in authority, but in the consensus that arises from gathering, from being at common prayer with one another. In this way unity and striking variety have been balanced, even in the midst of tensions that sometimes have been severe.
At times in the past Anglican unity has faltered as tension between church parties boiled over. Both individuals and groups of various sizes have broken from the church. In England the most noted fractures to date have been departures for Roman Catholicism, especially that of John Henry Newman in 1845. In the United States, Bishop George David Cummins led a small group out of the Episcopal Church in 1874 to create the Reformed Episcopal Church. Newman and Cummins represented opposed church parties; each would have feared the other if they had been on the same continent. Yet they departed the church for similar reasons. Both felt the direction of church life repudiated them and their approaches to belief and practice. Newman concluded that evangelical influence dominated his Catholic sensibilities. Cummins was an evangelical who feared that Catholic liturgy and theology had gained dominance over Episcopal life.
The high – low tension is not the only example of Anglican tension, or of the conflict that could result. In the mission field, there was recurring tension between missionaries and those whom they converted. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Africa, movements known as “Ethiopian” sought to transition Anglicanism from a colonising church into an indigenous one. This was a natural turn in Anglican life and a necessary one if the church was to outlive empire. By the beginning of the twenty-first century the growth of Anglicanism across Africa testified to the result. Ethiopian movements were not the only route to African growth; waves of evangelical experience, especially in East Africa, have been prominent. In each case the church developed African roots and forms. In each case there were tensions with Anglicans outside Africa as well as within.
Church growth and development has never occurred without tension. In part it is a matter of being either for or against a particular trend. In the Anglican sense it also concerns relations with other branches of the church in an extended, consensual system. The rise of Ethiopianism in Africa reflected not only opposition to colonial control but the rise of an indigenous sensibility. It produced conflict, including the summoning of a prominent African leader, James Johnson, for meetings with Church Mission Society (CMS) leaders in London. Momentarily, Johnson deferred. But his work in creating African churches deepened and the trend toward indigenous forms was not impeded. One could conclude that in the midst of Anglican tensions wider structures may falter and local forms become assertive.
Like the legacy of conflict between church parties, tensions between parts of Africa and other Anglicans have historic precedent. But now the inclination to divide has increased exponentially. As a result the stakes of the current conflict are higher. The conflict over homosexuality is personal. It concerns what people believe and who they are. Perhaps it should not be surprising, but a perception of being infringed, of being disregarded and even crowded out of church life is a major dynamic in the contemporary fracture. Of course, the opposed church parties both claim to embody authentic Anglicanism and, by extension, genuine Christianity. But both also fear being excluded or having their sensibilities trampled. Although couched in biblical and theological terms, the activism of both proponents and opponents of normalising the gay presence in the church is a response to this perceived threat. The debate is about the proper shape of church life and the nature of the church’s boundaries. It is a contest to decide who is in, or must be out, and what breadth the church can permit. Fear of being displaced is the most prominent feature of the situation. This reality reveals the extent of the conflict among Anglicans and the shape of what is being lost. It is the loss of consensus on how people who claim the mantel of Anglican Christianity yet differ in notable ways can live together and forge both a common confession of faith and shared ministry.
The Capacity to Mediate
My point is that the sort of tension Anglicans have experienced over homosexuality is not new. In a sense it is following historic patterns involving church parties and regions of the world, notably Africa and the global North. But Anglicans have changed in an ominous respect. Like a person who has become ill, the Anglican ability to ward off the infection of conflict has become compromised. The structures and processes that once largely warded off schism are less effective in doing so. The consensus that has sustained Anglicanism has become frayed. A willingness to act unilaterally without regard for wider sensibilities has become pronounced. Assurance that one’s experiences and convictions are definitive and need no wider consultation has become widespread. The consensus that has sustained Anglicanism has weakened because universal assent to church forms and processes has eroded. Confrontation is replacing discernment in church gatherings, and some Anglicans simply refuse to associate with others, and this virus is spreading. What has been lost in Anglican life, and what could suffer further loss, seem apparent: money, resources, focus on mission and acting in concert. But the deeper loss is only partially apparent. It is the Anglican ability to mediate among differences and so to be a force for reconciliation.
The Anglican capacity to embrace different parties within the church has translated into emphasis on mediation and reconciliation as essential aspects of the church’s mission. Anglicans have been noted for contributions to resolving conflict in public life. The most eminent has been Archbishop Desmond Tutu, noted not only for advocacy of justice but for the advance of reconciliation in South Africa. While his achievement may be singular, his example is not isolated. Terry Waite became known for courageous initiatives for peace in a volatile Middle East until he was abducted and held for nearly five years. Since his release nearly two decades ago, he has continued working for the public good.
Less known publicly a number of Anglicans have acted with similar intentions in every region of the globe. Anglicans have been known as peace-makers. This recognition is rooted in an unusual ability to engage difference appreciatively. For example Kenneth Cragg has charted a path to Christian-Muslim understanding. Before him Stephen Neill crafted discussion both of Christian origins and of engagement with other religions and cultures. But Neill was not the first Anglican to think in this way. As early South African bishop, Henry Callaway left notable reflections on how Anglicans could engage indigenous peoples respectfully and attentively. Callaway recognised that if the church was to be accepted by a people, it must be willing to work with them and adapt to them.
As historian Elizabeth Prevost has recently shown, Anglican women missionaries in east Africa in the late nineteenth century did just that. They developed a remarkable facility for being in community with African women: bonds of mutual respect arose. The task of conversion became multi-faceted: as the Gospel was proclaimed both African and English women were converted. That is, they transcended roles and expectations to reach a mutual appreciation neither foresaw. The willingness of the converter and the converted to set aside assumptions was never complete. But to the extent it proceeded, the church found unity.
Anglicans have approached relations with other Christians on a similar basis. In the early twentieth century American bishop Charles Henry Brent became a pioneering advocate of ecumenical initiative. Later, William Temple, eventually Archbishop of Canterbury, was a major voice in the Faith and Order discussions that led to creation of the World Council of Churches. More recently Rowan Williams devoted doctoral study to Russian Orthodoxy. The legacy of Anglican interest in other religions and cultures has not been incidental. Anglicans have believed that God is present among all peoples and that the form of the church may in some sense be provisional. At times, some Anglicans have risked heterodox views for the sake of seeing God through different cultural lenses. One thinks of such figures as J. W. Colenso and Charles Freer Andrews among others.
Anglicans have accepted this risk for the sake of a greater vision of God and a wider unity of disparate peoples. This breadth arose as the Church of England sought a ministry that encompassed the variety of English experience. In mission, the church sought balance between faithfulness to the Gospel and receptivity to diverse contextual experiences. Anglicans gained an ability to speak across lines that divide and to pursue reconciliation. Anglicans became scholars of non-Western cultures and fostered indigenous leadership while becoming imbued with the cultures where they worked. It has been said that Channing Moore Williams, founder of the Nippon Sei Ko Kai, spoke only in Japanese on his deathbed. More than preaching and converting, Anglicans have proclaimed the Gospel in the hope of unity.
This intention has been at the core of Anglicanism. But the breadth of mind and spirit it required has eroded. For many Anglicans now the emphasis is on particularity, not unity. Contending views of homosexuality insist upon particular confessional stances and discount those who differ. Weary of conflict the majority of Anglicans turn inward toward local issues without regard for wider church life. A change of heart is sweeping across the Anglican world. Emphasis on particularity and on being like-minded has become pronounced. This threatens the essence of Anglicanism: a quest for unity, for achieving “common prayer” without boundaries. More than money or church property, the loss of commitment to unity will be Anglicanism’s greatest loss.