Watchers of the Anglican and ecumenical scenes witnessed some fireworks January 14 when the Anglican Communion’s Primates’ Meeting, in historic Canterbury, England’s primatial see, made a bold gesture, unprecedented in a denomination known for its mild manners and comprehensiveness. The primates (national churches’ head bishops) have asked the United States’ official Anglicans, the Episcopal Church, to stay away from Anglican meetings and to not officially represent the Anglicans for three years due to the Episcopalians’ voting at their General Convention in 2015 to officially support and have same-sex marriage, soon after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the same.
Call it a case of the ex-empire striking back. The Anglican Communion largely consists of churches in the British Empire’s former African colonies, part of the “Global South,” remaining conservative in morals unlike the largely “progressive” First World Anglicans in Britain and North America.
Unsurprisingly, the 1.8-million-member Episcopal Church’s newly elected Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, issued a statement the next day insisting his denomination will continue to perform same-sex weddings.
But does the suspension mean anything, and do the primates even have the authority to suspend? Unsurprisingly, some Episcopalians argue that they don’t. In any event, it’s not like an excommunication from the Catholic Church; it is, at most, for the Episcopalians a temporary “time-out” from voting or representing the communion. Each Anglican church is independent; the Archbishop of Canterbury is not like the Pope in that his leadership is largely honorary. The communion is a voluntary association.
Also, a recent breakaway American group, the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), was invited to the meeting but not as a full member. Many Global South Anglican churches recognize it while not recognizing the Episcopal Church anymore. This new denomination, which resembles the Episcopal Church—including having women priests but being more conservative theologically and morally—was formed from dioceses that left the Episcopal Church after it consecrated a practicing homosexual, Gene Robinson, as a bishop in 2003.
The fascinating question for Catholics and other observers is: Why it has taken so long for an issue to start to break up the Anglican Communion, given Anglicanism’s contradictory origins and impulses? And why over homosexuality and same-sex marriage in particular?
The Reformation in England wasn’t, at first, a movement of the people. The nation was driven from the Catholic Church by force after King Henry VIII, desperate for a legitimate son to continue his dynasty, sought an annulment (not a divorce) from the Pope when he had no right to one. To that end, while not a Protestant himself, he appointed clergy with Protestant views, generally of the Reformed sort. This eventually settled into a claim to be a via media, a middle way, between Catholicism and Protestantism, claiming continuity with the medieval church by keeping the creeds, a liturgy, and, unusual for Protestants, bishops. Roman Catholics were seen as Catholic, but in grave error regarding the authority of the Pope.
Logically, the Anglicans’ high-church/low-church conflict in the 1800s should have split the Communion even as it took shape. It was about more than liturgical style (high with more Catholic-like ceremonial); it was about compatible theologies. Is Anglicanism a “Catholicism” without the Pope, with its sacramental system literally giving grace, or a vehicle of the Reformers, with salvation through feeling one is saved while the church remains merely external? Amazingly, the Anglican Communion remained together and was proud of its moderation and tolerance.
The issue came to a head again in the 1970s when several Anglican churches, including the Episcopalians, ordained women to the priesthood. A number of Episcopal clergy left to form a new church, also named the Anglican Church in North America, but this effort was less successful than ACNA decades later. Small, and divided among themselves, they soon separated into smaller “Continuing Anglican” churches, and, more important, never got the recognition from the Anglican Communion they thought they would (and replacing the Episcopalians). In their view this was because they had kept biblical and Catholic order as opposed to changing the matter of a sacrament by vote, as the Episcopalians have now done for themselves with matrimony.
Unlike with ACNA, no dioceses left the Episcopalians in the 1970s. It would have made more sense for the considerable number of Anglo-Catholic dioceses at the time to secede and, facing the lawsuits over property and pensions the Episcopalians have had with ACNA, form their own church with no reference to the Anglican Communion, given their unique, un-Protestant theology. The result would have been something like the Old Catholics in Europe imagined themselves to be; they would have been Continuing Anglicans with more clout.
While both women’s ordination and homosexuality are issues that hit close to home for many, women priests are a theological opinion that, given the advances of feminism in secular culture, most Anglicans simply adjusted to. The thinking begins with “I believe in women’s rights” as a self-evident truth, not the Catholic belief that “we don’t have the authority to change a sacrament.” Homosexual relationships including marriage touch on something more primal, having to do with reproduction (or lack thereof), continuing the species; it is literally a matter of survival. In short, it directly raises the question: “What is marriage for?” Thus, for the Global South Anglicans and the Anglican Church in North America, the same-sex issue may indeed be the last straw.