Monday, July 20, 2009

Schism is for losers, winners preach the gospel

The big picture. At a time like this it simply has to be kept in view, otherwise we Anglicans are going to run around like headless chooks. Philip Jenkins, writing in the Wall Street Journal, is here to help us.

Introducing the question of schism and Anglicanism

"For a decade now, the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) has been bitterly divided over the issue of ordaining openly gay clergy. The matter reached a new intensity this past week when the church's triennial convention ended the ban on gay candidates serving in ordained ministry. After years of protesting ECUSA's liberal policies and doctrines, seceding conservatives have now organized a rival church -- the Anglican Church in North America, or ACNA -- which claims 100,000 believers, compared with two million in ECUSA. This week's dramatic decision is sure to widen the rift even further, causing what church historians might officially label a "schism."

The presiding bishop of the mainstream Episcopal grouping, Katherine Jefferts Schori, predictably condemns ACNA, protesting that "schism is not a Christian act." But it is not wholly clear who is seceding from whom. In approving gay bishops, ECUSA is defying the global Anglican Communion, which had begged Americans not to take a move that could provoke believers in other parts of the world. The Anglican Communion, though noticeably "progressive" in its American and British forms, is a world-wide church of 80 million. Indeed, the majority of Anglicans today live in African and Asian countries where progressive views are not so eagerly embraced. For American conservatives, it is Bishop Jefferts Schori's church that has seceded from global Anglicanism."

Schism, in the end, is a verdict of history, not normally applied to the breakaway movement which flourishes

"Although the recent Episcopalian saga might seem to have been going on for a long time, it may actually be in its early stages: Churches normally agonize for many years before coming to the breaking point. Western Catholics and Eastern Orthodox jousted with each other for well over a century before plunging into the Great Schism of 1054, at which point they became, in practice, two distinct churches. American Protestant denominations debated the slavery question in the early decades of the 19th century, culminating in a series of traumatic splits in the mid-1840s. Schism is considered such an ugly development that it is usually avoided at all costs -- until tensions become intolerable. Even then, it is preceded by patched-up compromises and interventions. We may well see a process like this in the Anglican world over the next four or five years.

But is schism truly so awful? A lot depends on the outcome. If a new movement fails, it enters the history books as "schismatic"; if it flourishes, it simply becomes a new church or a new denomination."

Good can come from an action some predetermine to be unChristian

"But some dissent ends up being far from trivial. The Anglican Communion itself began in schism, when England's King Henry VIII broke away from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. And his new Anglican church itself produced at least one wildly successful breakaway: The Methodist movement of the 18th century emerged within an Anglican framework. Its leaders, including John Wesley, were desperately eager to avoid any break with Mother Church, but the inevitable schism occurred after Wesley's death in 1791. Today, Methodists count around 75 million followers world-wide. Both Anglicans and Methodists would be shocked to hear their origins described in terms of schism."

Posing a question re ACNA which actually applies to all churches!

"So will America's new Anglican breakaway succeed? A church, like a business, will grow if it can draw consumers whose needs are presently unmet and if it can present its product, its message, in singularly attractive ways. It remains to be seen whether the Anglican Church in North America can appeal to mainstream Episcopalians who are uncomfortable with its strongly evangelical-charismatic flavor."

In other words, the 'big picture' here, for all Anglican acronyms (ACNA, TEC, C of E, GAFCON, FCA, ACANZP, ACCan, CANA, ...) is as much 'can we get along?' as 'do we have a message which will convert the world?'

Methodism was a movement begun with preaching the gospel, and continued with missionary endeavour (particularly notable in the South Pacific islands). The Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic church are worldwide churches because both won converts through preaching the gospel, not merely because colonization spread a whole bunch of European people through the world. (I think one could argue that the post-1054 Eastern Orthodox church is only now waking up to its responsibility to preach the gospel - its presence in the world beyond Greece, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, is largely a product of emigration). TEC is a missionary church. ACNA will be one. But the gospel messages each preaches in the course of the next 50 years will have differences. Time will tell which is better attuned for Americans shaped by the specific flavours of American 21st century culture (and sub-cultures).

ACNA's special challenge will be to avoid the decline of the Reformed Episcopal Church, a breakaway movement from TEC in the 19th century which we can now (I suggest) judge to be a schism:

"One of the rare survivors is the Reformed Episcopal Church that seceded in 1873, but today it claims a mere 13,000 members."

TEC's special challenge will be to stay the course and prove they are following God's will. As Jenkins observes, with respect to the so-called Gamaliel principle, "If these troublesome dissidents are following their own human interests, they'll fail; but if they are following God's will, nothing can stop them and others should not interfere." In this case the application of the principle concerns TEC as 'dissidents' relative to the Communion, but, naturally, it also applies to ACNA relative to TEC, the FCA relative to the C of E, etc.

Here in Aotearoa New Zealand we Anglicans do not, in my view, spend sufficient time thinking about our 'product' or our 'message'. Actually, it is not just Anglicans who are not addressing this issue!

PS For a nuanced, sensitive accounting for the actions of TEC at the GC, read Jim Naughton's post in the Guardian.

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