Rumors of the death of the Anglican Communion are premature, but relevant?

Once again we return to the media myth that the doctrinal wars in the Anglican Communion were caused by the 2003 election of the first openly gay and noncelibate bishop in the U.S. Episcopal Church, the tiny Diocese of New Hampshire, to be specific.

Yes, it would make religion writers' lives much easier if that were true.

However, sometimes professionals who write about complicated news events have to wrestle with complicated information that may require -- brace yourselves -- the addition of an entire sentence or two of background in a news story. It may even require talking about doctrinal issues other than those directly linked to sexuality.

So, once again, let us return to what your GetReligionistas have long called "Anglican timeline disease." The latest episode is linked to the announcement by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby that he is inviting 37 archbishops -- note the specific number -- to a January meeting that he will host to "discuss key issues face to face, including a review of the structures of the Anglican Communion."

This news led to waves of speculation, followed by a truly fascinating tweet from the Lambeth Palace press office. The following was not taken from The Onion:

The New York Times is to be commended for getting the crucial element of this story near the top, in the third paragraph:

Among those invited was the leader of the Anglican Church in North America, a conservative alliance that broke away after the decisions by the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Anglican Church of Canada to ordain openly gay people. The Anglican Church in North America is recognized by conservative provinces in the Communion, but regarded by others as an illegitimate splinter group.
After years in which the leadership of the church had sought to persuade those of different views to work together, the convening of the meeting suggests that Archbishop Welby now believes a new strategy is required to confront divisions and prevent the worldwide Communion, in which 38 provinces are formally joined, from splitting apart.

And then we reach this story's reference to the Anglican timeline:

The event that precipitated the conflict was the election in New Hampshire of V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop, in 2003. The Episcopal Church affirmed the election but suffered when some of its churches, priests and members -- and even a few entire dioceses -- departed as a consequence.

Now, let's be precise. It is accurate to say that the Anglican Church in North America came together in its current form after the New Hampshire election. However, its formation simply combined the networking efforts of conservative Episcopalians that had been happening for years, if not decades. When telling its own history, the ACNA notes:

Distressed churches and entire dioceses began to disaffiliate from the established provinces in North America and seek episcopal oversight and spiritual care from Anglican Provinces and leaders in other parts of the world, including the primates and churches of Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South America and Uganda. Beginning in 2000 with the Church of Rwanda, these leaders have responded by accepting orthodox Anglican parishes and dioceses in North America into their care.

The key, in this Times report, is the use of the verb "precipitated." Look that up online and you get:

cause (an event or situation, typically one that is bad or undesirable) to happen suddenly, unexpectedly, or prematurely.
"the incident precipitated a political crisis"
synonyms:bring about/on, cause, lead to, give rise to, instigatetriggerspark ...

There is no question that the Robinson election turned up the heat under the Anglican wars. It would be accurate to say that it was a kind of "last straw" event, but note that this would require recognizing the many straws that came before it. 

So what are the events that must be mentioned? Any list would have to begin in 1974 with the irregular, later formalized, ordination of women -- the "Philadelphia 11" -- to the priesthood. Then, in 1979, the Episcopal Church passed a resolution addressing another hot issue:

Every ordinand is expected to lead a life which is "a wholesome example to all people" (Book of Common Prayer, pp. 517, 532, 544). There should be no barrier to the ordination of qualified persons of either heterosexual or homosexual orientation whose behavior the Church considers wholesome;
We re-affirm the traditional teaching of the Church on marriage, marital fidelity and sexual chastity as the standard of Christian sexual morality. Candidates for ordination are expected to conform to this standard. Therefore, we believe it is not appropriate for this Church to ordain a practicing homosexual, or any person who is engaged in heterosexual relations outside of marriage.

This resolution was openly protested by a long list of bishops, including a future presiding bishop and a host of other leaders who would soon be making headlines.

So if we start the wars in the 1970s, what other events deserve to be on the timeline? What other events might be worth mentioning in a sentence or a paragraph? In previous posts I have mentioned:

1989 -- Bishop John Spong, Diocese of Newark, publicly ordains first non-celibate, openly-partnered, homosexual.
1991 -- Bishop Walter Righter, Diocese of Washington, D.C., ordains a non-celibate homosexual.
1994 -- General Convention of ECUSA approved Resolution C042 calling for preparation of a report considering rites for blessings of same-sex unions.

Alternative structures for doctrinal conservatives? Some were created after the ordination of women and several others started forming in the 1990s -- well before the 2003 election in New Hampshire.

Any global timeline would have to include 1998, when the worldwide Lambeth Conference passed a resolution affirming scripture and traditional teachings on marriage and human sexuality. Then 65 Episcopal bishops sign another statement of dissent. That was also the year when Spong released his famous 12 theses, beginning with "Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead." In his 10th thesis, he added: "Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way."

Looking for issues other than sex? Spong was raising some big ones, rejecting most of the basic elements of creedal Christianity.

On a related issue, I have always thought it was crucial that, in 1992, Bishop C. FitzSimons Allison of South Carolina stopped receiving Holy Communion in meetings of the U.S. House of Bishops after several of his colleagues refused to condemn a liberal theologian's statement that she served a god that is "older and greater" than the deity revealed in the Bible.

How much of that needs to be mentioned in a news story? That is a matter for editors and reporters to determine. But the simple fact is that the actual battles over homosexuality began in the late 1970s and efforts to build alternative conservative structures in the United States began in the 1990s. To say that Robinson's election "precipitated" this division is inaccurate. Why settle for flawed or, at best, simplistic language? Why pretend that the battle is about homosexuality, alone?

So what happens now? Welby's aides:

... confirmed, however, that while he was not proposing any specific solution, the archbishop was open to discussion of a new, looser federation. ...
If such an outcome were agreed upon, members of all the churches would be able to call themselves Anglican, but the change of structure would make clear that there need no longer be a common doctrine.
When asked by The Guardian newspaper whether this would represent if not a divorce, then a legal separation, the source responded: “It’s more like sleeping in separate bedrooms.” The archbishop’s office confirmed the authenticity of the quotations.

For an articulate conservative Anglican take on this development, something missing in the Times piece, please see the Anglican Unscripted podcast at the top of this post, featuring George Conger, a former GetReligionista, and his colleague Kevin Kallsen.

To cut to the chase: They argue that, to one degree or another, Communion in the Anglican world has been broken since 1976 and the ordination of women. Until then, an Anglican priest was an Anglican priest, anywhere in the world. The splits that began then have continued and grown, with other issues serving as new wedges in the cracks.

Reporters can assume that brokenness is now a given. The issue is whether Welby can find a way -- strangely enough -- to organize the brokenness and keep the pieces, symbolically, in the same network, even if Communion (large "C") remains broken at many altars.

What to watch for next? Reporters, as signaled by the Times, should watch to see if ACNA Archbishop Foley Beach is a participant in sessions that also include Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry, the newly elected leader of the U.S. Episcopal Church. How many bishops from Africa, Asia and Latin America agree to take part in sessions that include Curry?

So the question: Will there be two parallel provinces in North America and Canada, with the doctrinal conservatives allowed a seat at some kind of revised, post-doctrinal Anglican Communion table as well as members of the liberal establishment in the shrinking, but still wealthy, Episcopal Church?

Conger suggests that the United States might become to the Anglican world what Ukraine is the Eastern Orthodox, a land in which Communion is broken and everyone knows it. (Yes, as an Orthodox layman I would note that in Ukraine the battles are over fleshy stuff like land, borders, bullets and buildings, as opposed to differences in ancient doctrine linked to priesthood, the ancient creeds and even the worship of other gods, by name.)

Conger's bottom line: Will this informal and in some ways unofficial meeting (only 37 primates) be the first step toward an "Anglican Vatican II" where doctrinal conservatives and liberals finally have to face each other and see if their Gospels are compatible?

Is there a way for them to share one altar, one chalice? That has been the central question, for many decades -- not since 2003.

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