Why the Anglican Church faces existential challenges

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This is a commentary on the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) by Warren Cole Smith via Religion Unplugged. The conservative breakaway church has been meeting to elect a new Archbishop, Steve Wood, to replace Foley Beach.

(ANALYSIS) The Anglican Church in North America has been one of the success stories in recent American church history. Most denominations in the U.S. are in decline, but ACNA, founded just 15 years ago, has grown to more than 1,000 congregations and a membership of 120,000.

It began as a movement of conservative Episcopalians frustrated with the liberal drift of that denomination. Today, though, most members of ACNA are not former Episcopalians. They (we, as I am a member) are new converts or — in many cases — refugees from other mainline and evangelical denominations nourished by ACNA’s combination of Reformed theology and adherence to biblical authority, its evangelical vibrancy, and the beauty of its ancient, incarnational liturgy. As I have written elsewhere, Anglicanism has the potential to breathe new life into the evangelical movement.

But the denomination is experiencing growing pains. Its growth has flattened, and there is growing discontent in the denomination about its inability (or unwillingness) to address head-on some vital issues.

The denomination holds a national conference every five years, and the next one is upon us. It takes place at the end of the month in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and the delegates to the conference face some important issues that need action.

Women’s ordination

The most significant challenge is women’s ordination. Because of ACNA’s history as a sort of “lifeboat” for those fleeing liberal denominations, many members came to ACNA with a level of comfort regarding women’s ordination. They came from denominations where it was common. However, others in the denomination look at Scripture and the history of the church and see no biblical justification for it.

There’s also the historical fact that for many denominations that slid into progressivism and ultimately into heterodoxy and apostasy — including the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church and others — women’s ordination was their first step down that path. Correlation does not necessarily mean causation, but for many who have scar tissue from those denominational battles, the correlation is too great to ignore.

ACNA’s bishops, in their attempts to hold the denomination together in its early years, refused to make a definitive decision about women’s ordination. The decision was left up to the individual bishops, who led regional bodies called dioceses. The result was that some dioceses ordained women, and some did not.

But this situation has created growing chaos in the denomination. A growing number of conservative clergy want to resolve the question definitively. They recently issued a statement saying that “the unresolved issue of women’s ordination to the priesthood imperils the mission of our Province.” These clergy, and what they are calling the “Augustine Appeal,” assert that the “ordination of women to the priesthood is a ‘recent innovation’ … and we affirm the theological conclusion that the practice has ‘insufficient scriptural warrant.’”

This statement was released on May 28, the Feast of St. Augustine, and it has already attracted 300 signatures. Among the signatories is noted theologian Hans Boersma.

There is little doubt that making a firm decision will have significant consequences. If ACNA permanently bans women’s ordination, what happens to the women who have already been ordained, and their churches? There will have to be some sort of disaffiliation process that is fair and equitable. If ACNA opens the door to women’s ordination in all dioceses, many — including at least the 300 signers of the “Augustine Appeal ” — will conclude that ACNA has left the path of biblical orthodoxy. It seems likely that many of them would leave if that happens.

But the current position is becoming increasingly untenable. Women who want to be ordained are going “bishop shopping.” ACNA’s “nongeographic diocese,” Church for the Sake of Others (C4SO), led by Bishop Todd Hunter, has also become an alternative. The current rules have done little more than erode the authority and credibility of the bishops.

Church discipline and canon law

Another area in which ACNA needs to grow from adolescence to adulthood is the area of church discipline. Over the past few years, MinistryWatch has covered several scandals in the denomination, and the process has been tentative and clunky at almost every level.

A part of the problem is the current state of the church’s canons. Canons are the laws that govern the church. ACNA’s canons are brief, less than 20 pages long. Like the U.S. Constitution, which is also brief, they focus on fundamental principles. Some argue that this is a virtue, and in some ways it is. But the U.S. Constitution is not the only set of laws governing the United States. A robust body of federal and state laws have followed, as have case law and precedent that fill in the gaps, guiding judges and future lawmakers.

ACNA’s canons lack that guidance. The women’s ordination issue is one of many areas left unresolved. The canons are largely silent on matters of church discipline, especially what is called “contumacy,” (sometimes defined as the stubborn refusal to obey authority). This silence has created dozens of ad hoc approaches. When a clergy person is accused of wrongdoing, it is virtually impossible for that person to defend himself without hiring an outside lawyer at his own expense and breaching the authority he has vowed to obey.

Theological education

Because ACNA has so many refugees from other denominations, it is tempting to call it a “melting pot.” But the current reality is less a melting pot than a salad bowl.

That is a glib way of saying that a lot of Anglicans are not … well … truly formed in the Anglican faith. They have retained the spiritual formation of the tradition from which they came — everything from Calvary Chapel and Vineyard to high church Episcopalians and Catholics. Again, that diversity can be a strength, but it is a diversity that must be more intentionally integrated into Anglican theology and polity.

A part of the reason for that is that ACNA lacks a coherent clergy education strategy. I have met ACNA clergy who got their theological training from Fuller, Reformed Theological Seminary, Trinity, Westminster, one of the Southern Baptist seminaries, Suwanee, Nashotah House, Gordon-Conwell and more than a dozen other seminaries. These seminaries may (or may not) offer a course or two that allows the institution to claim it has an “Anglican track.” For the most part, though, the degree of formation in the “Anglican Way” is minimal. A lack of Anglican formation in the clergy is a major issue in ACNA that needs to be seriously addressed.

Luminous Church

To see all the issues we have so far discussed in a single situation, consider the story developing in the Nashville suburb of Franklin.

Heath McClure is the “assisting priest” at a congregation called Luminous Church. Luminous is a parish in the aforementioned C4SO. McClure became suddenly famous last weekend when former Jars of Clay lead singer Dan Haseltine posted a photo of the two of them (and others) at a pro-LGBTQ pride event in the affluent Nashville suburb of Franklin. Luminous calls itself a “hospitable and inclusive community.” McClure wears a rainbow-colored T-shirt saying, “A Pastor With Pride.”

This social media post put Luminous Church under a spotlight. Anne Kennedy, a conservative commentator and Anglican church member, wrote a scathing commentary that went semi-viral in the Anglican world. Kennedy took a close look at the website of Luminous Church and found much that troubled her and many Anglicans. The website highlights the church’s affiliation with ACNA but plays “fast and loose” with Anglican theology. For example, on the subject of infant baptism, it says, “If it helps you to think of it as a dedication, that is OK.” Anyone who understands Anglican theology, or even the broader world of Reformed theology, knows that this view is, well, actually not OK. (For a primer on the difference between baby dedication and infant baptism, this link is a good place to start.)

My point here is not to relitigate the issue of paedo-baptism. I will only say that for Anglicans, this is a settled question, and it is not a periphery one. The Anglican Church recognizes only two sacraments: baptism and the Eucharist. To redefine baptism is to go a long way toward rejecting Anglicanism.

Now, one might argue that Luminous Church is an anomaly, a “one-off.” Except that it’s not. Two other pro-LGBTQ parishes associated with C4SO have been in the news recently, Resurrection Austin (Texas) and The Table Church in Indianapolis. These churches have disaffiliated with ACNA, but the fact that such churches could exist at all within ACNA signals a serious deficiency in polity, structure and accountability. It also highlights that under Todd Hunter’s leadership, C4SO has become something of a refuge for those who don’t respect the authority of the bishop of their geographical diocese. When you can choose the authority you want to be under, you are not under authority. You are the authority. This system leads to the inevitable breakdown of episcopal polity.

What should happen next?

Given all of the above, when ACNA’s leadership meets later this month in Pennsylvania, here’s what I hope it does:

  • Make a final decision on women’s ordination. Let’s face the fact that no matter which way the decision goes, some people will be unhappy, and some people will leave. Let them. It’s time. A moratorium on women’s ordination, which the “Augustine Appeal” advocates, won’t completely solve this problem, but it would be an important step forward.
  • Church for the Sake of Others began when ACNA was a fraction of the size it is today, when geographical dioceses were just forming, or poorly developed and staffed. C4SO was intended to be a “lifeboat” for churches with no other place to go. That time is past. ACNA now has dioceses in nearly every state, often with two, three or more bishops. It’s time to declare C4SO a noble experiment, needed for its time, but that time is past. The churches of C4SO should be welcomed into the geographical dioceses in which they reside.
  • The canons of ACNA need revision and expansion. Yes, the denomination is just 15 years old, and — yes, again — they were revised less than 10 years ago. Those statements are facts, but they are also irrelevant. The growth and change in the church — not to mention the very real issues that have come up regarding church discipline that caught ACNA leadership flat-footed — mean the current canons are inadequate.
  • Pick a leader with a strong arm and a velvet touch. The current archbishop, Foley Beach, is in the last months of a 10-year term in that role. Archbishop Beach has been personally faithful and has navigated the ACNA lifeboat through some rough waters. But it is time to come ashore. It is time to plant a flag. The next leader must be a builder, a driver, someone who sets a direction. Some will not want to follow. That’s inevitable. But let the new leader follow the Anglican way, the narrow path of Jesus, and if some choose not to follow, then so be it.
  • Issue a clear statement on sexual issues. Virtually every other biblically orthodox denomination in the country has issued a statement that deals with gender, transgenderism, parental rights and related identity issues. This statement is badly needed, and the process of generating such a statement will produce needed clarity around a range of issues where the bishops have failed to show unambiguous leadership.

I have often joked with my friends that Anglicanism can save evangelicalism. The qualities I mentioned above — Reformed theology, evangelical fervor and the beauty and truth of its incarnational liturgy — are sorely needed by evangelicalism today. For the past 15 years Anglicanism has drawn dispirited and badly churched evangelicals like thirsty pilgrims to a headwater spring.

These qualities are why I continue to believe in ACNA and its ability to influence positively the American evangelical church.

But ACNA faces an existential crisis, and before Anglicanism can save evangelicalism, it must first save itself.

 This article was originally published at MinistryWatch.

Warren Cole Smith is the editor in chief of Ministry Watch and previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine and has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 20 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.