By Robin G. Jordan
What we have been witnessing during the past forty years is the splitting of an ecclesiastical tradition into a series of competing sub-traditions. In the 1970s the Continuing Anglican Churches branched off from the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA. In 2000 the Anglican Mission in America branched off from the Episcopal Church USA, formerly the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA, and more recently the founding entities of the Anglican Church in North America branched off from the same church, which had renamed itself The Episcopal Church. Each group has preserved some elements of the ecclesiastical tradition from which it branched off while rejecting others. For example, the Continuing Anglican Churches retained the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and The Hymnal 1940. During that forty-year period The Episcopal Church, while retaining formal recognition as the official branch of the Anglican Church in the United States, ceased to be the mainstream of that tradition but became one of the competing sub-traditions. In this article series I have been examining the dissimilarities and the similarities between two of these sub-traditions. The first is that of the Anglican Church in North America and the second is that of The Episcopal Church itself.
Recognizing that the two churches represent competing sub-traditions is helpful in understanding the dissimilarities and similarities between the two churches. It must be noted that neither sub-tradition is homogenous but incorporates sub-traditions of its own. However, both sub-traditions exhibit a sufficient number of distinguishable characteristics to permit a comparison of the two sub-traditions. In this article I will examine the similarities between the two churches and the sub-traditions that they represent.
Both churches describe themselves as Anglican. Both churches also take issue with the other church’s description of itself as Anglican. The Anglican Church in North America’s claim to being Anglican is tied to the ongoing relationship of a number of its founding entities to the global South Anglican provinces that provided them with episcopal oversight when they broke away from The Episcopal Church. It is also tied the GAFCON primates’ recognition of the ACNA as “a genuine expression of Anglicanism.” The Episcopal Church’s claim to being Anglican is tied to its formal recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury as the official branch of the Anglican Church in the United States. Whether these claims adequately support the two church’s description of themselves as Anglican is debatable. If an objective standard is used, such as adherence to the teaching of the Thirty-Nine Articles, which the GAFCON Theological Group asserts is essential to Anglican identity, both churches do not meet this standard.
Both churches show the influence of the nineteenth century Tractarian and Ritualist movements in their doctrine and practice. Liberal theology in The Episcopal Church is often built upon Anglo-Catholic concepts and draws heavily upon John Henry Newman’s theory of development, that is, the evolution of doctrine. At the parish level in The Episcopal Church one is likely to find a stratum that reveals the influence of the nineteenth century Tractarian and Ritualist movements particularly in nomenclature, doctrine of the sacraments, ceremonial, and vestments. One is also likely to find a similar stratum at the parish level in the Anglican Church in North America. Members of both churches are likely to view the eucharistic presence in terms of a localized presence in the eucharistic elements and to use the term “the Real Presence” to describe this presence. In both churches the Holy Eucharist is the principal form of service seen on Sundays and other times.
What gains attention in the case of The Episcopal Church are the pronouncements of the church’s Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori. How widespread are her opinions has not been to my knowledge been the subject of research. The doings of the more radical of The Episcopal Church’s liberal wing also gain attention. How representative the opinions of the church’s radicals are of the entire church also has not been studied.
What is significant is the church’s official tolerance of such opinions. As long as Episcopal priests accommodate the church’s official positions on homosexuality and woman, the church does not impose many limits on what they may preach and teach. Before an Episcopal bishop may be charged with heresy, his or her fellow bishops must be polled in regards to what is the teaching of the church and whether the opinions of the bishop in question are contrary to this teaching. The General Convention and the House of Bishops have avoided in recent years a number of proposals that would have commit the church to particular statement of beliefs.
Both churches do not give a central place to the historic Anglican formularies in the life and teaching of the Church. These formularies form the recognized authoritative standard of doctrine for Anglicans. The Thirty-Nine Articles set the bounds to the comprehensiveness of reformed Church of England and serves this function for historic Anglicanism. It establishes an “evangelical comprehensiveness,” as J. I. Packer and Roger T. Beckwith puts it in The Thirty-Nine Articles: Their Place and Use Today. This is the comprehensiveness that—
results from keeping doctrinal requirements down to a minimum and allowing the maximum of flexibility and variety on secondary matters, The Articles are in this sense minimal (they are the shortest of the Reformation confessions.) But they were meant to ensure that all clergy, whatever their views on other matters, should unite in teaching an Augustian doctrine of sin and a Reformed doctrine of justification and grace – should, in other words, unite in proclaiming what the Reformers took to be the New Testament gospel.
The Anglican Church in North America in its fundamental declarations in its constitution adopts language that treats the Thirty-Nine Articles as “a 4000-word historic curio.” In regards to doctrine the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is recognized as one of a number of standards and in regards to worship the 1662 Prayer Book must share the stage with a number of books that preceded it. None of these books are identified and the wording is so vague that it is open to interpretation as referring to the pre-Reformation Mass-books, as well as the English and Scottish Prayer Books that preceded the 1662 Prayer Book. These books differ from each other in doctrine and practice and the resulting standard, if it can be regarded as a standard, is very broad.
The General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA adopted a modest revision of the Thirty-Nine Articles in 1804 and ordered it to be bound with the Prayer Book. It was several years before this was actually done. The 1804 General Convention did not require clergy subscription to the Articles. Episcopal clergy were free to ignore their doctrine if they so chose. The 1976 and 1979 General Conventions relegated the Articles to the historical documents section of the new Prayer Book. If The Episcopal Church has any standard of faith and worship, it is the 1979 Book of Common Prayer with its modified doctrine of eucharistic sacrifice and Pelagian Outline of the Faith, or Catechism.
The doctrine of both churches tends to be rather nebulous. Both churches tolerate variations in doctrine that suggest a fragile commitment to given truth in Scripture. Both churches appeal to the bankrupt theory of the Anglican via media to justify the tolerance of a broad range of doctrine even on primary matters. The Anglican Church in North America also appeals to the “three streams, one river” theory. The determination what is orthodox is left to a large extent to the judgment of the parish priest.
Both churches have given unprecedented authority to their chief bishop. Yet neither church contains in its constitution or canons a statement that this bishop is the metropolitan of the province and exercises metropolitical authority. A comparison of the canons of the Anglican Church in North America and the canons of The Episcopal Church with the canons of the Anglican provinces listed in the first article in this series is very revealing. None of these churches, if they have a metropolitan, give the metropolitan the powers that the ACNA canons give its Archbishop and the TEC canons its Presiding Bishop in the area of church discipline. In both churches the authority of its chief bishop infringes upon the autonomy of the diocese and the long-established prerogatives of diocesan bishops in matters of church discipline.
Both churches claim that they are obeying the leading of the Holy Spirit and that they represent a prophetic movement of the Holy Spirit. Both churches embrace a form of illuminism. Both churches see God at work in what they are doing—bringing together disparate theologies in the same church in the case of the Anglican Church in North America or making the church more inclusive for all kinds of people from all walks of life in the case of The Episcopal Church.
Both churches show the influence of contemporary culture. Members of the Anglican Church in North America are apt to criticize The Episcopal Church for its capitulation to contemporary culture but their own church is not free from contemporary culture’s influence. Both churches, for example, tolerate divorce and remarriage even in clergy.
Both churches admit children to the Holy Communion. Both churches have dispensed with conformation or readiness for confirmation as a requirement for admission to the Lord’s Supper. The inference is that the Holy Communion conveys grace to those in which a vital faith is absent. The sacraments operate automatically and invariably. They are effectual irrespective of the condition and the response of the person to who the sacrament is administered. Liberals theologians in The Episcopal Church find support for open communion, the marriage of same gender couples, and the ordination of practicing homosexuals in this view of the sacraments.
Both churches seek to influence other Anglican provinces to adopt their position on a number of issues. The Anglican Church in North America has persuaded the Church of Nigeria to reject the recommendations of Resolution 54 of the 1958 Lambeth Conference and adopt its position on episcopi vagantes.The Episcopal Church is actively seeking to cultivate support for its position on homosexuality outside of North America.
Both churches ordain women to the diaconate and the presbyterate. The Anglican Church in North America has placed a moratorium on the consecration of women bishops Otherwise, its Anglo-Catholic members might not only reject the ministry of women deacons and priests in the ACNA but also their male counterparts ordained by a woman bishop, viewing their ordination and their administration of the sacraments as invalid on this basis.
Both churches use the same Prayer Book and the same hymnal. The most commonly used Prayer Book and hymnal used in the Anglican Church in North America is 1979 Book of Common Prayer and The Hymnal 1982, which are the official Prayer Book and hymnal of The Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church’s 1928 Prayer Book and 1940 hymnal are also used in the ACNA. Both Prayer Books depart from the doctrine and liturgical usage of the classic Anglican Prayer Book, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which, according to the GAFCON Theological Resource Group, “provides a standard by which other liturgies may be tested and measured.”
The ACNA has a task force that is supposed to be compiling a new service book but its work is wrapped in secrecy. They have not published their work to date or offered it on the Internet for public comment and suggestion. Among the challenges that this task force faces is the overly broad worship standard that the ACNA has adopted and the theological diversity of the different groups in the ACNA. A service book acceptable to one group may not be acceptable to another.
Both churches permit the diocese to hold local church property in trust. The Anglican Church in North America’s constitution prohibits the ACNA from holding such property in trust but not its dioceses or other judicatories. Its canons permit its dioceses and other judicatories to enter into trust agreements with new congregations as well as to hold the property of existing congregations in trust. A congregation that became involved in a serious theological dispute with its bishop may lose its property if it withdraws from the diocese or other judicatory. The ACNA constitution only prevents the ACNA from claiming that it has an interest in the property.
Both churches are not particularly adept at reaching and evangelizing the unchurched and planting new churches. This may be seen from a comparison of the evangelistic outreach and church expansion efforts of the Anglican Church in North America and The Episcopal Church with those of the Anglican Mission in the Americas, which now calls itself the Anglican Mission. Most of the members of the ACNA are former members of The Episcopal Church and as former Episcopalians evangelistic outreach and church expansion is not in their DNA. If a new church plant does not itself plant a new church within 3 to 5 years of its own launch, the likelihood of ever planting a new church is very slim. Very few of the congregations and their clergy that left The Episcopal Church and joined one of the founding entities of the ACNA were involved in reaching and evangelizing the unchurched and planting new churches.
A number of these congregations, when they left TEC, became for all intents and purposes new church plants. A window of opportunity was opened for them and to learn from their experience as new church plants and to use what they learned in planting new churches. How many of them realized this and did so? How many of them were too preoccupied with reestablishing themselves? How many of them are strongly motivated at their present stage to engage in evangelistic outreach and church expansion? How many of them feel compelled to share the gospel with the unchurched and spiritually disconnected in their community or region? How many know what the message of the gospel really is, much less are organized for gospel ministry?
Both churches attract most of their members from the same population segments—affluent, upper middle class, Caucasian, educated, professional, and living in new housing. They share the traditional constituencies of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA. They are both apt to grow in areas where the population is growing and they benefit from the population growth.
Both churches are far removed from authentic historic Anglicanism. In this sense both churches may be described as heirs to the legacy of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA. As I have recounted in a number of articles, the PECUSA lost its evangelical wing in the nineteenth century. From that point on the PECUSA became an increasingly Anglo-Catholic, liberal, and modernist church. The Episcopal Church experienced a brief revival of traditional Anglican evangelicalism in the early second half of the twentieth century but that revival was overshadowed by the charismatic renewal movement. While traditional Anglican evangelicalism and charismatic renewal have some similarities, they also have a number of differences. Among these differences is that traditional Anglican evangelicalism gives much greater weight to the importance of sound doctrine than charismatic renewal. In its light treatment of doctrine charismatic renewal may have contributed to the drift of the Episcopal Church away from historic Anglicanism.
Both the Anglican Church in North America and The Episcopal Church lack a solid theological foundation that is biblical and Reformed. Individual congregations and clergy in these two churches may have this foundation but the two churches do not have it as a whole. If one looks at the other sub-traditions that have branched off from the ecclesiastical tradition of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA, they also lack this kind of foundation. The Reformed Episcopal Church may have at one time had such a foundation but it traded away its birthright for a mess of pottage. The REC may in time come to regret the bargain. Esau lost his father’s blessing. The REC may have lost more than that.
Without traditional Anglican evangelicalism’s emphasis upon sound doctrine the Anglican Church in North America will follow a trajectory paralleling that of The Episcopal Church, a trajectory that will not only take it further away from historic Anglicanism but also the New Testament gospel. As the sapling grows so grows the tree.
As can be seen from this comparison of the Anglican Church in North America and The Episcopal Church is that a tremendous need for reform exists in both churches. The history of The Episcopal Church shows how intractable problems become if they are not addressed when they first arise. The Anglican Church in North America is the younger of the two churches and is at a stage in its development where something might be done to rectify the problems that I have identified in other articles, as well as this article series.
What the Anglican Church in North America needs is a reform movement that is committed to bringing about the implementation of necessary changes in that church. The stakes are high. A second Episcopal Church in North America is not going to further the cause of the gospel. Without these reforms everything that folks in the ACNA have suffered was for nothing.