Saturday, May 23, 2015

Anglican Church in North America Faces a Changing Religious Landscape

By Robin G. Jordan

Among the findings of the recent Pew research into the changing religious landscape in the United States is that evangelical churches and church networks are doing a better job of retaining and attracting new members than their Catholic counterparts. One of the implications of this finding is that if the Anglican Church in North America is going to flourish in post-Christian America, the ACNA is going to need a strong evangelical presence in the denomination. To have such a presence, the ACNA is also going to need a strong evangelical doctrinal foundation. At a minimum the ACNA is going to need to make “generous space” for evangelical teaching and practice in the denomination.

Creating such a space faces a number of serious obstacles in the Anglican Church in North America. Four such obstacles stand out from the rest.  

The first obstacle is the Anglo-Catholic and philo-Orthodox bishops who dominate the denomination’s College of Bishops. These bishops represent a special interest group within the ACNA, which seeks to establish a preeminent place for Catholic doctrine, order, and practice in the denomination to the exclusion of other legitimate schools of Anglican thought. They are creating conditions in the denomination that negatively influence the growth, survival, and spread of these schools, in particular conservative evangelicalism with its roots in the English Reformation, the Elizabethan Settlement, and the Evangelical Revival.

The second obstacle is a movement within the denomination to redefine the terms “evangelical” and “evangelicalism” and to interpret unreformed Catholicism as meeting their revisionist redefinitions of these terms. This movement is not only diluting evangelical distinctives but also editing real evangelicalism from the denomination’s DNA.

The third obstacle is the existence of the unfounded belief that Millennials as a generation are attracted to ancient tradition and liturgical forms of worship. We often hear this claim from those who seek to reconstruct Anglicanism along the lines of the supposedly undivided Church of the early High Middle ages in the eleventh century before the East-West Schism. Research into church attendance patterns of Millennials does not support this claim. Millennials are not flocking to liturgical churches. They are not breaking down the doors of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches or even High Church Anglican and Lutheran churches. These churches do attract a small number of Millennials. However, when it comes to Millennial church attendance, the scales tip in favor of non-liturgical churches, churches that are also evangelical and non-denominational. The research points to the need for much greater diversity in forms of worship than the rites and services that the Anglican Church in North America has produced to date would allow.

The fourth obstacle is the persistence of anti-evangelical attitudes that congregations and clergy that broke away from the Episcopal Church brought with them from that denomination. The development of these attitudes has a long, complicated history. Their origin is in part traceable to the High Church and Latitudinarian rejection of the Articles of Religion and their Reformed doctrine during the early years of the Episcopal Church, in part to a negative reaction to nineteenth century revivalism and religious “enthusiasm,” and in part to the influence of Anglo-Catholicism, liberalism, and modernism. The convergence movement, which originated in the charismatic renewal movement of the twentieth century and purportedly brings together the three disparate theological streams of Catholicism, evangelicalism, and Pentecostalism, has also fostered anti-evangelical attitudes in its downplaying and even outright dismissal of the Protestant Reformation. It has played a leading role in the movement to redefine the terms “evangelical” and “evangelicalism.” It takes a reductionist view of evangelicalism, reducing it to a single distinctive—an emphasis on the Scriptures.

Unless the Anglican Church in North America overcomes these obstacles and makes room for evangelical teaching and practice in the denomination, its future will not be as bright as its leaders claim. This claim is based in large part on the denomination’s initial growth spurt. However, no one has to my knowledge done any research into this growth spurt—the size and viability of the new congregations that have been planted, how long they have been in existence, the areas in which these new congregations are being planted, the population segments at which they are targeted, their growth rate, who planted them, and other factors needed to evaluate what is touted as unprecedented growth. A closer examination would, I suspect, reveal a different picture. Denominational leaders have admitted to having difficulty in gathering reliable data on congregations in the denomination.

The Anglican Church in North America has only to look at the diminutive  size and shrinking and dying congregations of the Continuing Anglican Churches to see what the future holds in store for the denomination if its leaders persist in their policy of exclusion of evangelical Protestantism from that body, refusing to make ample room for genuine evangelical teaching and practice in the denomination. 

Photo credit: Pixabay, public domain

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