By Robin G. Jordan
“He who hesitates is lost.” John Addison, 1712
At the present time those occupying the place of power in the Anglican Church in North America face no discernible opposition in their effort to establish a form of unreformed Catholicism as the official doctrine of the denomination. The seeming lack of any pushback is difficult to explain.
Theologically the Anglican Church in North America is not a homogeneous body. A number of biblically faithful orthodox Anglicans who identify themselves as evangelical in tradition and who are committed to the doctrine and principles of the Anglican formularies joined the Anglican Church in North America in its Common Cause Partnership stage or shortly after its formation. A survey of ACNA church websites reveals that a number of ACNA churches maintain that authentic historic Anglicanism is Protestant and claim the doctrine and principles of the Anglican formularies as their own. During the days of the Common Cause Partnership and since the ACNA’s formation I have had contact with these Anglicans—both clergy and laity.
What those occupying the place of power in the Anglican Church in North America are signaling to this group of biblically faithful orthodox Anglican is that their days are numbered in the ACNA. They are being served notice that they can either accept or tolerate the unreformed Catholic teaching and practices that these leaders have incorporated into the denomination’s ordinal, eucharistic rites, catechism, baptismal rite, and confirmation rite or find another denomination. Once the ACNA Prayer Book which is now in preparation is formally approved, they will no longer be able to maintain a genuine Anglican identity in the denomination. They will be expected like everyone else in the denomination to conform to the doctrine contained in that book. Their present doctrinal views and related practices will have no standing in the denomination.
What we may be seeing in the Anglican Church in North America is a phenomenon similar to that which occurred in Serbia during the 1990s. Serbians supported President Slobodan Milošević when he came under fire because he was their leader. They did not necessarily countenance the war crimes of which he was accused. ACNA clergy and congregations may be supporting their bishops because the bishops are theirs. They do not necessarily agree with what they are doing.
Unlike Milošević those occupying the place of power in the Anglican Church in North America are not embattled. The days of the Anglican Communion Network and the Common Cause Partnership are past. The denomination just celebrated its sixth year in its existence.
Only a handful of the ACNA’s bishops at most are involved in ongoing litigation with the Episcopal Church. Otherwise, the Episcopal Church takes no interest in the Anglican Church in North America. Local Episcopal clergy and congregations are more concerned with their own struggle for survival than they are with problem-making for the ACNA.
What we may be seeing is the result of a mindset that members of the Anglican Church in North America acquired during the days of the Anglican Communion Network and the Common Cause Partnership. It continues to influence their interpretations of situations and their response to situations. During that time period solidarity in the face of persecution even at the expense of theological differences was the order of the day.
Another possible explanation for the lack of opposition to the ACNA’s Anglo-Catholic-philo-Orthodox bishops is that a large segment of the Anglican Church in North America has decidedly unbiblical view of bishops. Rather than endowing one bishop with the property of being infallible (e.g. the Pope), they are endowing the entire ACNA episcopate with this property. This possibility is even more alarming than the first possibility. The offices of presbyter and bishop evolved from that of elder-overseer in the New Testament Church and nowhere do we read in the New Testament that those who held this New Testament office were infallible. The New Testament also does not make the claim of infallibility for the apostles themselves. They were capable of error and did err.
On occasion I hear from those who claim that the Anglican Church in North America is in such a state of flux that it is too soon to say what is the theological direction of the denomination. This claim is used to discount the problematic nature of developments in the denomination. I do not see in the denomination the kind of continuous change that they claim is occurring and I believe that those who make this claim are engaging in a form of denial. Their discounting of the problematic nature of developments in the denomination points to this conclusion. Generally people who are engaging in this form of denial are dismissing the identification of a particular development as a problem. Having discounted the existence of a problem, they see no need to take action.
What I do see is a group of ideologues, to use an idiomatic expression, striking while the iron is hot, acting on an opportunity promptly while favorable conditions exist. This group of ideologues presently occupies the place of power in the denomination and is taking advantage of its position to entrench its ideology in the denomination.
The same thing happened in a number of the Continuing Anglican jurisdictions into which the first Anglican Church in North America fragmented in the 1970s. Those whom Douglas Bess describes as “Anglican Loyalists” in his history of the Continuing Anglican Movement in North America underestimated the strength of the convictions of those whom Bess describes as “Catholic Revivalists.” The “Anglican Loyalists” believed that the Anglican Church was sufficiently catholic. The “Catholic Revivalists,” on the other hand, believed that the Anglican Church was not Catholic enough. Whenever they occupied the place of power in a jurisdiction, they undertook to make it more Catholic. They proved themselves very successful at occupying the place of power in a number of jurisdictions. The result is that the larger part of the Continuing Anglican jurisdictions are unreformed Catholic in their teaching and practices, not Anglican.
What the “Catholic Revivalists” were not very successful at doing was propagating the gospel, evangelizing the lost, planting new churches, and expanding the population base of the jurisdictions in which they occupied the place of power. The results we now see today in the form of shrinking jurisdictions and declining and dying congregations. Having occupied the place of power in the second Anglican Church in North America, the ACNA’s equivalent of the “Catholic Revivalists” will in all likelihood lead that denomination down the same path.
My primary concern is not the future of the Anglican Church in North America but the future of authentic historic Anglicanism in the United States and Canada—the “Protestant Reformed religion” of the English Reformation, the Elizabethan Settlement, the Anglican formularies, and the Coronation Oath Act. What those occupying the place of power in the Anglican Church in North America are institutionalizing in the denomination is not authentic historic Anglicanism—the faith and practices of the reformed Church of England—but what Douglas Bess describes as “an extreme form of Anglo-Catholicism.” They are transforming the Anglican Church in North America into a miniature version of the Roman Catholic Church sans the Pope—hardly a sterling example of biblical Christianity, much less authentic historic Anglicanism.
What may be deterring opposition to the Catholicization of the Anglican Church in North America is the apparent unanimity of the College of Bishops in their endorsement of the ordinal, the eucharistic rites, the catechism, and the other doctrinal statements that have been produced in the Anglican Church in North America to date. If any bishop is dissenting from these decisions, we are not hearing about it. The lack of openness and transparency in the College of Bishops has been a long-standing problem in the Anglican Church in North America, a problem that goes back to the Common Cause Partnership days.
The constitution of the Anglican Church in North America makes service as a visible sign and expression of church unity a part of the work of the College of Bishops. Under the circumstances I would not be surprised if the College of Bishops has developed a culture that stifles open dissent. Very early in the life of the denomination Anglo-Catholic members of the provisional Provincial Council cut off further debate on any changes to the denomination’s fundamental declarations by essentially threatening a walkout. Members of the College of Bishops may vote in support of decisions with which they do not agree in order to avoid any appearance of disunity in the College of Bishops. They also may not want to be seen by their fellow bishops as troublemakers and not team players. As in other bodies of this type going along with what others want to do is an operative dynamic. Those who do not are apt to be ostracized and marginalized. The solidarity mindset that I mentioned earlier in this article may also come into play.
If the seeming unanimity of the College of Bishops is acting as a deterrent to opposition to its Catholicization of the Anglican Church in North America, this dynamic points to an excessive dependence upon the leadership of a bishop. If those who disagree with what the College of Bishops is doing are waiting for a sympathetic bishop to step forward and lead them, they may wait until it is too late to do anything. I am not suggesting that a sympathetic bishop does not exist. But I do not believe that the dynamics operative in the Anglican Church in North America and its College of Bishops permit such a bishop to lead opposition to the College of Bishop’s Catholicization of the denomination. Others must step forward and take the lead.
If we examine the history of the evangelical movement in the Anglican Church, it is not a movement in which bishops played a leading role. A number of evangelical leaders did become bishops but its leadership has not been confined to the episcopate. Most of its leaders have not been bishops. They have been presbyters or lay persons.
Looking to a bishop for leadership may reflect the influence of the Episcopal Church—a denomination in which bishops have played a prominent role since the 1830s and earlier. The House of Bishops at one time could veto decisions of the General Convention.