Thursday, May 12, 2016

4 Issues Dividing the Anglican Church in North America

By Robin G. Jordan

Two developments in the Anglican Church in North America which have not attracted much comment—at least to my knowledge--are the election of a new bishop for the ACNA Diocese of Pittsburgh and the call of a new rector for the ACNA largest parish, Christ Church Plano. Both men may be described as favoring the ordination of women although neither has publicly taken a position on the issue as far as I know. One is married to a woman priest; the other had a woman associate rector. One has been elected bishop of a diocese whose retiring bishop supported women’s ordination. The other has become the rector of a flagship ACNA church known for its support of the ordination of women to the diaconate and the presbyterate.

These developments are a reminder of a real division in the Anglican Church in North America—the division over the ordination of women. The ACNA College of Bishops has to date endorsed in the ACNA catechism and the proposed ACNA prayer book a body of doctrine that is generally but not exclusively associated with a position opposing the ordination of women. It is a body of doctrine that historically been rejected by Anglican Loyalists—orthodox Anglicans who stand in the tradition of the English Reformation and the Elizabethan Settlement. It itself is a reminder that women’s ordination is not the only issue over which clergy and congregations forming the ACNA are divided. While they may not exercise much influence in the College of Bishops, Anglican Loyalists comprise a recognizable wing of the ACNA. Like the rest of the denomination, they are divided over the issue of women’s ordination. They number both opponents and supporters in their ranks. While Anglican Loyalists are not exclusively evangelical in their theological outlook, evangelicals do form a sizeable contingent of Anglican Loyalists.

For many evangelicals a major sticking point in relation to women in ordained ministry is Paul’s criticism of women discussing points of doctrine with their husbands in public at church gatherings (so as to be heard by other people) and openly voicing disagreement with them. To Paul their conduct is unseemly for a wife who in his viewpoint is subordinate to her husband and should maintain a respectful silence in public and to save her questions about doctrine for when she and her husband are at home. The home is the appropriate place for husbands to explain the fine points of doctrine to their wives whom Paul assumes are mistaken in their understanding of such points.

Paul does not entertain the possibility that the wife might have a better grasp of a particular doctrine than the husband. In his letters one encounters the inference that women are more prone to error than men. In 1 Timothy Paul warns Timothy against “godless myths and old wives' tales.” The latter is an apparent reference to the body of superstitions and questionable advice that older women were passing down to the younger generation and which ran counter to the teaching of the Scriptures and his own teaching. The inference is that women cannot be relied upon to transmit biblical truth and principles to other people.

At the heart of Paul’s attitude toward women is the Genesis account of Adam and Eve, their disobedience, and the consequences of that disobedience. God warned both Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The serpent tempted both of them to eat its fruit. Adam made no effort to stop Eve from picking the fruit and ate it when Eve offered it to him. God expelled both of them from the Garden of Eden, holding both of them responsible for disobeying Him and not just Eve. In addition to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, God imposed a number of other consequences upon Adam and Eve for their disobedience. They and their descendents would experience death. Adam would be forced to till the earth for food. Eve would be forced to be subordinate to her husband and to suffer the pain of child birth. Paul justifies the subordination of wives to their husbands on this basis. It is noteworthy that Paul does not prohibit them from making prophetic utterances, only contradicting their husbands in public, in other words, acting in an insubordinate manner toward their husbands.

Bear in mind that God did not create Eve to be subordinate to Adam. He created her to be a companion and a helpmate. Genesis contains two accounts of the creation of man and woman. In the first account God creates Adam and Eve together. In the second account He forms Eve from one of Adam’s ribs. While some interpreters of the Bible infer from the second account that women were created to be subordinate to men, we do not encounter any reference to Eve’s subordination to her husband Adam until after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden and then as a consequence of her disobedience. The subordination of a wife to a husband is a part of the humanity’s fallen state. It is not a desirable state of affairs any more than the human proclivity to disobey God, which is also a consequence of the Fall. This is one of a number of issues with which evangelicals wrestle in regards to the ordination of women.

Among these issues is the issue of whether Paul’s prescription of how married women should conduct themselves at church gatherings is a blanket prohibition against women in positions of leadership in the church. Evangelicals are divided over this issue. Some who are opposed to women preaching at church gatherings for this particular reason are not opposed to them teaching in Sunday School or leading small groups. When they are challenged in regard to the incongruity of their position, they fall back on the argument that Paul in describing the qualifications for elder-overseers and deacon-ministers refers only to men. Yet it must be noted that while these women Sunday School teachers and small group leaders are denied ordination, they are functioning as elder-overseers and deacon-ministers. As others have observed, if it was not for the women in these roles, a number of churches would have no Sunday School teachers and small group leaders. Please note that I am not arguing for or against women’s ordination but drawing attention to the arguments made on both sides of the issue.

Anglo-Catholic objections to the ordination of women, while no less complicated than that of evangelicals opposed to women’s ordination, are different from their objections. They are tied to the Anglo-Catholic understanding of the role of the priest in the church. This understanding is informed largely by church tradition rather than Scripture.

One of the Anglo-Catholic arguments against the ordination of women is that the priest is an icon of Jesus Christ, in other words, a stand in for Christ himself, and a woman cannot fulfill that function because of her gender. Christ was a man. This argument has no real basis in Scripture. The New Testament recognizes only two priesthoods—the priesthood of Melchizedek, to which Jesus Christ alone belongs, and the priesthood of all believers, to which all believers, both men and women, belong.

The New Testament is quite clear in stating that Christ’s offering of himself on the cross was sufficient for the sins of the whole world and that Christians do not need a priesthood, a segregated order of men to make offerings for them to God and to act as mediators between them and God. Christ himself is their all-sufficient mediator with God.

The idea that the spirit of Christ enters the priest at Mass and offers himself to God in the form of bread and wine has no Scriptural basis. It is based upon “the traditions of men” and bears a strong resemblance to a number of pagan beliefs, including the possession of a priest by the god whom he serves and the consumption of the god by his devotees under various forms.

Another Anglo-Catholic argument against the ordination of women is related to the Anglo-Catholic understanding of ordination itself. From the Anglo-Catholic perspective a valid ordination requires the laying on hands upon the candidate and in the case of a priest or bishop the anointing with oil of the candidate by a bishop who himself was consecrated by at least one bishop but preferably at least three bishops who stand in a line of bishops that stretches all the way back to the apostles. With the imposition of hands and the anointing with oil the bishop confers upon the candidate a special gift or grace of the Holy Spirit, which only a bishop in such a succession of bishops can do. This special gift or grace of the Holy Spirit originally came from Christ through the apostles and has been passed down through the generations from one bishop to the next in this succession of bishops. Only men may receive this special gift or grace of the Holy Spirit, which in the case of priests enables them to confer upon water the power to cleanse from sin and regenerate those baptized in the water, to confect bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and to remit sins, and in the case of bishops enables them to consecrate bishops and to ordain priests.

This argument, like the previous argument, has no real basis in Scripture. The New Testament does not limit the manifestations of the Holy Spirit to the members of a particular gender. The New Testament also maintains that the Holy Spirit, like the wind, blows where he wills. God is sovereign in matters of upon whom he bestows the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He is not tied to any actions on our part.

A third Anglo-Catholic argument against women’s ordination is that the Church has no tradition of women priests. While some evidence does exist for women priests in the early Church, it is confined to groups that if they were not heretical in their beliefs were heterodox. This argument is the strongest Anglo-Catholic argument against women’s ordination.

One explanation that is offered for the absence of women elder-overseers in the early Church is the influence of the male-dominated society of the ancient Mediterranean world upon early Christianity as well as the influence of Judaism. But it must be noted that the ancient Mediterranean world had its share of pagan religious cults in which priestesses and prophetesses played an important role. The nature of these cults, often associated with fertility, religious ecstasy, ritual madness, and other forms of chaotic, dangerous, and unconventional behavior, however, may not have commended women in a leadership role in the Church to the early Christians.

The early Christians did not use musical instruments at their gatherings in part out of fear of discovery during times of persecution but primarily due to their association with pagan religion and organized prostitution. Flutes, hand drums, and stringed instruments were used to accompany pagan sacrifices, chiefly to draw the attention of the particular god to the sacrifice. The organ was used to entertain the patrons of Roman brothels while they awaited the services of their favorite prostitute. The early Christians would have been leery of women leaders for similar reasons.

The issue of women’s ordination is one of four issues that I see dividing the Anglican Church in North America. The second issue is the ACNA’s official teaching and practices. In their present form they represent a major departure from authentic historical Anglicanism and are antithetical to its very spirit. The finalization of the proposed ACNA prayer book is likely to prove the tipping point, especially if traditionalist Catholic Revivalist clergy and congregations are denied the use of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and the various Anglican Missals and Anglican Loyalist clergy and congregations are denied the use of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and more recent service books that conform to the doctrinal and worship standards of the historic Anglican formularies. This includes the option of developing their own forms of service that respect these standards.

The third issue is related to church planting efforts of the denomination, particularly to the scale of those efforts, the segments of the unchurched population that will be targeted, and the kinds of churches that will be planted. The church type that the proposed ACNA prayer book envisions as forming the primary focus of ACNA church planting efforts is a conventional parish church that is Catholic Revivalist in its doctrine and style of worship and which has a relatively affluent congregation. It is organized around the sacramental ministry of one or more priests. This church type requires a high expenditure of human and financial resources to launch and maintain. As a consequence the number of this type church will be limited as will their location and the population segment that they serve. This type church also has limited appeal in terms of the kinds of people it will attract. This appeal is expected to diminish as the twenty-first century progresses.

The fourth issue involves the governance of the denomination and the role of the laity in its governance. The present design of the ACNA’s form of governance at the denominational level is a major departure from the reformed model of ecclesiastical governance that has characterized the Anglican Church since the English Reformation in the sixteenth century. In the reformed model the laity in the form of the English Monarch and the English Parliament played a significant role in the governance of the denomination. This included determining the teaching and practices of the denomination as well as making its canons and selecting its bishops. With the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and the formation of new Anglican provinces, a general synod of clergy and lay representatives would take over the role of the English Monarch and the English Parliament in a number of provinces.

In its present form the ecclesiastical polity of the ACNA guarantees Catholic Revivalist control of a number of denominational institutions, particularly the College of Bishops, while sidelining Anglican Loyalists. It also excludes all but a select group of laity from participation in decision-making that affects the denomination as a whole. Even if the Anglican Loyalist wing grows in numbers through robust church planting efforts and gains hegemony in a number of dioceses, this design gives the Catholic Revivalist-dominated College of Bishops a veto over who may become the bishops of these dioceses and does not prohibit the College from appointing as their bishops Catholic Revivalist leaning clergy in place of the candidates elected or nominated by the diocese.

Only clergy and laity vetted and approved by the College of Bishops may serve on denominational committees and task forces and only legislation reviewed and endorsed by the College of Bishops may be considered by the Provincial Council. The last step in the legislative process—the Provincial Assembly—cannot amend legislation submitted to it for ratification. The Provincial Assembly may either ratify the legislation, giving it the force of canon, or reject it, sending it back to the Provincial Council. The denominational legislative process resembles that of the Roman Catholic Church and of a number of communist and fascist regimes of the twentieth century.

These issues are bound to create tensions in the Anglican Church in North America over time. It will be a test of the ACNA’s maturity and resilience if it can work through these tensions in a healthy manner and become a better denomination from the experience—a denomination that is fully committed to spreading the gospel and fulfilling the Great Commission and which is wholeheartedly devoted to reaching and engaging a broad segment of the North America’s unchurched population. If the ACNA settles for anything less, I suspect that it will discover in the course of time that God is no longer with it, having departed itself from God.  

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