Why the Anglican Church has Split

People talk about how we can avoid a split in the Anglican Church. The truth is that it is too late. The split has already happened. Look at the signs:

  • On the personal level, our church has been bleeding members for years, and I suspect the rate is accelerating. People are moving to other denominations as wildly different as Baptist and Roman Catholic.
  • On the parish level, we know that several parishes in New Westminster and parts of the US have left their respective national churches and put themselves under the leadership of African primates. (Whether this is right or wrong is another subject. I am merely observing.)
  • On the national level, the votes at General Synod revealed how deep the divisions are within the Anglican Church of Canada.
  • On the global level, several African provinces have already said they will not be sending bishops to the Lambeth Conference next year, and undoubtedly others will join them. There is even talk of a separate conference for the dissenting bishops.

What of the diocesan level? At the Niagara Diocesan Synod in November, there will almost certainly be a vote on whether to allow parishes to decide for themselves whether to offer blessings for same-sex unions (the \”local option\”). If it comes to a vote, it will be passed by a large majority, to overwhelming rejoicing among many, and walking out by others. More individuals and parishes will undoubtedly leave the Anglican Church of Canada. Some will become part of a new Anglican body.

Three things in my limited experience are contributing to this breakup.

Verbal abuse

One is the level of verbal abuse that is tolerated. I suppose because I am on the traditional side of the issue, I am more aware of the abuse thrown in my general direction than of any flying the other way. I am getting hardened to being called \”homophobic,\” \”fundamentalist,\” \”behind the times,\” \”literalist,\” and \”unanglican.\” The last edition of the Niagara Anglican (July 2007) also tells me I am abusing power (Wendy Newman\’s article-page 1), that I am \”prejudicial\” and \”discriminatory\” (Chris Grabiec\’s editorial-page 10), racist (Joshua Morrison\’s article and Nissa Basbaum\’s-both page 13), and (a new one) the equivalent of anti-semitic (Nissa\’s article again).

Frankly, I am incredulous. How can people use this kind of language and yet expect traditionalists like me to remain in the church? If people verbally abuse gay and lesbian people, they are condemned-and rightly so. If one member of a couple is verbally abusive, we are not surprised if they split up. But if we verbally abuse our traditionalist members, it is somehow acceptable. Tell me: What is wrong with this picture?

Please do not ask traditionalists to stay in the Anglican Church in order to submit to a constant barrage of this kind of language. Those who talk this way should know that they are actually accelerating the breakup of the church. Sometimes I begin to wonder whether this is what they actually want after all.

Lack of understanding

My second concern is that there is a persistent misunderstanding (could it be deliberate?) of the traditional position, in spite of interminable panels, articles, conversations and so on. I suppose when traditionalists are a minority in the diocese-and apparently a racist, fundamentalist minority at that-nobody has to try to understand their views seriously, since they come from such a disreputable source. Here are just some recent examples.

Nissa in her article digs up the old charge of biblical literalism. If conservatives take the Bible so seriously, why haven\’t they cut off their hands and plucked out their own eyes (page 15). It is an old strategy, and was maybe amusing the first time we heard it. But there are too many serious theologians on the traditionalist side for that to be a legitimate argument. If you want to oppose someone\’s argument, it is more honorable to challenge the strongest form of it, not the weakest.

I remember one priest boasting what a lot of reading material she had given her parish on the issue. Out of interest, I asked for a set, which she generously gave me. But when I looked through it, there was not one out of the fifty or so pieces on the traditionalist side. Under such circumstances, you will understand that it is hard to believe when I am told that my point-of-view is \”respected.\”

Joshua\’s article says, \”Imagine what it feels like to be a gay Christian.\” Does he really think that, in all the years this issue has been discussed, traditionalist Anglicans have never thought about this? Trust me, Joshua, those of us who have soft pastoral hearts (and, though it maybe difficult to believe, many traditionalists do) have imagined it many times. Some of us are gay and lesbian. Those of us who are not have spent time listening to the stories of those who are. We are not actually as lacking in pastoral imagination as you think. You should know too that it has not been easy to come to the conclusions we have arrived at, and it is not easy to maintain them in the face of constant pressure, misrepresentation and name-calling.

Michael Patterson\’s letter in The Star this past May (see the Diocesan website) says the traditionalist agenda means \”slavery will make a comeback in the 21st century.\” Either this is a joke in poor taste or it is scare-mongering. Since this kind of charge is so often made, traditionalists have carefully thought about the similarities and the differences between issues of slavery and those of homosexuality. Either Michael is not aware of this or he chooses to ignore it.

But I cannot just criticise my friends. As one who has written and spoken from the conservative point-of-view on this issue, I want to apologise that I and others have so clearly done a poor job of it.

But there is a deeper issue.

Are there two different religions here?

I have heard others ask this question, and have resisted it, thinking it to be inflammatory and unhelpful rhetoric. But more recently I have realised that there are such deep differences between some (though by no means all) representatives of the different sides in this issue, that I am beginning to think the answer may be yes after all.

A couple of recent examples, one to do with the Bible, one to do with Jesus.

  • In a discussion and homosexuality, one friend said, \”When you talk about \’where the Bible is pointing us,\’ it implies that among the 66 books of the Bible there is some kind of unity. And that would suggest that there is something supernatural about this book. And we all know from first year biblical studies that that is not the case.\”

    For most of Christian history, Christians have indeed believed that there is a unity among the 66 books (yes, yes, I know there is also diversity) and that there is indeed something supernatural about the Bible. Most Christians in the world still do. I am one of them (and, by the way, so are many teachers of biblical studies). No wonder we cannot agree on the authority or the interpretation of the Bible. We don\’t even agree what this book is. 

  • Someone was speaking about how Christians worship Jesus, and a friend responded, \”It is OK to say that we follow Jesus, but surely we don\’t want to say that we worship him?\”

Again, most Christians throughout history and around the world today do very explicitly and deliberately worship Jesus as second person of the Trinity, equal with God. I certainly do, and last time I checked this was still a \”creedal\” view. Whichever view you agree with, I think you will admit that the difference between worshipping Jesus as God incarnate and following Jesus as no more than a helpful spiritual teacher are views that belong to two very different worldviews.

Rowan Williams said not long ago: \”People are no longer confident that we are speaking the same language, appealing to the same criteria in our theological debates.\” I am beginning to think he is right. Every single thing is understood differently-the Bible, Jesus, sin, atonement, even God. It is a kind of Tower of Babel situation-and you will recall that that story did not turn out particularly well.

It is for these reasons that I no longer ask, Can the church be held together? The split has already happened, and it will get worse. The question is whether the divorce can be an amicable one, where the partners can remain friends, or whether it will be messy. The signs, as I have described them, suggest it will be of the messy kind. But we can hope and pray. What I don\’t think I can pray any longer is that it will not happen.

Originally published in the Niagara Anglican