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Diana Butler Bass

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The Real Reason for the Anglican-Episcopal Divide

Posted: 06/04/10 03:25 PM ET

Like most Christians, I don't pay attention to missives from church leaders. This week, however, dueling pastoral letters issued for Pentecost from Rowan Williams, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, and Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, caught my attention -- because one so rarely witnesses a first-class theological smackdown between tea-drinking Anglican primates.

Unless you've been sleeping in a cave, you are probably aware that the Episcopal Church (of which I am a member) has been arguing about the role of LGBT persons in the church. Along with the Anglican Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church has opened itself toward full inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians. Here in North America, this has caused some defections (fewer than at first predicted), some legal suits (most have been settled in favor of the Episcopal Church), monetary fallout (hard to separate from general economic downturn), and bad feelings (which, sadly enough, remain). But what is most surprising -- and I regularly hear this from bishops, clergy, and congregational lay leaders -- is that things are much less tense in the Episcopal Church now than they have been in recent years. Folks are moving ahead in their local parishes doing the sorts of things that Episcopalians are pretty good at doing -- creating beautiful worship, praying together, and feeding hungry people.

Despite the fact that the Episcopalians are bumpily journeying into a renewed future, some other Anglicans -- mostly in Africa -- are pretty mad that we've included our gay and lesbian friends and relatives in our churches. Large communities of Anglicans in places like Uganda (the same Uganda that recently tried to pass a death-penalty law for gay people) and Malawi (the same Malawi that recently sentenced a gay couple who wanted to marry to 14 years of hard labor) are seriously unhappy with American Episcopalians and Canadian Anglicans.

And this leads us to the Pentecost pastoral letters.

While (somewhat ironically) attending a conference in Washington, DC entitled "Building Bridges," Rowan Williams sent out his Pentecost letter to Anglicans worldwide, which, after saying a lot of nice things about missions and diversity, pulls rank and proclaimed that he's going to kick people off important committees whose national churches have violated a controversial guidelines laid out in documents called the Windsor Report and the Anglican Covenant. This includes the Canadians (who let gay Christians get married) and the Americans (who recently ordained a lesbian bishop in Los Angeles) and some Africans (who ordained some Americans who were splitting churches in places like Virginia and Pennsylvania).

In response, Katharine Jefferts Schori essentially accused Williams -- in a nice sort of Anglican way -- of being a theological dictator. As she says in understated fashion, "Unitary control does not characterize Anglicanism." For non-Anglicans, trust me, those are fightin' words.

This is not a conservative/liberal argument (both Rowan Williams and Katharine Jefferts Schori are theologically liberal). This is a fight between rival versions of Anglicanism, a quarrel extending to the beginning of Anglicanism that has replayed itself periodically through the centuries down to our own time.

Rowan Williams' letter articulates "top-down Anglicanism," a version of the faith that is hierarchical, bishop-centered, concerned with organizational control, and authoritarian. It is an old vision that vests the identity of the church in a chain of authority in the hands of ecclesiastical guardians who agree on "a coherent Anglican identity" and then enforce the boundaries of that identity through legal means. This version of Anglicanism stretches back through the Middle Ages and relates to similar forms of Christianity as found in Roman Catholicism and some forms of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Katharine Jefferts Schori's letter speaks for "bottom-up Anglicanism," a version of the faith that is democratic, parish-based, mission-oriented, somewhat rambunctious, and (even) revolutionary. It is also an old vision, one that vests the identity of the church in local communities of Anglicans at prayer, who adapt their way of life and liturgy according to the needs of Christian mission. This version of Anglicanism is rooted in both the ancient Celtic traditions of English Christianity and the missionary work of St. Augustine of Canterbury circa 600.

As history unfolded, different cultures have picked up on one or the other of these two streams -- for example, the British church remains primarily hierarchical (even referring to their bishops as "My Lord Bishop"); while the American church is primarily democratic ("God alone is the Lord"). The Ugandan church is authoritarian; while the South African church is revolutionary. The Anglicans in Sydney, Australia are boundary-oriented and communally closed, while most other Anglicans in Australia are liturgically-oriented and open (the Anglicans in Darwin, Australia are so open that their cathedral doesn't even have walls).

At its best, Anglicanism manages these tensions -- often creating locally innovative expressions of a church that is both hierarchical and democratic, bishop- and parish-centered, bounded and liturgically open at the same time. Over the centuries, this has been called the Anglican art of comprehension, or the via media (the "middle way").

But once every few hundred years, the tensions explode. This is one of those times.

The argument isn't really about gay and lesbian people, nor is it about, as some people claim, the Bible or orthodoxy. Rather, the argument reprises the oldest conflict within Anglicanism -- What kind of Anglicans are we to be? How do we relate to the world and culture around us? And very specifically now: What kind of Anglicans are we to be in the 21st century? And how to we relate to the plurality of cultures in which we find ourselves?

Set in this frame, this isn't just an Anglican argument. Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Protestants of all sorts, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims are having the same arguments within their varying traditions and cultures. What kind of religious faith are we to practice in the 21st century? And how do we relate to the plurality of cultures in which we each find ourselves?

For what it is worth, the river of history does not seem to be on the side of hierarchical church control; rather, history seems to be moving in a the direction of what Thomas Friedman might call "flat church." The tides are pulling most ecclesiastical boats toward bottom-up versions of faith. Hierarchical church control is, as Harvey Cox argues in his book The Future of Faith, a "rearguard attempt to stem a more sweeping tidal change" toward a new experiential, inclusive, and liberationist view of God and faith.

Despite their smack down, I think that Rowan Williams and Katharine Jefferts Schori might actually agree on the fundamental questions of identity, mission, and 21st-century change. I also suspect that Rowan Williams would secretly find the "sweeping tidal change" more spiritually interesting than trying to keep the Anglican institutional ship afloat in the waters. But he thinks that he's in charge -- and he'll be captain of this Titanic until the last and may well go down with the ship.

As for me, I kinda like this American Episcopal river raft. Better for navigating strong currents.

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