Their Separate Ways
By PHILIP JENKINS
The Wall Street Journal
July 17, 2009
For a decade now, the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) has been bitterly divided over the issue of ordaining openly gay clergy. The matter reached a new intensity this past week when the church's triennial convention ended the ban on gay candidates serving in ordained ministry. After years of protesting ECUSA's liberal policies and doctrines, seceding conservatives have now organized a rival church -- the Anglican Church in North America, or ACNA -- which claims 100,000 believers, compared with two million in ECUSA. This week's dramatic decision is sure to widen the rift even further, causing what church historians might officially label a "schism."
The presiding bishop of the mainstream Episcopal grouping, Katherine Jefferts Schori, predictably condemns ACNA, protesting that "schism is not a Christian act." But it is not wholly clear who is seceding from whom. In approving gay bishops, ECUSA is defying the global Anglican Communion, which had begged Americans not to take a move that could provoke believers in other parts of the world. The Anglican Communion, though noticeably "progressive" in its American and British forms, is a world-wide church of 80 million. Indeed, the majority of Anglicans today live in African and Asian countries where progressive views are not so eagerly embraced. For American conservatives, it is Bishop Jefferts Schori's church that has seceded from global Anglicanism.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case, it is anything but rare. At no point in Christian history, at least since the apostles left Jerusalem, has one single church plausibly claimed the authority of all believers. In the fourth century, perhaps half of all Christians belonged to groups that the Great Church regarded as schismatic or heretical. Between the sixth and eighth centuries the Christian world fragmented into four transcontinental divisions. Although each church agreed fully with the others in doctrinal essentials, each declared itself to be the one and only true church and denied the legitimacy of its rivals. The 16th-century Reformation accelerated Christendom's rate of fracture but did not begin the process.
Although the recent Episcopalian saga might seem to have been going on for a long time, it may actually be in its early stages: Churches normally agonize for many years before coming to the breaking point. Western Catholics and Eastern Orthodox jousted with each other for well over a century before plunging into the Great Schism of 1054, at which point they became, in practice, two distinct churches. American Protestant denominations debated the slavery question in the early decades of the 19th century, culminating in a series of traumatic splits in the mid-1840s. Schism is considered such an ugly development that it is usually avoided at all costs -- until tensions become intolerable. Even then, it is preceded by patched-up compromises and interventions. We may well see a process like this in the Anglican world over the next four or five years.
But is schism truly so awful? A lot depends on the outcome. If a new movement fails, it enters the history books as "schismatic"; if it flourishes, it simply becomes a new church or a new denomination. Mainstream Episcopalians point out that earlier American breakaways from their church have a dismal history. One of the rare survivors is the Reformed Episcopal Church that seceded in 1873, but today it claims a mere 13,000 members. Scarcely more successful were the conservative stalwarts who resisted women's ordination in the 1970s and tried to break away.
But some dissent ends up being far from trivial. The Anglican Communion itself began in schism, when England's King Henry VIII broke away from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. And his new Anglican church itself produced at least one wildly successful breakaway: The Methodist movement of the 18th century emerged within an Anglican framework. Its leaders, including John Wesley, were desperately eager to avoid any break with Mother Church, but the inevitable schism occurred after Wesley's death in 1791. Today, Methodists count around 75 million followers world-wide. Both Anglicans and Methodists would be shocked to hear their origins described in terms of schism.
So will America's new Anglican breakaway succeed? A church, like a business, will grow if it can draw consumers whose needs are presently unmet and if it can present its product, its message, in singularly attractive ways. It remains to be seen whether the Anglican Church in North America can appeal to mainstream Episcopalians who are uncomfortable with its strongly evangelical-charismatic flavor.
For believers, of course, a church is much more than an economic entity, and its success depends on different criteria. The New Testament offers sound guiding principles for responding to such controversies.
In the Book of Acts, a Jewish court is trying the apostles for their suspicious new teachings. Although some judges want to punish them harshly, the sage Gamaliel urges restraint and presents his colleagues with a simple choice. If these troublesome dissidents are following their own human interests, they'll fail; but if they are following God's will, nothing can stop them and others should not interfere. Those sound like words to live by.
---Mr. Jenkins is author, most recently, of "The Lost History of Christianity."
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