Warren Tanghe on the reasons for the establishment of the Anglican Church in North America and the practical and theological divisions that it must now work to overcome

When the General Convention of The Episcopal Church (TEC) began to alter the received doctrine and practice of the Anglican Way in the 1970s, some left that church and its sister, the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC), to create what was meant to be a single, faithful Anglican church. Within a year of its formation, however, it had split into three parts; in consequence of subsequent splits and the creation of new bodies there are now more than fifty ‘continuing’ jurisdictions.

Those who originally separated said that they considered themselves still in communion with Canterbury. Over time, however, the Communions perceived tolerance of false doctrine and practice and its inability to act against Provinces which embraced them, made that a dead letter for most ‘continuers’.

The majority of Episcopalians who might be considered ‘conservative’ or ‘orthodox’ remained in TEC. Most of these saw ‘Anglican as referring not simply to an identity, but to a body which, however imperfectly, gives that identity flesh – the Anglican Communion. Initially, they joined together in movements of witness and renewal to secure their place within the ordinary structures of the North American Provinces. When that failed, they sought to create a separate, orthodox jurisdiction within those Provinces. And as it became clear that TEC and the ACC would never allow such a jurisdiction, they turned to the Communion (or its more conservative parts) for some intervention that would allow them to leave those Provinces but still be part of the Communion. Rwanda was the first to intervene in this manner, creating the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA); Nigeria, the Southern Cone, Uganda and Kenya have done so more recently.

Why multiple interventions? The different groups might all be considered Evangelical but that covers a broad spectrum; each group has a different style, a different programme, and a different leadership. But from the first, the Provinces behind these interventions have intended that they – and ‘continuers’ as well – should come together in a single ecclesial body representing historic Anglicanism in North America. GAFCON and its Primates affirmed that intention, and declared that now is the time to fulfil it.

That is the genesis of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), the alternative Anglican body in North America which held its inaugural Assembly at the Cathedral of the Diocese of Fort Worth in Bedford, Texas, on 20-25 June.

The eleven founding groups are those which had been part of the Common Cause Partnership, less its sole ‘continuing’ member, the Anglican Province of America. Two of the founding entities, FiF/NA and the American Anglican Council, are advocacy groups rather than ecclesial bodies. The ecclesial groups are in effect ‘sub-provinces’ which contain one or more dioceses, though one of these umbrella groups, the Anglican Communion Network, has decided to dissolve, and others may do likewise.

Despite what others have claimed for it, ACNA does not claim to be a Province of the Anglican Communion. It does see itself as a Province in formation, sponsored and recognized by a dozen individual Provinces. ACNA will seek admission as a Province through the normal channels, as the Archbishop of Canterbury has urged, but it has chosen to do so only on the basis of an Anglican Covenant. But until it is admitted, ACNA is not an option for those orthodox for whom being Anglican means being part of the Communion.

Dr Robert Duncan, ACNA’s archbishop, has often said that its creation must be the work of the Holy Spirit, because no human agency could bring together such disparate groups. But even so, ACNA’s challenge is to gain a loyalty equal to or greater than that which is now enjoyed by its constituent bodies. The question it faces today is the same question the ‘Continuing Church’ faced in the 1970s: can it hold together?

The most recognized fault-line within ACNA has to do with the ordination of women. ACNA’s founding documents do not directly address what has proved to be a vexatious issue in some of its constituent bodies, the continuation in diaconal or presbyteral ministries within those bodies of women who were ordained in TEC.

ACNA’s canons [III.8.3.7] provide that only male presbyters can be elected and consecrated bishop. This limitation is meant to ensure that every constituent body within ACNA will be able to affirm that all of its male deacons and priests have been validly ordained. Readers of New Directions will not need reminding, however, that if women can be made priests, there is no theological reason why they cannot be made bishops. The practical utility of this provision cannot mask its misogyny.

ACNA presently includes twenty-eight dioceses. Twenty-two do not ordain women to the priesthood; six do.

Its constitution [VIII.2] provides that it cannot abridge the authority of any of its constituent bodies ‘with respect to its practice regarding the ordination of women to the diaconate or presbyterate’. In part, this constitutional provision seems to be meant to address perceived anxiety among ordained women that they and the jurisdictions which ordain them would be ‘steamrollered’ by the majority.

ACNA has not made any formal commitment to undertake a theological study of the ordination of women, after the example of the AMiA study. Archbishop Duncan has stated that ACNA will have to face into this issue, but only when ACNA has had time to cohere, and with the help of overseas leaders. There is no question that the issue will figure large in the long-suspended discussions between TEC and the Orthodox Church in America which its Metropolitan Jonah (a former Episcopalian) has now decided to reopen with ACNA.

But even if a study is undertaken and a consensus emerges within ACNA as a result, the way in which the constitutional provision is written means that any diocese or convocation retains the right to go its own way against this consensus, in much the same way as TEC claims the right to do over against the Communion.

Thus, ACNA begins, like the Communion itself and a number of its Provinces, as a church which is not in communion with itself. Laypeople from one ACNA parish visiting another may well find themselves unable to receive there. Not all priests in one ACNA jurisdiction will be allowed to serve in or transfer to another. This is at best impaired communion: division is built in to the new structure.

But the truly problematic division is not practical, but theological: not just that some have erred with respect to the ordination of women, but that ACNA as a whole, following the Anglican Communion norm’ has decided that the issue – that the Apostolic ministry and the validity of Apostolic ministers – is not all that important, that we can live with and should be tolerant of different practices, until some day God sorts us out.

Many of the orthodox would say that it is one thing to remain and bear witness in a church that has erred, and quite another to leave it in order to join a church which has embraced the same error.

But the ordination of women is by no means ACNA’s only fault-line: indeed, one is to be found even in one of the areas in which one expects ACNA to be most together – the area of marital morality.

ACNAs canons speak of marriage as in its nature a union permanent and lifelong of one man and one woman, affirming that sexual intercourse should take place only in that context, and that ‘abstinence is right’ for those who are not called to it.

But at the same time ACNA asserts that Scripture provides guidance to know when a marriage may be declared a nullity or dissolved and allows the possibility of a subsequent marriage in certain circumstances’, citing Matthew 19 and I Corinthians 7. Thus, ACNA allows a priest to request, and the diocesan bishop to grant, a declaration of nullity or of ‘termination of marriage’ allowing a second marriage to be solemnized.

ACNA recognizes five impediments to marriage: consanguinity and affinity; mistaken identity; ‘absence of capacity for free and intelligent choice’; bigamy or sexual perversion; and fraud, coercion, abuse or distress. It would be one thing if its canons stated that, where one of these impediments was found to obtain at the time a marriage was confected, that marriage can rightly be declared null, and that where the Mat-thaean or Pauline exceptions obtain, a declaration of termination can rightly be handed down.

But ACNA’s canons say that a declaration of nullity or termination shall be based upon scriptural principles’, including but not limited to the stated impediments and exceptions. Thus, these impediments and exceptions serve only as examples, while the ‘scriptural principles’ on which a declaration of nullity or termination may be given, without specifying what those principles are, or how they are to be applied.

In effect, then, it is left to the diocesan bishop to decide what the scriptural principles under which a marriage may be declared a nullity or dissolved are. And the absence of specifics about these principles and their application suggests that ACNA’s bishops are not of one mind with regard to the question of when a previous marriage no longer binds.

If this is so, the result will be a muddle, with one diocese allowing remarriage under one set of criteria, and a different diocese under another. Such a situation denies equity to the People of God. And in practical terms – particularly given the overlaps in ACNA’s geographical – and affinity-based dioceses – it invites the sort of’shopping’ for a bishop who is likely to give a favourable decision in response to the particulars of one’s own situation.

Agreement on formulas without agreement on the substance these formulas signify has been the stumbling-block on which ecumenical dialogue has faltered again and again. It appears that ACNA has not been able to resolve the substance of some of the issues which divide its constituent bodies – issues which may appear practical but have deep theological roots – and so has agreed to disagree.

Perhaps the most fundamental division – and at the same time the hardest to demonstrate – is something Metropolitan Jonah pointed to when he spoke of elements of anti-sacramentalism and of Calvinism he discerned even among ACNA’s sort of Anglicans.

The ‘Fundamental Declaration’ which stands as Article I of ACNA’s Constitution copies verbatim the seven points of the Common Cause Partnership’s theological statement. Your correspondent, who helped draft them, is on record as asserting that the things they affirm are the things on which the Oxford apostles built their affirmation of the Church of England’s catholicity – with some improvements.

But the Partnership’s statement continued (and as first drafted, began) with Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher’s affirmation that Anglicans have no faith of their own, but only the faith of the ancient Catholic Church, to which the Anglican formularies bear witness. This language was not included in ACNA’s ‘Fundamental Declaration’. The significance of its removal seems self-evident. For Fisher’s affirmation speaks of a coherent catholic identity rooted in a coherent catholic faith.

Its absence, urged from the beginning by some of the more protestant constituencies, seems to signal that ACNA is falling into the pattern Aidan Nichols has so ably observed in the Anglican family over the last two centuries: a single institution holding together two, three or even four different understandings of the Gospel (‘streams’), with their differences increasing over time.

There is tension within ACNA about what it means to be Anglican. This tension has led some Evangelical constituencies, for instance, to argue for modifications to the third of the ‘Fundamental Declarations’, on the episcopate. But ACNA is fragile: undoing any part of the Declarations would most likely cause it to unravel.

The rapid growth of some of ACNA’s constituent bodies has exacerbated this problem, for they have ordained people with a heart for the Gospel but little knowledge or experience of the Anglican Way to lead or plant new parishes. A substantial number of these are convinced Calvinists, formed in Calvinist seminaries, and understand the Anglican Way accordingly. As a result, there are questions about the Anglican identity of many of certain constituent bodies’ parishes, both as a matter of theology, and, as one ‘continuing’ prelate noted, with regard to what occurs at divine service on Sunday morning.

The dominant stream’ in ACNA is Evangelical. But the fundamental question is, will that prove the dominant stream’ within a coherent identity clearly rooted in and affirming in its fullness ‘the Catholic Faith of the ancient Catholic Church’, or will it prove the ACNA’s predominant identity, with Catholics as an odd, honoured, but basically just tolerated minority outside its mainstream? ACNA may be a welcome refuge for Catholics who cannot remain in TEC or have been pushed out of it. It may offer them, for the time being, the only safe place available which is connected with the Communion? But will it prove a true and permanent home for those of our integrity, or only a stopping-point on the way elsewhere?

The divisions within ACNA at its founding, both practical and theological, are real. The leaders of ACNA are very much aware of them. So are the overseas Primates who are offering them support and guidance.

But what is remarkable about ACNA is the degree to which, despite their fractious history, the Lord’s hand resolved issues that once stood between the disparate elements of which it is composed. Where once one had seen a ‘trajectory of disintegration’ (in Archbishop Duncan’s words) there has been a will to find a way forward together at each crucial moment since 2003. But if the Lord has done this, he can continue to do it, so long as ACNA’s constituent members hold fast to that will.

But that will can hold only if ACNA’s constituent parts have time to grow together into a more consistent whole. ACNA’s focus on local mission in obedience to the Great Commission, each part supporting each other part at the local level in the common work of sharing the Gospel, Archbishop Duncan asserts, is thus also the best means by which that body can develop the coherence necessary to address the issues which divide it.