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Episcopalians remain conflicted over US Mission

News Analysis

By David W. Virtue

By any standard, the recent fourth annual winter conference of the Anglican Mission in America was a home run.

Nearly 900 attended including 137 clergy from 34 states and the District of Columbia with conferees coming from 14 countries. There were four Primates, plus a representative from another, a record. Others present included African bishops, numerous observers and seekers, among whom could be found a number of ECUSA clergy weighing their options as they see the Episcopal Church wracked by schism and dissent. A contingent from Canada was also present.

With some 60 parishes and 15,000 members, the Anglican Mission is still small, but they are growing fast. They are no longer functioning in reaction to The Episcopal Church, "we have moved on" says Bishop Chuck Murphy, AMIA leader. "There are 130 million unchurched Americans who need to hear the gospel and find a spiritual home and we want to welcome them and introduce them to the Anglican Way."

Orthodox Episcopalians still remain uncertain with some openly hostile towards the AMIA.

But there is something freeing about these Anglicans. They are not fretting over sodomy or agonizing over unbiblical notions of inclusion, or defining diversity as something which it is not. They are not dumbing down morality.

They're also not perfect, they sin, but they call it for what it is and they believe in repentance.

Bishop Thad Barnum is fast becoming one of the best preachers in America. He has soaked himself in Scripture, is a fan of the late British pulpiteer Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones, and he preaches with conviction and power. His preaching, more perhaps than anything else might keep the mission on track and give it the constant kerygmatic adrenaline rush it needs.

He calls sin by its name, and even when he is preaching to the converted, he appeals for a deeper commitment, telling his audience that they should not sit back and talk about their conversion decades earlier, but to ask, are you now living in the presence of Christ with clean hearts, forgiven and restored. It never hurts to take stock.

Of course he could not help but take a few jabs at Frank Griswold, but he's in good company, so have a lot of people, including a number of world religious leaders, indeed some of his own bishops.

This group is Protestant to the core, Forward in Faith Anglo-Catholics would not necessarily feel comfortable with their quasi-charismatic approach, but they are gospel driven and they and the Anglo-Catholics are working off the same page with the basic message of repentance and faith. The AMIA have also issued a theological statement on Women's ordination, opposing it, which puts them in the Anglican mainstream, (unlike the ECUSA who never did its homework on the subject). It was an issue of civil rights not biblical enquiry that informed their actions.

A concordat with the Reformed Episcopal Church is also in the works with the Anglican Mission.


The AMIA have a lot in common with the American Anglican Council (AAC) the orthodox wing of the Episcopal Church - in truth they are both working off the same theological and spiritual page, but they have different ecclesiologies. They see things differently over the doctrine of the church and how to respond to it.

The American Anglican Council is staying in the ECUSA to fight for what they believe is a church that is reformable, or to provide a safe haven for orthodox ECUSANs with a "church within a church."

The Anglican Mission believes it is no longer possible to pour new wine into the old wineskins of ECUSA. Bishop Murphy asks rhetorically, "can a house divided against itself stand?"

But schism comes with a high price. The Episcopal Church has seen schism before; first in 1870 with the Reformed Episcopal Church and then in 1976 when women's ordination was accepted at their General Convention, and Prayer Book revisions were done in 1979, prompting the St. Louis Convention that saw thousands leaving the ECUSA.

But the net effect has not yielded great returns. The splits from ECUSA have not produced massive church growth with much evangelistic zeal. Most of the Continuers as they are called are mostly Anglo-Catholic and they have remained small, frozen in time, still living in reaction to the ECUSA. Some groups have more purple than people.

Many of them have experienced splits among themselves, forcing one to ask the question, where is the fruit of schism? By any measurable standards little has been achieved by the multiple splits and plethora of groups spinning off from the ECUSA.

All the while the Episcopal Church just keeps rumbling along, losing members, but keeping the façade of a mainstream church with new notions of pluriformity, sexual inclusivity and diversity becoming the buzzwords of a new Episcopal world order. The ECUSA has remained the country's church of choice for liberal intellectuals and cultured secularists who still would like to say they believe in the Apostles Creed while reading (and sometimes believing) The DaVinci Code. Howard Dean, till he left the Episcopal Church, epitomized the Episcopal mindset, one doesn't have to believe much or too sincerely, but God's existence (whoever He or She is) should be affirmed if for no other reason than it is good form perhaps even politically necessary. Being a Boston Brahmin or a New England Episcopalian is a comfortable bed to lie in, sustained by wealth, a liberal education with a side order of sodomy affirmed by Massachusetts Bishop Thomas Shaw. But talk of discipleship is the ravings of fundamentalists and Pentecostals, not Episcopalians. "Another gin, bishop?"

As one watches the AMIA at work, there is a palpable sense that discipleship does matter. It is at the core of their mission. They want converts to Christ first and for them to become Anglicans second. They are biblically driven.

The nagging question still remains, can they achieve it? Their leader, Chuck Murphy is a single-focused man - make disciples in the US and plant new churches. Grow, grow, and grow. His fellow bishops are loyal, faithful and driven. He has given up much to be where he is. He has taken numerous hits, and, depending on whom you talk too, is loved and despised with equal vigor.

Those orthodox who have remained in The Episcopal Church are either jealous of his success, or believe he is on some sort of a power trip. Those who know him intimately reject the latter interpretation. That he is spiritually gifted is without question. That he has drawn around himself men and women of likeminded vision and faith is also without question. He has never been interested in playing the corporatist ecclesial ECUSA club game. He views the kingdom in way bigger and decidedly different terms than that, and sees the ECUSA House of Bishops as conducive to spiritual inertia not spiritual life and health.

Murphy is a big man, imposing, handsome, and spiritually fixated on what he thinks the church should be up and doing. He has pacemaker which, at age 56, doesn't seemed to have slowed him down too much, but he delegates authority more easily these days.

But still the question remains. Is the AMIA the answer to ECUSA's apostasy? If you listen to ECUSA theologian and author Dr. Ephraim Radner you get a quite different perspective. He sees the AMIA as a "retreat into the impossibly autonomous," arguing further that "it stands as one of the great obstacles to a forceful response to ECUSA's current rebellion."

"There is a (mistaken) fear among some Primatial leaders, looking at what has happened with the AMiA, that decisive and courageous action now is equivalent to prideful self-assertion," he writes.

Radner argues for a "common accountability within the Communion, at the many instances of perceived moral failure" but says the AMiA represents one aspect of ECUSA's and the Communion's internal malaise. "[The AMIA] is a symptom of spiritual disease, not an instrument of healing."

"There is the temptation to press our testimony into a realm of individual freedom, cut loose from the constraints of blasphemy and persecution we so acutely feel around us. The danger, however, is that we will soon find ourselves floating in a sea of competing testimonies and freedoms, and mutually assaulting claims with the faith and order we set out to defend will be lost amid in the debris," writes Radner.

A brilliant analysis, but it begs the question what would Jesus or Paul say and do if they happened to stumble upon the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City where Episcopal priests hold New Age services with Buddhist priests invoking strange gods, through a cloud of Episcopal incense, while on the cathedral wall hangs a naked brass rendition of Jesus with female breasts. Or what does one say to Frank Griswold who regularly invokes Sufi Rumi, inviting theologically and morally conflicted Episcopal priests and bishops to meet him on same plain or other beyond good and evil!

Tossing the money changers out of the Temple looks positively mild compared to what Jesus might do today. After he had tossed out the Episcopal priests he might just do what a Russian Orthodox Bishop did to a parish that "married" two homosexuals…burn the church to the ground and bulldoze the remains into powder…and then walk away never to return.

The age old question of which is worse, living with heresy or "coming out from among them" still remains. Jesus also made it clear that the wheat and tares would grow up together and everyone would have to wait till the harvester (Jesus) did the final sorting out at the Last Judgment.

Whatever the answer is, Episcopalians in good faith will make decisions they think are right for them, often based on where they live, their experiences and much more; and also how deeply the issues trouble them. For the most part it comes down to that.

We must ultimately await the judgment of history.


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