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ENGLAND: The Anglican Communion will finally split in 2009

ENGLAND: The Anglican Communion will finally split in 2009
This will be the year of unavoidable schism in the church

by Paul Handley
The guardian
December 29, 2008

The question: What will the big religious stories of 2009 be?

A silence has descended on the Anglican Church in the United States - or should that be, Anglican Churches? Since the foundation of the conservative Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) at the start of December, all has gone quiet. Too quiet. Why is this, and how can we then predict what might happen in 2009? Is this, finally, going to be the year of the great schism?

First, a bit of theological background. Jesus made unity an intensely personal thing. St John quotes him praying to God the Father that his disciples "may be one, even as we are one". St Paul took up the theme: "We, being many, are one body in Christ." It is impossible to be a biblical Christian and not make unity a priority.

The reason that unity is such a good thing is that it affirms that Christ's Spirit is in everyone, however uncongenial they may seem. It is a fundamental belief that all are equally sinful and in need of God's grace (which is given freely). A schism occurs when one group believes itself to be better than another. There's a difference between unity and uniformity - everybody who shops around for a church he or she feels comfortable in, rejecting the ones that don't feel right, is indulging in schismatic behaviour to a degree; but because there isn't a group thing going on, this can be a mild, neutral judgement.

As soon as there is a group of people involved, however, all sorts of dynamics are created: the breakaway group almost always defines itself by contrast with the group that has been left behind; there is a need to cohere rapidly, and this means renouncing bonds with the former group; uncertainty and doubt are discouraged, since these suggest a lack of commitment to the new group; and so on. When these forces come into play, you can say farewell to the friendliness and humility which, incidentally, are all you need to keep a church together.

For these anthropological reasons as much the theological ones, it is safe to say that church splits are always a bad thing, in the same way that divorce is always a bad thing. It's just that marriage can be a worse thing. Conservatives and liberals in the United States have been locked in a loveless marriage for some years. The Lambeth Conference has, in the past, functioned as some sort of self-help group, but ten years is a long time between counselling sessions, and in 2008 the conservatives decided not to show up. Besides, the marriage had become abusive, and, as everybody knows, being stuck in such a relationship can be a bleak, bleak experience.

Getting out, then, could be seen as the lesser of two evils. A clean break. The chance to begin life again with a positive outlook, free from all the wrangling of the past. This might be sound advice if the conservatives were happy just to walk away. But there's the family home to fight over, and custody of the children. The members of ACNA are darned if they'll sit back and watch their former partner, now free to indulge in unrestrained intimacy with the liberal spirit of the age - gay sex, abortions, feminist theology, concessions to other faiths, more gay sex - and doing so in the churches built with their money, and thus leading the American public further astray.

So, the ACNA has bigger plans: to become the new, official Anglican province in the US, and watch the old, liberal province shrivel up and die. Silence won't make it vanish

Hence the silence from the old province, which is prompted by a little bit of nervousness, and a little bit of scorn. When we ran a page-three splash in the Church Times on the new Church/province, I received several emails telling me that it wasn't a province and why were we giving it such attention? The Presiding Bishop in the US, Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, told a gathering of the National Press Club in mid-December that "only a rare few" were "consumed by conflict", suggesting that nice journalists would want to write about all the good works that the Church was doing instead. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

The silence might work, but it probably won't. The new province exists, whether anybody mentions it or not, and one day it might actually come to be a province of something. At the moment this doesn't look likely: the Archbishop of Canterbury has told them that they can't be a proper province of the Anglican Communion because they haven't filled in the right form, and, oh, those forms have somehow been lost down the back of a drawer in an office in Paddington.

But the conservatives are now saying, who is this Canterbury fellow, anyway? There are 38 primates around the world, and Canterbury is only one of them. (Actually, this is true: Rowan Williams is denoted as primus inter pares, "first among equals", and so has no weight to throw around when people disagree with him, which they so frequently do.) There is a meeting of all the primates in February, and if the new province (there I go again) is recognised by a reasonable number of the other primates, which is likely (five have done so already), things could get very interesting.

It's a pretty safe bet that Rowan will stick to the rules, i.e. not allow a new province to establish itself. What is less likely, is that the rules imposed on the US Episcopal Church (the official one) will stand. When Gene Robinson was elected Bishop of New Hampshire, despite living with his male partner, the rest of the Anglican Communion persuaded the Episcopal Church to put a hold on any other such appointments. It sounds easy when described in that neat little sentence, but there was an almighty row, and the moratorium was agreed by the US General Convention only after intense pressure. The Convention meets every three years. 2009 is the next one, and now that the hardline conservatives have taken themselves off, albeit not very far, the lifting of the moratorium on gay bishops and gay weddings, another contentious issue, is almost a cert. Rowan's last trump

In the face of all this anarchy, the only trump that Rowan Williams can play is the Anglican Covenant. It's dull and bureaucratic, the equivalent of the two of trumps, and yet can any card have been played to such effect round after round? When all this international disagreement blew up, and the Anglican Communion looked about for a rule book and a referee, it found that it had neither. Let's spend the next six or seven years thinking up some rules and working out who can apply them, said Rowan. Although everybody grumbled, it was a smart move: the conservatives liked the idea of rules, and the liberals liked the idea of discussing things endlessly. And so it has gone on. The conservatives have constantly threatened to give up - and the ACNA move might signal that they mean it this time - and the liberals have constantly argued that the Anglican Communion isn't about rules at all. The Covenant really seems to be too weak to deal with the present hardening of attitudes, but we have kept thinking that over the past three or four years, and every time Rowan uses it, it turns the trick.

The interesting thing about the present row is the international dimensions of it all. In every country, disgruntled congregations have peeled off from the established Church (such as the Church of England itself, for goodness sake). In the United States there are hundreds of them: we know that, because the new ACNA is formed out of a ragbag of them, a few of whom left in the 19th century over a row about the eucharist. In the past, these breakaways had to manage on their own, but increasingly they have been able to forge alliances with other, proper Anglican provinces across the globe, which give them a claim on the Anglican legacy. This has been very handy in property disputes in the US, and encourages them to entertain the possibility of one day taking control of the whole Communion.

They won't, of course, but the game now is going to change from now on. The object has shifted from trying to reform the old Communion (by supplanting the liberals in the US) to forming a new one. Rowan's task in the year ahead will thus change, too, from trying to hold together two disputatious groups in the same Church to trying to hold together two Churches. It can't be done, especially now that he has lost the respect of the conservatives.

So, schism in 2009? It certainly looks like it, and then the numbers belonging to each side start to matter. The conservatives in the US are in a clear minority, but when allied to the millions of Anglicans in, say, Nigeria or Uganda, they become a force to reckon with, however much the liberals would like us to ignore them.


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