I am traveling today and tomorrow so will have episodic online access but wanted to get this NYTimes piece up before I head to the airport. Well said, Jack Miles!
A Divorce the Church Should Smile Upon
By JACK MILES
[Los Angeles] THE decision of the global Anglican Communion to threaten the Episcopal Church, its American affiliate, with expulsion is about much more than the headline issue of homosexuality. Yes, the impending divorce has been precipitated by the decision of the Episcopal Church to consecrate a gay bishop and to allow individual congregations to decide whether or not to allow gay marriages. But as so often in religious history, the deeper issue is one of church governance. In effect, the Episcopalians left the Church of England more than two centuries ago.
The problem dates back to the time of the American Revolution, when the Church of England in America was just what that name says: it was the Church of England, merely in America. Since the 16th century, when King Henry VIII made himself, in effect, the pope of England, the English king had been the supreme church authority. Time had somewhat eroded this authority by 1776, thanks in part to the Puritan revolution in the mid-17th century. Nonetheless, the authority structure within the church remained officially monarchical.
So it was no surprise that after the newborn United States broke with the crown in the political realm, the Church of England in the United States did so in the religious realm as well, establishing a democratic form of self-governance under a “presiding bishop,” whose title echoed that of the chief executive of the new nation. The name the new church adopted — from episkopos, the ancient Greek word for bishop — signaled that its governance would be neither by pope nor by king but, as in early Christianity, by elected bishops.
British colonial history did not end in 1776, of course. As the British Empire grew, the Church of England went wherever the crown went, evolving in the process into a religious multinational, called the Anglican Communion, in which the Archbishop of Canterbury exercised a global spiritual jurisdiction. Structurally, however, the Episcopal Church, though long since reconciled with Britain, remained uneasy under this arrangement.
Why? Because the deepest rationale for the creation of the Church of England had been that church governance through separate national churches better reflected the practice of the early church than did papal governance. During its first centuries, Christianity had governed itself as separate but equal dioceses or administrative units, each coinciding with a great capital city, each headed by a bishop; the pope, at that time, was merely the bishop of Rome.
Thus, the same logic that dictated the initial creation of the Church of England dictated that, once the United States had become a separate nation, it ought not to belong any longer to the Church of England nor to the Anglican Communion as a colonial extension.
For sentimental reasons, including now fading American Anglophilia, Episcopalians and Anglicans alike tended to mute this logic. However, under the improbable stimulus of a dispute over homosexuals, the logic may be about to assert itself, with consequences that may be larger for the Anglican Communion, and in particular for the Archbishop of Canterbury, than for the Episcopal Church itself.
Numerically, the 2.3 million Episcopalians do not loom large among 77 million Anglicans. Symbolically, however, given the global importance of the United States, the departure of the Americans will leave the archbishop exposed as a quasi-colonial, quasi-papal figurehead heading a church made up, anachronistically, of Britain and her mostly African and Asian former colonies. This will be an awkward state of affairs, and portends further fissures along the same logic that underlies the impending departure of the Americans.
There is, finally, a quintessentially 21st-century implication to this quite likely split. A solid majority of American Episcopalians supports their church’s stance on homosexuality and gay marriage. A minority disagrees, and some of these members have even sought to pull out their congregations from the Episcopal Church and affiliate with one of the Anglican churches in Africa that have been most vehemently opposed to the Episcopalians’ decisions on homosexuality.
The flip side of such threats is that, along the same lines, any British or Canadian or Australian congregations that wished to disaffiliate from their local forms of Anglicanism might well affiliate with the Episcopal Church. In fact, a few have already signaled their readiness, though in the hope of preserving Anglican unity the Episcopal Church has not encouraged them.
I pass over, for the moment, the many legal complications involved in such rearrangements, the surrendering of church property that is entailed and so forth. The broader point is that communications technology makes new forms of church organization possible, and geographically distant congregations can easily join together. Rather than voting with your feet, you may now vote with your mouse, perhaps the most amicable form of religious divorce.
A generation from now, when we look back on the breakup of the Anglican Communion and on the status of homosexuals within the churches of the world, what may we expect to see? An old proverb holds that “God writes straight with crooked lines,” and at this juncture, the Author of Liberty, as a venerable American hymn names him, seems to have taken pen in hand.
Jack Miles is a senior fellow for religious affairs with the Pacific Council on International Policy and a scholar in residence with the Getty Research Institute.