Anglican/Episcopal Rift Prompts Restructuring Talk
Tensions continue to simmer between the worldwide Anglican Communion and its American wing, the Episcopal Church, over the church’s embrace of gay clergy and other policies that critics view as overly liberal.
The tensions, already brewing in recent years, began to rise again in June when the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori became the first woman elected to preside over the entire Episcopal Church, offending some conservatives who do not approve of women as priests or bishops.
The head of the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, has since proposed restructuring the organization to prevent a complete break between the U.S. church and the rest of the communion.
Question: Why is the consecration of gay or female bishops a major issue?
Answer: Some conservatives believe Christian orthodoxy prohibits such practices. The issue has deeply divided the communion, the world’s third-largest body of churches, ever since V. Gene Robinson was elected bishop of the diocese of New Hampshire in 2003. Jefferts Schori supported his election.
Before Rowan suggested a reorganization, 22 of the communion’s 38 provinces had already declared their ties with the American church to be “broken” or “impaired” but waited for guidance from the archbishop before taking further action.
Now, citing differences over gay bishops, a Central California diocese and six others across the country have asked to be released from the authority of the U.S. church’s presiding bishop and placed under a different jurisdiction. More American dioceses are expected to make similar requests.
Q: What has been the response to this request?
A: Four bishops, including the head of the Los Angeles Diocese, in June asked a disciplinary committee to remove from the Episcopal Church the bishop of the San Joaquin Diocese, the Rt. Rev. John-David Schofield, accusing him of actions that are putting “all Episcopal dioceses in the state of California in jeopardy.” Schofield is advocating changes in his diocese’s constitution to let it break away from the national church.
In a letter to national church officials, Russell G. VanRozeboom, chancellor of the San Joaquin Diocese, dismissed the accusation. Considering that 22 provinces have denounced the actions of the American church, he said, “the response of the Diocese of San Joaquin is quite moderate and certainly understandable.”
Q: This summer the Episcopal Church agreed to “exercise restraint” when considering whether to select gay priests as bishops. Why didn’t that satisfy the Anglican Communion?
A: The proposal fell short of the Windsor Report, a document released by the communion in 2004 demanding an explicit apology and a full moratorium on ordaining gay bishops. After the proposal, a New Jersey diocese announced that a gay priest was among its nominees for bishop, angering the American Anglican Council, which has 300 affiliated churches.
Q: Can the archbishop of Canterbury dictate the actions of churches in the communion?
A: The archbishop is the head of the Church of England and considered “first among equals” in the communion, but he has no formal authority outside England. Most of his power comes from the moral authority of his office. All 38 provinces are self-governing. A province is an independent national church or an internal division of a national church recognized by the communion.
Q: How would the proposed reorganization work?
A: The proposal, which is not final, calls for a two-tiered system of communion membership. A theological covenant would be crafted. Churches that agree to the covenant would retain full membership. Those that don’t agree would be “churches in association” without decision-making status in the communion.
Q: Who would craft the covenant?
A: It is unclear. But church liberals have said all the provinces would be involved in the process, including those that favored gay bishops. Conservatives have rejected that idea.
Q: What would it take to pass the proposal?
A: Some church leaders have said it could take at least half a dozen major church meetings over the next four years or longer. Some say the communion needs to act quickly to prevent a church schism.
On Monday, Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh warned that if the archbishop fails to help U.S. conservatives distance themselves from the Episcopal Church, “any hope for a communion-unifying solution slips away, and so does the shape and leadership of the Anglican Communion as we have known them.”
Q: How would “churches in association” be affected financially by the covenant?
A: It is not clear. The communion does not provide financial support to the Episcopal Church. But some Episcopalians might be less willing to make donations to the communion.
Q: How much financial support does the communion receive from the U.S. Church?
A: Nearly $10 million a year from the denomination’s budget, in addition to unspecified amounts donated by dioceses and congregations directly.
Q: How practical is the two-tier system?
A: Both conservatives and liberals doubt the Episcopal Church would accept second-class status. The Rev. Canon David C. Anderson, who heads the American Anglican Council, opposes gay clergy. He said liberal Episcopalians probably wouldn’t agree to the proposal. “I don’t see them sitting in the bleachers in this two-tier system,” he said.
The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop until Jefferts Schori assumes the post in November, said the proposal “doesn’t fit in with my sense of what the church is.”
“Such a two-tiered view of our common life suggests to me amputated limbs and severed branches,” he said in a statement. “A pragmatic solution in this regard is at the expense of the deeper truth that the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’ ”
Q: What will happen if the Episcopal Church decides not to accept the two-tier system?
A: Some church members believe it would set up a counter-communion with other provinces that favor the full inclusion of gays.
Griswold refused to speculate and would say only that the Episcopal Church intends to fully participate in shaping the covenant.
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