By Kirk Petersen

The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) was formed in 2009, born in protest against progressive developments in the Episcopal Church (TEC) that were considered contrary to Scripture.

Despite some continuing internal conflict, ACNA has been steadily maturing and developing into an institution in its own right, rather than simply a splinter from the larger Episcopal Church.

Though formed as a conservative reaction within Anglicanism, ACNA can be seen as making a subtle transformation into an Anglican wing of evangelical Christianity. It is structurally and liturgically Anglican, but its theological vision and cultural location share more common ground with evangelical, non-denominational churches, and with denominations such as the Southern Baptists, than with the Protestant mainline.

ACNA’s bishops met January 6-10 in Melbourne, Florida, and afterwards issued a communiqué describing their deliberations. The statement made no mention of the Episcopal Church, but it staked out the boundaries of issues that not only distinguish ACNA from the church it left a decade ago, but also demonstrate its affinity with broader Christian orthodoxy.

Prayer Book and Catechism

Perhaps the clearest sign that ACNA is here to stay is its 802-page Book of Common Prayer 2019, which was written, ratified and published in less than a decade on a modest budget.

In July 2019, an article in TLC contrasted that accomplishment with TEC’s inability at General Convention 2018 to agree on beginning a 12-year, $8 million effort to revise the 1979 BCP:

“To be fair about comparing the prayer book efforts, ACNA had a less complicated task than TEC. The TEC proposal would have started with the 1979 prayer book and looked forward to the present and to imagining the future. ACNA’s project was to start with 1979 and … [create] a prayer book that adheres more closely to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s version, as published in 1549 and comprehensively updated in 1662.”

The ACNA prayer book retains more of the emphasis on individual sin and redemption that characterizes the historic Anglican liturgies. But it turns out that pronouns are important too, and some ACNA parishes want the new book in old language. The bishops approved an alternate version to meet that desire. “Parts of the traditional language version will be available electronically in the near future and the book will be in print by the summer of this year,” the statement said.

ACNA continues to expand a liturgical infrastructure independent of the Episcopal Church. The bishops were told that an altar book version of the 2019 BCP is in development, as well as “Occasional Services, and a lesser feasts and fasts book to be called Sanctifying Time.” There is also a 72-page catechism already available in print and online, titled To Be a Christian.

The bishops also learned of an expanded music task force with an extensive new website at www.acnamusicresources.com — and therein lies a marker of ACNA’s affinity with a non-Anglican evangelicalism. The Episcopal Church tends to use traditional hymns and choral pieces exclusively, while evangelicals lean toward contemporary “praise music,” and ACNA is developing resources that will enable its churches to draw from both.

Archbishop Foley Beach

Global Anglican Relationships

ACNA “continues to maintain and develop strong, strategic, and growing relationships with Anglican provinces around the world,” the bishops’ statement said.

Since its early days, first under Archbishop Robert Duncan and since 2014 under Archbishop Foley Beach, ACNA has sought to position itself as the authentic, mainstream representation of Anglicanism in North America, and as a full-fledged member of the global Anglican Communion.

The organization’s website used to proclaim that ACNA is “a Province of the global Anglican Communion.” After a firm rejection of that claim by the 2017 Primates’ Meeting, ACNA’s website now carefully states, “On April 16, 2009 [ACNA] was recognized as a province of the global Anglican Communion, by the Primates of the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans.”  GAFCON describes itself as “a global family of authentic Anglicans standing together to retain and restore the Bible to the heart of the Anglican Communion.”

GAFCON does not have authority to speak for the Anglican Communion as a whole, but it does include primates and other leaders from some of the Communion’s most rapidly growing churches and dioceses, including the Churches of Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, and the Anglican Church of Australia’s Diocese of Sydney.  Many provinces who identify with GAFCON also are engaged with the Canterbury-centered Instruments of Communion.  Nine of the fourteen current members of GAFCON’s Primates Council notably participated in the recent Primates’ Meeting chaired by Archbishop Welby.

ACNA plays a significant role in the global GAFCON movement. Since 2018, Beach has been chairman of the Primates Council of GAFCON — despite the fact that ACNA membership is dwarfed by several of the African provinces.

Ecumenical relationships

“We continue dialogue with numerous church bodies with the goal of healing the Church and working towards Christian unity,” the bishops said. This includes church bodies that have never been Anglican, but rather represent other conservative traditions. The statement cited ongoing relationships or discussions with:

There is no organized dialogue between ACNA and TEC.

Some benchmarking statistics: For 2018, ACNA reports “134,000 Anglicans in 1,062 congregations across the United States, Canada, and Mexico,” while TEC reports 1,676,349 members in 6,423 congregations in the United States and 159,582 members in dioceses outside the United States.

Ordination of Women

The ordination of women is probably the largest source of conflict within ACNA. The recently retired founding bishop of ACNA’s Diocese of Fort Worth went so far as to declare his diocese “in impaired communion” with ACNA dioceses that ordain women to the priesthood.

The Bishops’ Working Group on Holy Orders reported on their deliberations over the past three years. “During this time, we have discovered again and again that there are layers upon layers of differences in ecclesiology, hermeneutics, theology, and tradition. These layers result in deep differences in our perspectives on the nature of holy orders in general and the role of women in orders in particular,” the statement said.

(There is no longer any organized opposition to female priests in TEC, which has long had female priests and bishops, and elected the first female primate in the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Church of Canada last year elected the second female primate.)

“We recognize that there is great pain over these differences both within our working group and throughout the Province,” the bishops’ statement said. When ACNA was founded in 2009, the Inaugural Assembly embedded the disagreement in its governing documents. ACNA’s Constitution and Canons enable each diocese to make its own decision about ordaining women to the priesthood or the diaconate — but bishops’ miters are reserved for men.

A 2018 chart prepared by Anglican Pastor’s Joshua Steele shows that 10 of ACNA’s 28 dioceses ordain female priests — including ACNA’s largest diocese, South Carolina — but others do not.  Several more will license women priests for ministry who have been ordained elsewhere. Steele’s chart indicates that the dioceses that welcome women’s ministry fully represent about 56% of the church’s membership.

Sexuality

Differences on LGBT issues between ACNA and TEC can be seen as the mirror image of the issue of ordination of women. While women’s ordination is largely settled on the TEC side, human sexuality is still contested among Episcopalians, despite a growing number of gay priests and bishops. Same-sex marriage is widely accepted now in the Episcopal Church, although a vocal minority still opposes the practice.

ACNA’s position binds it closely to traditional Catholic and evangelical Christian bodies. Homosexual acts are considered sinful and incompatible with Scripture.  The church, like others within evangelicalism, is currently debating what language to use in describing homosexual desires.  Some categorize them merely as temptations to sin, while others feel they are better described as an orientation and identity, which Christians can claim while also choosing not to act on these desires.

“We had an engaging and unified conversation around the opportunity for pastoral care to those within our churches who are same-sex attracted,” the bishops’ statement said, acknowledging “the church has not always seen and heard” the stories of these people. A task force was assigned to consider “the kind of language that should be employed to describe a faithful follower of Jesus who seeks to live under the authority of Scripture while experiencing the reality of unwanted same-sex attraction.”

The attention ACNA directs to social issues connected to human sexuality like pornography and abortion also help align ACNA with a broader conservative Christian movement. Despite repeated protests by conservatives within the church, the Episcopal Church remains a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an important pro-choice advocacy group. Conversely, a large group of ACNA bishops have participated in the annual March for Life in recent years.

While there no doubt are many Episcopalians appalled by pornography, the church has no organized effort to combat it. The ACNA bishops, however, heard a presentation from a representative of an organization called Living Without Lust. “In a measured but straightforward way, he reminded us of the staggering statistics of pornography involvement in all sectors of our society, including the church,” the statement said. “The good news is that there are effective support groups available and principles for recovery for the many who are caught in addiction and there is assistance for all to help avoid any involvement in pornography.”

Conclusion

Over the years, numerous factions have split from the Episcopal Church, setting up rival churches with names like Anglican Mission in the Americas (2000); Anglican Province of America (1995); Convocation of Anglicans in North America (2005); Episcopal Missionary Church (1992); and the Reformed Episcopal Church (1873). Collectively, they are known as continuing Anglican churches, and there have been similar offshoots in other countries.

The American churches named above all still exist, but none have come close to the size and influence of the institution ACNA has built in little more than a decade.

ACNA is not going away. Neither is TEC, which despite the perverse cheerleading of certain anti-Episcopal bloggers is still 12 times larger than ACNA. But large-scale migration between the two entities is probably a thing of the past. The conservative Episcopal bishops who might be more at home theologically in ACNA have had plenty of opportunity to leave, and some have explicitly committed themselves to remaining in “communion across difference.”

Future growth for ACNA — and any hope of reversing the numerical decline of TEC — will depend on providing an interpretation of Christianity that can draw in non-Anglicans and non-Christians.

There may be little chance of reconciliation between ACNA and TEC in this generation — there have been too many lawsuits and too many angry words. But new leaders willing to take risks for the sake of unity may be waiting in the wings. In the meantime, there’s no reason why both churches cannot continue to make disciples of all nations, each in their own fashion.

Mark Michael contributed to this article.

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