My pull toward Anglicanism begins with my baptism, at two years old, into the Roman Catholic Church. Ours was a faithfully Catholic family; not overly zealous, but still present at Sunday Mass, involved in parish life, faith formation, and all the rest. I did not appropriate the faith until I was a teenager. With the zeal of a new convert, and the depth of understanding of a 16-year-old boy, I determined that if I hadn’t exercised faith in Jesus before this point, the fault lay with the Church and not with me. So began my decade-long sojourn among Baptists.

Despite my repudiation of things Catholic, though, I never quite got over the liturgy. Especially around Holy Week, longing for the Easter Vigil would steal into my heart, and I would pine for what I had lost. Along the way I discovered the Book of Common Prayer, purchased one for myself, and became enamored with it. In the Episcopal Church’s liturgies and creeds I found the Catholicism for which my soul hungered; in the 39 articles I found the Reformation emphases to which I had become committed. Here was the church for me! But I just couldn’t take the Episcopal Church seriously. This was, if not quite John Shelby Spong’s heyday, still a time when he was prominent. The election of V. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire occurred right around this time as well. As a conservative evangelical outsider with no understanding of Anglican ecclesiology, I assumed the Episcopal Church was a monolithic reality and therefore no place for me, let alone any Christian.

So I kept my prayer book, and continued my Baptist sojourn. Everything changed in 2009, when a new acquaintance invited me to the winter conference of the Anglican Mission in the Americas (AMiA), which was held in our city, with the promise of Bible studies led by J.I. Packer. The winter conference captured my imagination. Here indeed was what I was looking for: a vibrant, mission-driven, sacramental, theologically conservative expression of the church. There were Anglicans who were still Christians after all! They just had to leave the Episcopal Church in order to remain Christian.

This set me firmly on a two-year trajectory that led me into the nearby AMiA parish. Shortly after I joined the parish, the AMiA implosion happened. I was relieved that our bishop and parish remained faithful to their commitments to Rwanda, but this also shattered any illusions that my new church home was immune to problems. I was content, though, with my new home. It was not perfect, but it was a home in which I could happily live.

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Several factors have led me out of this home, though, into the Episcopal Church that I once considered inhospitable to true Christian faith. I got to know actual Episcopalians. I read and befriended authors here at Covenant. I discovered the Communion Partners. I read the substantial and deeply faithful work of theologians like Katherine Sonderegger and Tony Baker. My family attended liturgies at Episcopal parishes when circumstances kept us from our parish or we were visiting friends. In the more conservative instantiations of the Episcopal Church that I encountered, I found nothing that I could object to. Even in the more liberal versions, though, what I found was unmistakably Christian. I had been led to believe that all the faithful Christians had left the Episcopal Church for the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), and that only the ACNA was hospitable to committed Christian faith. I learned, though, that this was simply not true.

As I learned my newfound tradition’s ecclesiology, I came to recognize part of the reason why my earlier assessment had been so wrong, and how irregular my church’s situation was. As a low-church Protestant outsider looking in, I saw the Episcopal Church as a homogeneous reality. The syllogism ran something like: John Shelby Spong is an Episcopalian; he denies central Christian doctrines; therefore Episcopalians deny them; therefore the Episcopal Church is no true church. When non-episcopal Christians look at a church they consider to be hierarchical, they assume a top-down sort of model, and think in terms of a national church.

As an ecclesiologist, I learned to understand the diocese as the most basic expression of the church. The bishop, together with his or her presbyters, deacons, and lay people, represents the church in its fullness, while the parish and national church are extensions of this basic reality. So one must do one’s thinking at the diocesan level (without ignoring the national church or parish). My syllogism about the Episcopal Church’s apostasy does not work once we make this shift to the local. Any such evaluations need to be made case-by-case,[1] rather than with a broad brush.[2]

Meanwhile, my church had serious problems with this primarily local ecclesiology. Rather than abide by the ancient principle of “one city, one bishop, one church,” we were a tangle of overlapping jurisdictions (at one point I counted four different ACNA jurisdictions in the greater Milwaukee area). One does not simply enter another bishop’s canonical territory and exercise a ministry without consent. Yet my church owed its existence to such canonical violations.[3] GAFCON frequently appeals to Lambeth I.10 (1998) in its rejection of same-sex partnerships, insisting that it be enforced.[4] But the Lambeth Conferences have also rejected cross-diocesan interventions. The Windsor Report [PDF] called for moratoria on consecrating partnered gay bishops (§134), rites for blessing same-sex unions (§144), and cross-provincial and cross-diocesan interventions (§154). I can understand the urgency that would lead to disregarding these moratoria (whether by conservatives or by liberals), but to do so imperils the future of the Anglican Communion.

The irony is that in their rejection of Lambeth resolutions and Windsor moratoria, GAFCON has proven to be every bit as revisionist as its liberal foils in the Episcopal Church. If GAFCON’s goal is to uphold the Catholic faith and order of the Anglican Communion, it must do so by upholding that faith and order in its entirety and not dispensing with anything inconvenient.[5] The only way to reform an institution is from within. By ignoring (and even subverting) the Communion’s synodal structures and Instruments of Unity, GAFCON ensures that its efforts will fail.

Yet the persistence of Christian faith within the Episcopal Church, and especially the persistence of the witness of the Communion Partners, shows that the formation of ACNA was not necessary, and therefore not justified, because there is no justification for breaking fellowship with other Christians. Christ is not divided; his people are still in the Episcopal Church; even his people who hold to the very priorities that ACNA and GAFCON claim (viz., on human sexuality) remain in the Episcopal Church. If ACNA deems a commitment to traditional conceptions of sexuality and marriage necessary, it cannot claim that leaving the Episcopal Church was necessary to hold those commitments.[6]

My theological vocation has demanded that if I am to be an Anglican in the United States, I need to be an Episcopalian. The Anglican Communion actually is something; there is a given-ness to its life and structures, and a part of this given-ness is that the Anglican Communion is a communion of churches in communion with the See of Canterbury. In the United States, the Anglican province is the Episcopal Church. I found that in my theological research and writing, when I was engaged in Anglican ecclesiology, I could only write with reference to the Episcopal Church. I know no other way to do ecclesiology. In order to exercise this vocation with integrity, and in order to work for the flourishing of the Anglican Communion, and in order to seek the highest degree of communion possible with the greatest number of Christians possible, I have stepped away from the ACNA for the Episcopal Church. I am not suggesting that others in the ACNA come over into the Episcopal Church;[7] I’m simply explaining my route.

And yet, as I leave, I feel no animus to the ACNA, which was my home for nearly six years of my spiritual pilgrimage. Instead, I have a profound gratitude. If it were not for the ACNA, I would probably never have become an Anglican. ACNA presented a face of Anglicanism that I was able to recognize as faithfully Christian at a time when the Episcopal Church did not seem like a viable option. I have found it necessary to move through and beyond ACNA into a fuller appropriation of the Anglican heritage, but I cannot but acknowledge how instrumental ACNA was in this. And in this I am not alone. I know several Episcopalians, most of them either now serving as priests or in the ordination process, who came into the Anglican tradition through ACNA, only to find themselves carried into the Episcopal Church as they got to know their newfound tradition better.

The ACNA parish I attended in Milwaukee was a church plant, drawing mostly people of broadly evangelical affiliation. This in itself is significant, because we were never made up of disaffected Episcopalians, nor was an adversarial relationship with the Episcopal Church anything in which the congregation or staff was interested. Many of these people began attending the parish because they knew and trusted our rector from his previous ministry in a prominent evangelical church in the area. Most of them were unsure what to make of the liturgical and sacramental patterns of our common life. But over time, they have come to embrace and love the liturgy, and to cherish worship centered on Christ’s presence at the eucharistic table. Numerous people have expressed that they would have a very hard time returning to a generically evangelical church after their formation in the prayer book’s liturgies. Regardless of whether these parishioners ever become Episcopalians, they have been introduced into Anglicanism’s Catholic faith and historic order through the ACNA. And in this we should rejoice. This may be a special vocation for the ACNA in God’s providential ordering of churches’ lives.

I have preached to and prayed with the people of God in this church, and made some of my most significant friendships there. Both of my daughters were baptized in ACNA parishes. Both of them have had their most consistent Christian formation in these parishes. Just two years ago, the missional community our family led devoted the season of Lent to preparing my youngest daughter for her baptism at the Easter Vigil. I was able to see the catechumenate in action as women and men from our church invested in Evelyn’s Christian discipleship. How can I be anything but grateful for this?

I became an Anglican because the ACNA presented an expression of Anglicanism that I was able to take seriously as an ecclesial home for committed Christians. I left the ACNA for the Episcopal Church because I became an Anglican. And though I have now left the ACNA, I am filled with profound gratitude for my sojourn there. I hope that telling the story of my relationship to Anglicanism can help Episcopalians feel the same way, and help people in ACNA take another look at the Episcopal Church: not necessarily to join it, but to recognize that it is home to their sister and brother Christians. Some of these sisters and brothers hold to the same commitments; some are further to the left;[8] some do indeed hold to aberrant doctrine; all are baptized into Christ and loved by him. The Episcopal Church rarely lives up to GAFCON’s caricatures. And even when it does, Christ remains faithful to those he has gathered to himself. Jesus hasn’t given up on the Episcopal Church, and it is irresponsible and anti-evangelical for any of us to act as though he has. By the same token, he is at work through the ACNA too. As an ecclesiologist, I can’t justify the ACNA’s existence as a church, but it does exist, and Christ, who justifies by grace, through his passion and resurrection rather than any merit on our part, is at work within the ACNA.

I recently argued elsewhere that a good path for divided Anglicans might be to learn how to be grateful for those from whom we are divided.[9] There is a lot of bad blood between the Episcopal Church and the ACNA. There are causes for this animosity on both sides, which I won’t go into because we’ve all been rehearsing our grievances for long enough. Jesus does not have bad blood toward those in his church, only the blood he shed for them on his cross, which he gives them to drink in the eucharistic cup. In his scandalous grace, he continues to use us to reconcile women and men to himself. Animosity dies when we begin to look at those across the ecclesial divide with the eyes of Christ, and see his gospel at work, awakening and sustaining faith. If we could learn to recognize the work of Christ in one another, it would go a long way toward allowing us “to discountenance schism, to heal the wounds of the Body of Christ, and to promote the charity which is the chief of Christian graces and the visible manifestation of Christ to the world.”[10]

Footnotes

[1] I have also grown a lot less interested in making these evaluations. A Brutal Unity by Ephraim Radner (Baylor University Press, 2012), which explores Christian unity as grounded in Christ, who refuses to let go of even his enemies, has profoundly influenced my thinking. My only hope is in the Christ who died for us while we were at enmity with him, and holds fast to us no matter how badly we stumble and fall. Recognizing this changes the way I evaluate the Church’s shortcomings. Yes, there are still things that Jesus wants to correct and purify, but I’m not looking for the line across which he refuses to hold us by his grace and decides to leave us to ourselves. I hope we never find it.

[2] Even remaining at the national level, there are still problems with the syllogism. The prayer book, together with the constitutions and canons of the Episcopal Church, rather than statements by bishops, or even General Convention, indicate the doctrine and discipline of the church. And so, per the Book of Common Prayer, the Episcopal Church remains committed to the Nicene faith and all that comes along with it. Any exceptions to this within the Episcopal Church are just that: exceptions, not the rule. See further Wesley Hill’s thoughts on Nicene Orthodoxy within the Episcopal Church.

[3] And, as the consecration of Andy Lines shows, remains steadfastly committed to such canonical violations.

[4] It is worth noting that some of the initial departures from the Episcopal Church were centered on women’s ordination to the priesthood, and not sexuality. However, GAFCON does not represent a united front on women’s ordination. Many within GAFCON accept it, even as others demur. In the ACNA an uneasy armistice between a majority that rejects and a minority that affirms women’s ordination currently obtains.

[5] And if GAFCON’s goal is not to uphold Catholic faith and order, it is all the more indefensible.

[6] I am trying to be very careful here to not suggest that the Episcopal Church-ACNA schism was unacceptable only because some in the Episcopal Church continue to hold traditional views on marriage and sexuality. Instead, it is the indissoluble union of the church with Christ established at baptism that renders the division unacceptable. What I do want to show is that, even in terms of the ACNA’s expressed justification for the split, it is unjustified.

[7] Though, in light of all I have observed, I think it is fair to ask them Why not?

[8] One interesting realization I had was how far to the right of me some of my friends in the Episcopal Church are.

[9] Eugene R. Schlesinger, “The Fractured Body: The Eucharist and Anglican Division” Anglican Theological Review 98.4 (2016): pp. 639–60.

[10] The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral.

About The Author

Dr. Eugene Schlesinger is a recent graduate of Marquette University, and the author of Missa Est! A Missional Liturgical Ecclesiology (Fortress Press, 2017). He and his family attend Trinity Episcopal Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.

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19 Comments on "How the ACNA helped me become an Episcopalian"

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“Episcopal Church, and especially the persistence of the witness of the Communion Partners, shows that the formation of ACNA was not necessary, and therefore not justified, because there is no justification for breaking fellowship with other Christians. Christ is not divided…”
-a schismatic Catholic lol.

Dr. Schlesinger: Thank you for sharing your thoughts. My one question is: what is the rationale for stopping at Canterbury, and not rejoining the Roman Catholic church? All the same arguments for coming into the Episcopal fold could be made, with both less force and more, for coming back into the RC church. The RC has a stronger case for its givenness than the entire Anglican communion given its history and global reach. Thank you for your thoughtful piece.

Thanks for taking the time to read and engage with my piece. I understand your question here, and I suppose the basic answer is that, so far, I have found that the place for me to live out my vocation as a Catholic Christian is within the Anglican tradition. While the unity of the church is of great import to me, I do not think that this issue can be resolved by finding and then reverting to some ideal instance of the church, but by working for reunion from where we are currently located. At present, I find myself as… Read more »

I think your answer here simply dodged the question. The exact same answer justifies remaining in the ACNA. The Episcopal Church has its roots in irregular consecrations.

I don’t see how it’s a dodge to say that my decision to leave ACNA for the Episcopal Church is not motivated by questions of Christian unity as such, but rather out of a conviction about the nature of Anglicanism. Even if it were about church unity, though, even the Catholic Church differentiates between an individual’s decision to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church and the task of ecumenism. While I could see someone making a Radnerian argument for “staying put” in ACNA (this is what I attempted for 4 or 5 years), I don’t think the argument… Read more »
No. (NEIN!) Popes asserted the filioque clause in the Ecumenical Creed. When the obvious question was asked, “By what authority?”, the popes answered, “By my own authority”. When popes stated that all Christians must accede to the exact definition of how Christ is present in the Eucharist, they stated, “By my own authority”. This was finally defined in 1870 by Vatican I. So a pope could and did state that the Blessed Virgin was assumed into heaven, and this was “de Fide”. Same with the Immaculate Conception, and that when the Pope declares on faith or morals, ex cathedra, it… Read more »
I understand these concerns, but you are wrong in at least some of your particulars. The filioque was not introduced by a bishop of Rome, but rather by a local council. Transubstantiation is not an explanation of how Christ is present in the Eucharist, but rather an assertion that the sacramental species really do become his body and blood (this doctrinal teaching is distinct from the speculative apparatus used by, e.g., Thomas Aquinas to explain its intelligibility). Also, transubstantiation was taught not by papal decree but in ecumenical councils. Similar historical nuance could be provided for the definitions of the… Read more »

“The only way to reform is from within” well let’s be glad that as Protestants Martin Luther did not adopt your viewpoint. At one point does one realize the toxicity is within and beyond refoming?

Eliot, I don’t believe that Jesus ever gives up on us. No one and no church is ever beyond hope, because salvation is by grace.

Could one not then raise the question of whether or not the Anglican Communion itself has a dubious justification for its existence? Was it not formed, at least in part, by the the same concerns over the state of the western Catholic church as motivated Luther and a perceived need to come out of a corrupted institution?

I would contest that the Anglican Communion was formed by the Reformation. The Church of England’s bishops and their successions go back far before the 16th Century, even when Augustine of Canterbury arrived on the British isles, the Catholic Church was already there.
The English Church passed through the Reformation, but its beginning was not there.
Now, as to whether the separation with Rome should have occurred, that’s another issue, which I won’t attempt to parse at this juncture.

I’m sympathetic to these arguments, especially the point about ACNA’s subverting of Lambeth and Windsor Report instructions, but I do wonder if they adequately respond to the more radical critique some GAFCON folks make about the present Communion structures–namely, that they are leftovers of a colonial enterprise. In other words, they are contesting precisely the structural arrangement of the Communion itself–the instruments of Communion–which privileges the authority of a colonial power (England) and caters to the interests of monied provinces (TEC). No doubt, some GAFCON folks have little concern for reforming the instruments of communion, and want only to found… Read more »

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Simply put sir, you are incorrect. There was no justification for Frank Tracy Griswold to sign the document stating that consecrating Gene Robinson would “tear the fabric of the communion at its deepest level” and then come back to the USA and do so. By doing so, TEC showed its commitment to walking away from communion and scripture. You mentioned the 39 Articles… so you have to reconcile this: Article 20: “And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything contrary to God’s Word written” By creating rites in the book of common prayer for same-sex “marriage”,… Read more »

I’m not defending any of those actions.
I still insist that you cannot defend catholic faith and order by dispensing with it when it’s inconvenient.

Also, as of now, at least, the Episcopal Church does not have rites in the Book of Common Prayer for same sex marriage.

“As an ecclesiologist, I learned to understand the diocese as the most basic expression of the church. The bishop, together with his or her presbyters, deacons, and lay people, represents the church in its fullness, while the parish and national church are extensions of this basic reality. So one must do one’s thinking at the diocesan level (without ignoring the national church or parish).” I appreciate Dr. Schlesinger’s analysis but I wonder if his theoretical ecclesiology holds up to canonical scrutiny. A practical look at the ecclesiology implicit in the TEC canons suggests a stronger case for the national church… Read more »

I’ll concur with you that the erosion of diocesan integrity within the Episcopal Church has been a troubling development over the last several years, one which i don’t intend to defend.

Hi Gene, Thanks for writing this article, which I finally had time to read. It helps me understand you more. While I have many disagreements that remain, I am more sympathetic to your position now, and I appreciate your irenical tone toward us ACNA folks, even if we are schismatics. Most of all though, I want you to know how sad I still am that you chose to leave. We miss you a lot, and more than ever with the current issues we are going through. I think the more of us that love each other across TEC and ACNA,… Read more »

Thanks, Evan!
I wholeheartedly agree about the need for more love across the divide.

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