By Benjamin Guyer

My wife and I recently visited a parish of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). It was delightful. Counting clergy and choir, there must have been at least 100 participants. The sermon was solid and drew upon Scripture and tradition, the liturgy was reverential, and the parish was more racially diverse than many Episcopal churches I have attended. Most remarkably for my wife and me, there were dozens of children. I rarely see more than a handful of children in our church, even on high holy days like Christmas and Easter. In our car ride home, we commented twice on this fact alone. After one Sunday, it seemed the kind of church that we could happily worship with on a weekly basis. Nothing was foreign to us as Episcopalians.

Being Anglican in the United States today is like being punch drunk on too many choices. All sorts of liturgical, devotional, and theological flavors exist. There is the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA or TEC), the most politically progressive province of the international Anglican Communion and one very much at odds with a considerable portion of the Communion’s wider membership. Those inclined toward something more conservative might join any number of other ecclesial bodies in what is sometimes called the Anglican Continuum — or, as I prefer, the Anglican Diaspora.

The ACNA, the most recently created such body, is more conservative than the Episcopal Church and has close ties with several thriving Anglican Communion provinces in Africa. If one is less excited about the Global South, or if one opposes the ordination of women (which the ACNA allows), still other options remain. One could pray the 1928 American liturgy or the 1662 English liturgy; one could participate in high worship with incense or in charismatic worship with praise bands; one might discover a largely aged parish or one dominated by young families. Furthermore, some of these churches have a bewildering internal variety.

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The Episcopal Church, of which I am a member, is less a national church than a national umbrella for a flagrantly incoherent range of approaches to everything from basic creedal theology to liturgical aesthetics, morality, and social witness. The end result of all of this is an Anglican identity tightly bound to the smallest unit of ecclesial existence, the local parish. Anglicans share at least this much in common: we have bishops but live as congregationalists.

Two examples, one from the ACNA and the other from the Episcopal Church, illustrate this almost perfectly. Although the ACNA service we attended was generally enjoyable, the prayers of the people proved uncomfortable. In the Episcopal Church, we pray for our fellow Anglicans by praying for the Archbishop of Canterbury and some other portion, usually a province, of the Anglican Communion. The ACNA parish prayed for neither; its Cycle of Prayer includes only occasional prayers for those portions of the Anglican Communion that support the ACNA. Such sporadic silence speaks volumes, especially since most ACNA parishes claim, falsely, that they are part of the Communion.

But such incoherence is not unique to the ACNA; it can be found in our local Episcopal parish, too. This past summer our priest was a deputy to General Convention. She returned from it excited about the wider Episcopal Church and said that she now better understood how connected our parish is, for we are part of a larger diocese, just as our diocese is part of a larger national church. At no point did she mention our larger international communion. Her silence was no less piercing than the corporate prayers of the ACNA parish.

Is it more honest not to pray regularly for an international communion that you claim to be part of, or to pray for your international communion while ignoring and even denigrating its counsel? In truth, these are equivalent. Neither the Episcopal Church nor the ACNA can claim any kind of moral high ground, and yet each believes that it and it alone possesses precisely this.

Progressive and conservative partisans will alike cite their respective stances on gay marriage to justify our divisions. Progressives allege that conservatives are bigots, plain and simple; conservatives counter that progressives have effectively abandoned Christianity. But for many of us, things are not that simple.

Yes, the Episcopal Church’s embrace of LGBTQ persons occurred against the express consensus and desires of the wider Anglican Communion, but using gay marriage to explain church membership is as self-serving as it is overly simplistic and thus misguided. For most of us, church attendance develops out of an ecology of interacting issues: what the clergy are like, what the service is like, what the people are like, etc. Young families want to see other young families; the theologically serious want sermons to have substance and depth.

It should come as no surprise that some progressive young people — yes, friends of mine — have left the Episcopal Church because they see it as lacking in theological rigor. (How can you have rigor without standards?) Decline and growth are equally important variables in the larger ecology of church membership, and ideology aside, decline and growth shape much of how the laity think and talk about life in our parishes.

By way of example, I am in fact less concerned with gay marriage than with our church’s alcoholism. I have been invited to events such as men’s retreats with the express purpose of “getting drunk” (so no, I have not attended). Potentially holy opportunities are defiled and undermined by the most base and juvenile of appetites. Alcohol flows freely at many church gatherings, and being told to drink less gets many parishioners up in arms.

Some other examples: Despite the rhetoric of church leaders, comparatively few parishioners are upset by instances of (alleged) injustice, but as far as I can tell, even fewer are concerned with things like the content of lectionary readings or Sunday sermons. All of this causes me to wonder whether I could ever raise children in this ecclesial environment.

To be clear, some parishes do a good job regulating tendencies to alcoholic excess. But the very presence of such unrepentant excess in every Episcopal parish I have attended is a clear yet disconcerting testament that today, the Episcopal Church is defined by bourgeois moral decadence. To use biblical and theological language, the Episcopal Church cares not a whit for personal sin, only the social sins (purportedly) committed by political and ecclesial others. In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx described Christian socialism as “the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.” Is there any better description of the contemporary Episcopal Church?

Since completing graduate school in 2016, my expectations for parish life have shifted rapidly, and quite unintentionally, toward expecting fellowship in a wholesome environment for my wife and, eventually, our children. Consequently, in the last few years, I have frequently wrestled with why I remain Episcopalian. The answer is rooted in what now seems a very distant past. The first time I entered an Episcopal church as an adult was in late 2003, just a few weeks before I completed my undergraduate degrees. I walked through the doors of the chapel and felt, for the first time in my life, like I was home. It was a wholly unexpected experience, and for a kid with a non-denominational, “Spirit-filled” background, it was a moment of divinely benevolent disruption.

But whereas the heart moved first, the head soon led, and after 18 months of historical and theological study, I was happily confirmed in May 2005. Some years later in graduate school, I initiated two collections of essays on contemporary Anglican ecclesiology, one in support of the Anglican Covenant and the other in support of the Lambeth Conference. The first I edited, the second I co-edited. Each has been largely well received, and Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a foreword to the latter volume. My sense of calling remains and my sense of belonging remains, but more present now than before is a profound sense of conflict between the macro and micro levels of the broader Anglican heritage and the parochial realities of the Episcopal Church.

For almost a half-century, Anglicans who have felt this same conflict have sometimes opted to leave the Episcopal Church, thereby creating a small constellation of other Anglican denominations across the United States. Whether we call these churches the Anglican Continuum, the Anglican Diaspora, or something else, they are generally quite conservative but equally fissiparous. Leaving and creating a new church is a very American response to ecclesial conflict, but importantly, the development of the Anglican Diaspora overlaps with the rise of the Baby Boomers and the first fruits of their cultural revolution.

The late 1960s spawned all sorts of cultural fragmentation, hedonism, and other forms of narcissism, but backlash against these from within the Baby Boomer generation followed the exact same pattern of their earlier generational conflicts. Contemporary evangelicalism is, in large part, a product of this intra-generational backlash; the dogmatism and divisiveness of the Christian Right is cut from the same generational cloth as the dogmatism and divisiveness of the New Left.[1] For whatever reason, the conservative turn of the 1980s failed to provide a more conciliatory and communal vision than the radicalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Consequently, the culture wars in contemporary America and its churches are perhaps best understood as merely a more recent chapter in the Boomers’ decades-long story of perpetual conflict. The remarkable, ever-rising divorce rate among Boomers is forceful testimony to all of this.

Unsurprisingly, the most recent exodus in the Episcopal Church was led by conservative Boomers against progressive Boomers. It resulted in the creation of the ACNA. But despite its origins, the ACNA has not attracted a sizable number of Episcopalians. When I joined the Episcopal Church in 2005, it had 2.4 million members. In 2017, there were just under 1.9 million, a loss of slightly more than 20 percent in just over a decade. However, average Sunday attendance decreased by more than 25 percent during the same time, from 787,271 in 2005 to 585,997 in 2017. Despite this considerable drop, at the end of 2017, the ACNA had only 134,593 members. We do not know where our members have gone, but it seems that not too many have joined the ACNA.[2] And yet, to be blunt, population decline this consistent, rapid, and drastic is nothing short of catastrophic. My wife and I have no doubt that we will outlive the Episcopal Church. No church can afford to have members, especially younger members, who think and feel this way.

Despite our fragmentation and numerical decay, North American Anglicans lack an ecclesiology that can comprehend this. Ideologues wish to divide between the proverbial sheep and goats —  or, more accurately, between us and them (however self-servingly defined). But surely there is something better than such embattled institutional stasis. Just as the United States is defined by an “exhausted majority” (see related reporting and commentary by The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Axios), I suspect that many Anglicans throughout the United States (and perhaps the world) often find themselves at an equal loss for words.

Perhaps the truth of the matter is that neither the ACNA nor the Episcopal Church provides a viable future. Perhaps, like the conciliarists of the 15th century, we must find a way to declare a state of emergency, in which we reform what all parties have deformed. From this perspective, what we really need is a third option, which not only draws together those leaving Egypt, but which also calls others out of Babylon.

I fear that no Anglican ecclesiology will be viable tomorrow if it does not possess the simple but firm conviction that the future begins with an ingathering of exiles today.

This is indeed the task before us. It is up to us whether it becomes the task of a lifetime.

Footnotes

[1] Two books make for helpful reading here. Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (Oxford University Press, 2010); Larry Eskridge, God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America (Oxford University Press, 2013). I have previously reviewed God’s Own Party on Covenant.

[2] Jeremy Bonner, “The United States of America,” in David Goodhew (ed.), Growth and Decline in the Anglican Communion: 1980 to the Present (Routledge, 2017), pp. 229-248, at p. 245. Some of the problem here concerns how the Episcopal Church keeps track of membership growth and, in this case, decline. In all of the statistics, no attempt is made to explain whether decline is due to death, theological disagreement, or some other reason(s). This is willful ignorance on the part of church leadership. Ironically, but exactly like the Episcopal Church, the ACNA’s statistical report is just as mum on details, failing to explain whether church growth is a product of successful evangelism, birth rate, or Christians leaving one denomination and entering another.

About The Author

Dr. Benjamin Guyer is a lecturer in the department of history and philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Martin. With Dr. Paul Avis, he is the editor of The Lambeth Conference: Theology, History, Polity and Purpose (Bloomsbury, 2017).

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Mike Neal

Good article. I would just add that ACNA orders are recognized by Canterbury and I’m sure in the not so distant future the ACNA will be too as a whole. CANA is fully in the Communion due to it being a missionary Diocese of Nigeria …..

Kyle Potter

Having spent a decade in three missions or parishes affiliated with the AMiA and then the ACNA (and with another four years in TEC behind me), I’ll agree with Dr. Guyer’s assertion that neither TEC nor ACNA can claim a moral high ground. He writes, “The Episcopal Church, … is less a national church than a national umbrella for a flagrantly incoherent range of approaches to everything from basic creedal theology to liturgical aesthetics, morality, and social witness.” I have many friends in ACNA, and with the exception of “basic creedal theology,” all of the above problems are shared. I… Read more »

Jay Mullinix

Dr. Guyer, thank you for this post. It elicited a deep and visceral reaction in me by way of your musings on the potential effect of “the ecclesial environment” of the Episcopal Church as you have encountered it on your family. It was in large part (though not utterly; few events and choices ever have only one cause) this very issue which led my family and me out of the Episcopal Church and into the Orthodox Church some two years ago. You describe your encounter with Anglicanism as a “benevolent disruption”. Wow, what a phrase. I could not possibly describe… Read more »

Warren E Musselman

While the membership of ACNA is still very small compared to TEC, at the end of its 1st year of existence it had about 100,000 members. It has grown by more than 30% in the 8 years since then, and continues to grow at a good rate. No doubt the growth rate will slow after that initial surge. If TEC continues to shrink and ACNA continues to grow, what might the future look like?

[…] Benjamin Guyer The Living Church A Sunday in the Anglican Diaspora […]

Paul Zahl

This article is actually true!
Not defensive, not self-protective, not attempting to fit into a “narrative”; but reflective, rather, of many persons’ actual experience.
Well done, O Living Church, for demonstrating the broad-mindedness to publish this breath of fresh air.

Adam Embry

What is the Anglican denomination that doesn’t ordain women?

Benjamin Guyer

The denominations in the Anglican Continuum originally left over this issue. The ACNA was the first of these to leave but retain women’s ordination.