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A Sunday in the Anglican Diaspora

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.

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.

[divider]Footnotes[/divider]

[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.

20 COMMENTS

  1. 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 …..

    • Thanks so much for your kind words, Mike.

      The Anglican Communion recognizes lots of orders (e.g., Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, etc.), but almost none of these recognitions have ever resulted in bringing those recognized into the Communion. Canterbury’s recognition is not equivalent to the constitutional process needed to create a new province of the Communion.

      There are some pretty easy ways to test the claim about CANA. Has any CANA bishop ever been invited to the Lambeth Conference? Further, has any archbishop of Canterbury, or any other Instrument of Communion, agreed that CANA is indeed part of the Communion? There is not, as far as I know, any precedent for installing missionary bishops or missionary dioceses in other provinces who are not under the authority of the local province and its bishops. Consequently, CANA’s status in the Communion is probably best described as irregular – nothing more and nothing less.

      There is a constitution that governs all these things. Perhaps we should all spend some time reading it (which gives me an idea for a future post…).

  2. 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 could offer many anecdotes on each point. My Millennial friends in really wanted to hear their Boomer bishops speak out for the ACA and against the inhumanity of the Americans’ treatment of undocumented migrants, but were badly mistaken. It’s all Obergefell, all the time.

    And let’s talk about the percentage of ACNA church planters and parish clergy that have health insurance. Please.

    It was my perception some ten years ago, that creedally orthodox ordinands were being run out of many TEC dioceses. I don’t hear of that these days. I do have some ACNA clergy friends quitting ACNA and entering TEC because of the problems I’ve named. They’re still creedally orthodox, and still traditionalist as regards sexuality, but one can only gossip about teh gayz for so many hours in a day. That really is a hinderance to mission, no matter what side of things we’re on.

    That said, gathering exiles is precisely what I’m doing within my parish church, and somehow I’m managing to teach creedal orthodoxy (even as a layman in a liberal parish!), denounce gossip and personal selfishness from the pulpit, and *not* get drunk at every event. Jokes aside, I’m happy to have a conversation with anyone about the work of drawing the “Dones,” those who have left churches, into discipleship and community life.

    To echo some Facebook commenters, I’m not sure who the audience for this piece might be. In 2018, are there still folks who are white-knuckling their time in ACNA or TEC, wondering if they’d be more faithful and fruitful in their discipleship if they walked over to the other folks’ mass?

    • Kyle, thanks for your comments. I have three quick thoughts. First, I have often mused on the fact that ACNA and TEC are so similar. Yes, they have some sharp disagreements, but their sociology (for lack of a better word) is so markedly similar, that I have often speculated that it is best described with primary reference to the broader generational tendencies of the Baby Boomers. I touch on that in this article, although I’ve never really developed the thesis.

      Second, in terms of discipleship, I suspect that it is more common a question for many people than ideologues on either side of the divide want to believe. But it is not the only question that many will ask; people are just as likely to inquire about high ecclesiology, or about where their kids will have a youth group, or about sacramental practice (table to font? font to table?), or any number of other matters. Lots of things shape where people go to church, among them personal discipleship.

      Third, the excessive focus by leadership in both churches on sexual matters is a problem for mission, but it’s also a problem for maintenance of the church at diocesan and parochial levels. It enables a clear sense of identity by giving church membership a single metric for discussing any number of far more complex problems. The responses to this article on the TLC Facebook page are a sad but vivid example of this. Such fierce clarity robs us of the ability to listen and learn, and to critique and grow. It results in territorialism, which is never a virtue.

    • I could not agree more with the above as an ACNA priest. Unfortunately, I am in a Diocese fairly given over to a constant and a non-stop emphasis on three things: Evangelism, Sexual deviation, and Abortion. We throw in other things from time to time, but theological dialogue and development are nowhere to be found. To bring in other pastoral and theological emphasis is to be met with silence and interpersonal distance. I have been engaging this for 7 years, and it is still striking how we can ignore so much of our foundational heritage and the entirety of the scriptures.

  3. 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 my own introduction to it any better. Coming from a Plymouth Brethren background, I stumbled quite unwittingly into Anglicanism in early 2010. It was a heady and upending encounter. I was dazzled to my very core by this tradition even as I found vast swaths of my ingrained theology overthrown the deeper I delved. And then there was the prayer book. I look back upon my first chancing upon an old 1928 BCP as one of the most powerful and disruptive divine in-breakings in my life, an occurrence for which I am still daily thankful.
    Though firmly theologically conservative and traditionalist, my family and I became parishioners at what was probably then a just slightly-left-of-center Episcopal parish. In fairness I should say that initially we landed there largely because there was no ACNA parish anywhere remotely close to where we were in Kansas. But our Episcopal parish was blessed with a creedally orthodox rector and I came to love that church. I taught adult Sunday School and our two younger children were baptized there. Ah, and they kept copies of The Living Church racked in the library too, bless them.

    But by late 2015 the parish was shifting ever more pronouncedly to the social left. When the rector told me over lunch one day that fall about his decision to officiate a same sex wedding the sense of sadness I felt fell on me like a lead blanket. Certainly in the wake of Obergefell, the justice issues of the social left seemed what most excited many laity. Perhaps most disheartening is that there was also no real catechetical formation in the faith for children. As my wife and I have three this struck close to home.

    I finally said to my wife with deep sadness that I did not think I could trust the parish with the spiritual formation of our children. It is a daunting and demanding enough task for a parent to counter the gospel of individualized eros which prevails in mainstream American culture. I simply did not want to wage that fight when it came to what our children might be hearing in their youth classes or from the pulpit on Sunday. While I might adore our parish liturgy and be able to find my personal spiritual formation in the rhythm of the Daily Office, what would any of that matter if we failed to pass on the faith to our kids? If they – I don’t mean this to sound uncharitable, but this was a clarifying thought – grew up to be the kind of Christians I saw at our parish? My wife agreed and it was she who suggested a visit to a local Orthodox cathedral at which we had close friends.

    Our city is a hub of thrummingly vibrant Orthodox life and we were quite thrilled to find at the cathedral a community centered around the sacraments, and deeply committed to forming adults and children (of which there are many) alike in the practices and disciplines of the Church and in handing on to them the faith as the Church has received it. Our whole family was chrismated on Christmas Eve 2016.
    The Orthodox faith has given me a deeper and fuller understanding than ever I had before of what it means to be saved. The richness of its spirituality is profound. Yet I must admit that Orthodoxy does not capture my heart as Anglicanism did (and, if I’m being honest, largely still does). For all the resplendent beauty of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom I would still prefer the dignified liturgy and Cranmerian cadences of the BCP any Sunday. The day of our chrismation everyone kept hugging us with huge smiles and saying “Welcome home.” I was grateful for that day and felt a sense of relief, but what I most felt that afternoon was sad. I was brokenhearted at what I was giving up. What I wouldn’t give, I remember thinking that day (and on more than a few occasions since too), to have lived somewhere like Dallas or near a parish like All Souls in OKC.

    And yet whatever cost I have borne in giving up the Anglicanism that I loved – nay, still love – has been worth it as I have watched my family flourish and grow spiritually over these last two years. And so, again, thank you for your thoughts Dr. Guyer. May God bless you and your family and in all your thoughts , doubts and uncertainties, grant you his grace and light.

    • Dear Jay, thank you for your kind words. I used to live in Kansas (in Lawrence) and greatly enjoyed my years in graduate school there. I miss it.

      I have a special fondness for the Orthodox church, and beginning as an undergraduate engaged in a kind of prolonged flirtation with it. I suspect that many raised in Western traditions do; who can resist a robust intertwining asceticism with theosis, with no doctrine of original sin? I’m sorry that the Anglican/Episcopal presence in KS (Wichita?) proved unsustainable. Although my own background is not that of the Plymouth Brethren, it was no less “nonconformist,” rooted as it was in evangelical habits and the millenarianism of the 1970s.

      Liturgy does indeed get in our bones. I’ve spent so many years learning Anglicanism, and learning to be Anglican, that I can’t imagine the uprooting that would take place in shifting to something else. But depending on where one is, the duties that parents have to children may certainly prove greater than the duties one has to a given parish or denomination. I’m sure that you made the right choice.

      Thank you for sharing. I pray the best for you and yours, and that the day will come when Anglicans and Orthodox can again have serious ecumenical discussions.

      • Thanks for your comments. I’m a KU alum from my undergrad (’03) and like you I miss Lawrence. Such a great college town, and so beautiful. Rock chalk, man.

        Yeah, Orthodox asceticism and spirituality is endlessly rich and I have benefited much from it. But the residue of Anglicanism remains and I imagine ever will. I still pray Morning and Evening Prayer daily from the BCP, still pray from the prayer book before bed with our kids, and with the exception of Pascha still sense and mark liturgical time by the calendar as I learned it in the Episcopal Church (for the life of me I cannot conceive of ever thinking of or observing our current liturgical season as anything other than Advent; my good wife indulges me by allowing me to include Cranmer’s Advent collect in our family prayers this time of year). Orthodox catechesis did a good job of convincing my head, but it’s Anglicanism that largely still has my heart.

        A blog I loved and consumed ravenously back in the day – The Conciliar Anglican (to which I do believe you contributed a time or two if memory serves) – once ran a post cautioning traditional Episcopalians in angst against seeing Orthodoxy as an “escape hatch”. I think about that from time to time since in some sense that is what I did. But anytime I get mopey or doubtful all I have to do is look at our kids, at the verdant spiritual growth I observe in them, or think about the wonderful teachers and other families around them whom I see as assets and partners to my wife and myself instead of influences we have to counter, and boy-howdy, it’s worth it. Anyhow, blessings to you, brother, and thanks.

        • Because contemporary Episcopal sources are rarely empathetic, let alone forgiving, towards those who in good conscience have theological reservations concerning the party line. The current Church, formally speaking, seems to have a hard time tolerating Evangelical or Anglo-Catholic dissent. Your particular essay speaks for many “orthodox” Episcopalians and former Episcopalians who are now “out of sight” hence “out of mind”.

        • Doing a little searching on the internet, the only thing I could find that gave both membership and ASA was for 2015. Membership was 111,853 for that year, and ASA was 78,679. That yields an attendance ratio of 70%. A very healthy attendance!

  4. 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?

    • Warren, I too have wondered the same. Regrettably, there is some difficulty in figuring this out because the statistics curated by the ACNA and TEC differ in at least one important way: TEC differentiates between baptized membership and Sunday attendance (the former being slightly more than three times the size of the latter!). Perhaps the ACNA does not need to make this distinction at this point in its history, but if we are to use current trends to make predictions about the future, we do need to know which numbers to compare. Furthermore, and no less importantly, we should be extremely wary of presuming that current trends will remain current! But you right that the demographic trends between the two churches are very different. I welcome any further data that you have or know of.

      • Benjamin, the ACNA parochial reports do contain ASA, just as in TEC. I did see a figure for this once, but can’t remember what it was. What I do remember is that as a percentage of total membership, it was significantly higher than TEC.

    • Dear Simon and TA, thanks for posting a link back here.

      I am disturbed by the first (and thus far, only) comment by a TA reader, who writes, ‘TEC does not stand up for what it says it believes – it allows Love of Albany to go on with his vitriol and hatred, it tries politeness towards the far-right schismatics, it doesn’t dare tell Canterbury that he is not a pope. It is a weak leadership that speaks of “the realities” as an excuse for convenient inaction, refusing to recognize that the “realities” sometimes require a strong, even high-handed, absolutism in the face of self-serving bigotry’.

      Absolutism is never, ever the answer. A church that relies on authoritarianism, intimidation, and fear will become all that it claims to hate.

  5. 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.

    • 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.

    • Within ACNA, several dioceses do not ordain women – the Reformed Episcopal Church, for example. Outside of ACNA, Continuing Anglican churches like the Anglican Catholic Church, the Anglican Church in American, and the Province of Christ the King hold the same position (unless I’m mistaken). Hope that helps.

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