Season of Division: The Episcopal Church Splits Up

There’s at least one Christian denomination that won’t be singing “peace on earth” this holiday season. A diocese of the Episcopal Church has seceded and plans to align with a South American branch of the Anglican Church, the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone. (For readers unfamiliar with the tedious details of church hierarchy, the Anglican Church is the global denomination; the Episcopal Church is the American branch of that church. The Episcopal Church, until this announcement, had 110 dioceses in America.)

The schismatic diocese is the Diocese of San Joaquin, comprising 47 parishes and 8,800 members situated in California. At their annual convention last Sunday, the diocese’s 110 delegates voted overwhelmingly in favor of secession. They’re not the first Episcopals to do so – last year, two large, wealthy parishes in Virginia split away, along with a multitude of smaller congregations (see my last December’s post “True Colors“). But this marks the first time an entire diocese has chosen to break away from the American convocation of the church. And this decision may open the floodgates, with as many as half a dozen other dioceses poised to follow suit. Depending on whether the Anglican archbishop Rowan Williams denounces this unprecedented incursion of one branch of the church into another’s territory, there may eventually be a full-scale civil war between liberal and conservative factions of Anglicanism.

The issue driving all this, no surprise, is the Anglican church’s doctrine toward gays. The ordaining of openly gay bishop V. Gene Robinson in 2003 set off a firestorm of controversy over whether the church should permit gays to be clergy and bless homosexual couples, or whether, like many Christian denominations, they should consider homosexuality a sin to be “cured”. A lesser, though still divisive, issue was the treatment of women; the current head of the American convocation is a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori, which rankled conservatives. (The Diocese of San Joaquin is one of three dioceses that still refuses to ordain women, which nicely sums up their bigoted medieval theology.) Over the last few months the debate had become deadlocked, as theological disputes tend to do, and this secession was the predictable result.

I don’t know much about the Province of the Southern Cone or whether they hold views as repugnant as those of Peter Akinola, the Nigerian archbishop under whose authority several breakaway American parishes have placed themselves. Akinola publicly supports the imprisonment of gay couples and the criminalization of gay-friendly clubs and political organizations. The South American church undoubtedly holds less liberal views than the Episcopal leadership, but it remains to be seen whether they support positions as evil as Akinola’s.

This affair further goes to show the futility of theology as a means of forming beliefs. Since theological positions are not based on evidence, when two sides disagree, there’s no way to settle the question. The inevitable result, as we’ve seen here, is for one side to break the deadlock through schism or force. With the American convocation now planning a massive, costly wave of litigation over who owns the church property in the breakaway dioceses, it seems clear that this debate will drag on for years and ultimately produce nothing but misery and resentment on all sides. Those apologists who say that religion works more good in the world than atheism should be reminded of this fact: for all the charitable work religion has done, how much time, effort and money has it expended on pointless battles like this? How many resources has religious discord wasted, resources that could more usefully have been spent on issues of importance to real people?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://passionateatheist.blogspot.com NoAstronomer

    Episodes like this, including the row over women priests in the catholic church, remind me of listening to my kids squabble about who sits where in the back seat of the car. Only this is funnier.

  • Entomologista

    A similar debate has been going on in the Methodist Church, at least in Wisconsin. My dad is pretty involved in church politics, and he’s a liberal sort of guy. Recently the Wisconsin branch (or whatever you call it) decided not to bless gay marriages because there was a general fear that the church would split – which I guess is not unfounded considering the Anglicans. But the thing I don’t understand is why they would care if all the bigots left. A lot of bigots left my dad’s church just because there is a lesbian couple that attends regularly. I’m not sure why we should all tip-toe around the feelings of bigots. We should be marginalizing these assholes, not pretending like they’ve got a valid opinion. But I suppose church politics wouldn’t make any sense to an atheist anyway.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    I just cannot help a small — okay, medium-sized — upwelling of schadenfreud on reading this. First, I am always happy when I see a denomination split asunder; the principle of mass, and its obverse mean that this is neccessarily weakening. Additionally, I’m granted a ringside seat to an argument consisting of:

    “I’m stupider that thou.”
    “No, I am!”

    and so forth, which can be entertaining when the participants have creativity. And finally, I am given hope that perhaps these worldly changes to “eternal truth” will cause one or more believers to question their faith. And that is certainly a valid reason for pleasure.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the logical culmination of this splintering was to keep dividing the congregations until they got to the point where every single congregant was actually his own church?

  • javaman

    our evil atheism plan is working……….excellent!

  • DamienSansBlog

    there may eventually be a full-scale civil war between liberal and conservative factions of Anglicanism.

    I certainly hope not. I’d prefer not to have another Thirty Years’ War, especially now that the participants can arm themselves with assault rifles instead of muskets.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    A figurative full-scale civil war. (I hope.)

  • http://effingtheineffable.wordpress.com Peter
  • Stephen

    Something similar happened recently in the Netherlands. Three protestant churches decided it was time to stop squabbling and form a single church: the PKN (Protestantse Kerk in Nederland). However, numerous members had no desire whatever to stop squabbling, so formed splinter groups, and instead of the number of churches decreasing from 3 to 1, it increased from 3 to 5.

  • OMGF

    Recently the Wisconsin branch (or whatever you call it) decided not to bless gay marriages because there was a general fear that the church would split – which I guess is not unfounded considering the Anglicans. But the thing I don’t understand is why they would care if all the bigots left.

    Because it is more important to stick together than to do what is right. This is the argument that I make most often against “moderate” theists. More often than not, they tend to side with the more extreme elements simply because it’s better to be on god’s team than do what is right. In this case, they can’t denounce bigotry, because it would alienate some people on the team. Disgusting.


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