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?