Pain, hope and schisms in the long Anglican wars

Anglicans seem to be hopeful about their flocks in the United States, even if the warring factions in their Communion keep moving further and further apart.

That was a common theme in two upbeat recent sermons preached by leaders in the progressive and orthodox Anglican bodies now competing in the marketplace of American religion.

In the first sermon, Father Cameron Partridge became the first openly transgender priest to preach at Washington National Cathedral. The June 22 liturgy was part of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride month.

“To dream that one day this Episcopal Church family, in which I grew up, might join other traditions, and inspire still others, by embracing our gifts and leadership at all levels of its life. I am so grateful and proud to be in a church that is now living into this charge,” said Partridge, who was born a woman, but now identifies as a “trans” man.

“As we behold one another in these days of celebration, may … we give thanks for the unfolding mystery of our humanity and may we revel in our participation in God’s ongoing project of revelation.”

“Revelation” was the word for the day, said Partridge, a Harvard Divinity School faculty member and the Episcopal chaplain at Boston University. Modern churches must embrace the “project of revelation” that shapes an evolving faith, he said.

Partridge recalled a “circle of oppression” rite during an Episcopal retreat he attended 13 years ago, when the leader asked oppressed women to step forward.

“I began to panic. At this point, I was known as an openly gay, partnered woman and I was just coming to terms with being trans,” recalled Partridge. “I also knew that people are punished every day, in various ways, for transgressing the male-female binary — including in church, perhaps especially in church.”

But process is being made, he said, in churches committed to reshaping families and transforming American society while “uncovering of God’s work in the world.”

Two days later, an archbishop on the other side of this doctrinal divide spoke for the American Anglicans who believe they have been punished for their defense of 2,000 years of Christian orthodoxy on matters of marriage, family and sexuality.

Church statistics reveal the pain. At the start of the 1960s, the Episcopal Church had 3.4 million members and that number today has slipped below 2 million. In the past decade, average Sunday morning attendance has declined nearly 25 percent.

Longstanding tensions worsened in 1989 when Newark Bishop John Spong ordained a non-celibate homosexual priest. Then in 1998 the global Lambeth Conference of bishops — led by growing African and Asian churches — passed a resolution defending traditional doctrines on sex, against strong opposition from Americans and others Western bishops.

Splits began forming, a fracturing process that worsened with the 2003 ordination of an openly gay bishop in the tiny Diocese of New Hampshire.

“We sowed in tears. We reap in joy,” said Archbishop Robert Duncan, at the end of his five-year term as the first leader of the breakaway Anglican Church in North America. The meeting to elect his successor was attended by a cluster of prelates from major mainstream Anglican churches, but was not formally recognized by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

In 2009, “Many of us had lost — or were in the process of losing — buildings and friends, resources and relationships that were precious to us,” said Duncan, who was formerly the Bishop of Pittsburgh and will now return to full-time work in that role in this new Anglican body. “Others just knew that where they were in their Christian journey was not yet where they needed to be and were prepared to risk what they had, trusting God for something better, though not yet realized.”

The Anglican Church in North America is small, but claims 983 parishes compared with 700 in 2009, and roughly 110,000 members. Legal battles with the Episcopal Church continue over properties held by many parishes, and in a half-dozen dioceses. Leaders ambitiously pledged to start 1000 new congregations, but settled for about half that number.

“Well, 488 is not 1000, but it sure is an awesome harvest,” said Duncan. “Almost immediately, we changed the subject in the church. We threw away the rear-view mirror.”

Several times the archbishop repeated a slogan many would claim in these long Anglican wars: “We sowed in tears. We reap in joy.”

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