How American Anglicans Went Mainstream

How American Anglicans Went Mainstream January 10, 2020

Today I have one substantial post, about American Anglicans, but also a shorter note on a wholly unrelated topic, namely a remarkable scandal in the academic world of religion scholarship.

My main post is about American Anglicans, of whom I am not one: I am an Episcopalian, from another and (somewhat) competing branch of the tradition. If one word of the following emerges as critical or uncharitable, I certainly do not intend it that way. My intention is rather to comment on how new and insurgent movements go mainstream, illustrating a common and significant theme in the development of all religions. And no less important, just how rapidly such a process can occur.

Some definitions might be helpful. Anglicans, originally, are members of the Church of England which split off from the Roman Catholic Church in the Reformation. The name just means “English,” and even the medieval Magna Carta of 1215 had included a famous clause demanding that “the English Church be free,” quod Anglicana ecclesia libera sit. In Early Modern times, Anglicans became a major force throughout the emerging British Empire. That was also true of the American colonies, much to the worry of Puritan-derived sects, who saw Anglicans as dangerous rivals. After the American Revolution, it was actively dangerous to bear a name that implied a direct relation with England, so Anglicans rebranded themselves as Episcopalians, emphasizing another of their characteristic beliefs: they were the Protestant Episcopal Church, later just the Episcopal Church, ECUSA. But Anglicans everywhere else in the world remained Anglicans, and Anglicans from England or Nigeria or Kenya (say) are puzzled to find that their tradition in the US bears this oddly different name.

Incidentally, much of what follows also involves the mainstream Anglican Church of Canada, but I won’t get into that here.

Fast forward to the late twentieth century, when divisions over sexuality (above all) caused deep splits between conservatives and liberals/radicals in the Episcopal Church, so deep as to threaten schism or secession. This was true in global Anglicanism as a whole, but North America was a key battlefront. Conservatives formed a variety of new rival structures which sought support and guidance from Anglican bishops in the Global South, especially Africa. Don’t forget, you can’t run a small-e episcopal church without bishops, and specifically without bishops properly consecrated in the ancient succession. In 2000, in Singapore, the Anglican bishops of Rwanda and Singapore consecrated two US clergy as bishops, outside the authority of the Episcopal Church. The seceders espoused (or reclaimed) the name Anglican, and it’s all part of the “Anglican Realignment.” Also in 2000, the Anglican Mission in the Americas was founded. As so often in such struggles, the respective sides might not agree on exactly who was seceding from whom, or who represented original truth. Let’s leave that aside for now.

For Americans, the final straw came in 2003 with the election of openly gay Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, which drove further dissidence and secessions. Another key date in this story came in 2009, with the foundation of the Anglican Church in North America, ACNA, which pulled together various smaller groups. Today it claims a thousand parishes, and 140,000 members. Meanwhile, ECUSA claims 1.7 million members. Each body has its own distinct episcopal hierarchy.

Although it has not traditionally used the Anglican name, ECUSA has always regarded itself as the exclusive representative of that strand in the US. Crucially, it is a member of the global Anglican Communion, although it was temporarily suspended from that position in 2016. Despite its best efforts, ACNA is not part of the Anglican Communion, and never has been.

To return to the American Anglicans.

Over the past few years, I have worked in Texas, and have also spent a great deal of time in various parts of the South, particularly in areas where faith and church membership remain a fundamental part of life. I am constantly struck how many people I meet who define themselves as Anglican, and who are members of Anglican parishes. As I said, the overall national numbers are not high, but this is an active tradition, and particularly in academic settings. I know some Anglican parishes in Texas and elsewhere that are flourishing enviably.

But what strikes me most forcefully is the absolutely normal and mainstream way in which people describe this affiliation. This is interesting for me because I have in a sense lived through this story over the past twenty years or so, and I am still used to the earlier idea of American Anglicanism as something new, breakaway, experimental, even radical…. whatever word you like. Back in 2005 (say) if you were talking with American Anglicans, they were very conscious of the novelty of their enterprise, and were keen to talk about the causes and issues motivating them. Today, there’s nothing of the sort. “I’m an Anglican” has exactly the same weight as declaring membership of any other established tradition – Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopalian, whatever. It’s just part of the religious landscape.

Equally fascinating for me is the lack of any obvious sense that things were ever different. If you are an Anglican younger than forty or so, there seems to be little sense of how recent or novel or daring that whole project is, or how and why that split came with the Episcopal church. Or even, dare I say, that such a split or breakaway ever occurred. I base that remark on anecdote and impression, rather than a sophisticated scientific survey, but I think it’s fair. As in other denominations, people don’t seem that interested in how that church or group got there, or indeed what was the passionate point of principle that led to the group being founded in the first place.

As in any denomination, people rarely belong to particular churches because of specific points of theology, or stances on theological issues. They are there because the worship style suits them, as does the general aesthetic. They fit in with other members of the congregation, and they find a good range of programs, especially for children and youth. And congregations are none the worse for that.

This actually gets to a well known theme in the sociology of religion, namely the distinction between a sect and a church. Please, don’t think I am dismissing anyone as a sect in the loose usage of anything weird, cult-like, or “sectarian” in the vulgar sense. According to this typology, a church is an established body with familiar institutions, and members are generally born into this tradition. Few if no distinctive markers put that body at odds with the mainstream, whether social, political or cultural. A sect, by contrast, is a novel or breakaway group, which people join as adults. In tech terms, it’s a start-up that is still a good way from its IPO. It is consciously new, fresh and activist, and it is driven by critical points of principle. In consequence, the group often finds itself at odds with social or cultural norms. Very generally, such sects have a variety of different characteristics that distinguish them from the staider churches, and these might include leadership styles, and the nature of worship.

Over time, sects become established and develop their own institutions, and they become more invested in real estate. People no longer belong to those organizations because they hold a passionate commitment to some basic idea or principle, which is what motivated the sect’s founders. Rather, they belong because that is what they have always done, as did their parents before them. In short, those sects become churches. As the decades go by, these groups may themselves in turn become staid and socially conformist, to the point of inspiring a fresh breakaway.

Sects become churches, which spawn sects, which become churches, which … In theory, the process literally has no end.

I would argue that American Anglicanism represents an excellent example of this typology, and the mainstreaming process it suggests. But what is striking is just how rapidly it has occurred, literally before our eyes, over just a couple of decades. This is largely a phenomenon of the present century. A new generation arises, which knows not Gene Robinson, nor (maybe) has much sense why that incident incited such fury. I throw this question out from pure curiosity: how many younger Anglicans today support or accept the principle of same sex marriage. Just how strong are the political or cultural markers that separate ordinary Anglicans from Episcopalians?

Am I generalizing unfairly? I’d like to hear some views on this.

Full disclosure: I have through the years spoken at various Anglican gatherings, and individual parishes. I also remain a member of ECUSA. Go figure.



This is on a different subject, but it is of great interest. As you may have heard, over the past year there have been some truly incredible scandals involving the alleged theft and resale of ancient papyri, including very early gospel manuscripts. The Museum of the Bible was an alleged (and innocent) purchaser of the materials. A huge amount of information still remains to come out, but there is now (as of yesterday) a fine investigative report in the British Guardian by Charlotte Higgins. Her title:

A Scandal In Oxford: The Curious Case Of The Stolen Gospel. What links an eccentric Oxford classics don, billionaire US evangelicals, and a tiny, missing fragment of an ancient manuscript?

I believe that Ariel Sabar is also preparing a major report in the Atlantic, but I don’t know when that is due to come out.

Do read Higgins’s essay. Hair-raising stuff.

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