The weekend decision by seven parishes in the Episcopal Church of the United States to affiliate with the Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria has sent shock waves throughout the worldwide Anglican communion, and so it should.
While a rebellion by seven parishes in a total Episcopal Church of over 7,000 congregations seems small, the seven include two of the largest and most influential churches in the USA.
One of the breakaway churches is The Falls Church in Virginia, just outside Washington. The church was established before the American War of Independence and has long been the chosen church of influential members of Presidential administrations, congress members and the Washington establishment.
The columnist Fred Barnes, an active member of The Falls congregation, said on Fox News last night he and his family voted for the disaffiliation because the Episcopal Church had “departed from basic scriptural teachings and beliefs”.
Indeed, his description of the church reminded me of that great line from “Yes Prime Minister” when Jim Hackett was considering the appointment of Bishop. When Bernard said “one candidate actually believes in God” the Prime Minister’s response was one of consternation. And the believer was chosen.
The stated reason for the seven Virginia parishes disaffiliating is the Episcopal Church’s acceptance of practising homos-xuals in its clergy, and the consecration of the openly gay Gene Robertson as Bishop of New Hampshire in particular. But the divisions are much deeper – and Fred Barnes was close to the mark in his assessment.
The Archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, like most African Bishops, has an absolute intolerance of homos-xuality among the laity, let alone among priests and bishops. The Archbishop of Uganda has been no less virulent in his condemnation, and several Episcopal congregations have now affiliated with his Diocese.
The divisions in the Anglican Church in Australia – the Episcopal Church is the USA component of the world wide Anglican communion – are clearly on the verge of opening up as well.
Recently the pro-woman-bishops Anglican Archbishop of Perth, Roger Herft, launched a stinging attack on the powerful, but conservative Sydney Diocese, which won’t even ordain women as priests, let alone bishops.
But an even more telling attack came from one of Sydney’s senior clergy, Dr Keith Mascord, who accused the Diocese of behaving “more like a cult than a church”, stifling healthy and robust debate and making a disturbing shift towards greater control over and censorship of thought.
Dr Mascord has impeccable “evangelical” credentials and for ten years lectured at Moore College, owned by Sydney Diocese, the largest theological training college in Australia.
Perhaps fortunately for him, he is about to move on to a non-diocesan position as National Chaplain with Mission Australia!
If, or when, the Anglican Church in Australia approves women bishops, then what happened in Virginia last weekend will be repeated many times over in Australia – but this time the “affiliation” is likely to be with Archbishop of Sydney, not that of Nigeria or Uganda.