By George Clifford
Until two weeks ago, I strongly advocated the Anglican Communion refusing to establish a new province in North America and mandating that provinces cease violating provincial boundaries by conducting ministries or establishing congregations within the Episcopal Church’s jurisdiction.
Then I read that the Episcopal Church had spent in excess of $1.9 million in 2008 on lawsuits connected to the departure of parishes and dioceses from this Church. Daily I read about critical needs for healthcare, food, sanitation, and shelter in the United States and abroad. I see the spiritual illness and death that afflict so many. I remember that Anglicans have wisely never claimed to be the only branch of the Christian Church.
I started to wonder, Was I wrong? Why not another North American province?
Geographic boundaries, I realized, are not as sacrosanct as we who value tradition might wish they were. Within the Anglican Communion, geography has historically defined provinces and dioceses. The same is true of Anglican parishes in England, although not in most other provinces. Yet nowhere in Scripture can one find a God-given plan for the organization of parishes, dioceses, and provinces. Indeed, the whole concept of provinces seems extra-biblical. The geographic model for parishes and dioceses emerged naturally because of physical proximity, administrative practicality, and political identity.
Modern transport has invalidated the first of those three reasons why the Church adopted geographic boundaries to define parishes, dioceses, and provinces, i.e., so people could conveniently participate. The disestablishment of the Church, which characterizes most of the Anglican Communion, voided the second reason for geographic boundaries. The internet and development of online communities are diminishing the importance of political boundaries for defining ecclesial identity. All of these changes bring the Church closer to becoming more fully a seamless community of God's people.
The reality, as much as I or anyone else may not like it, is that geographical boundaries are no longer functionally definitive of Episcopalian identity. Four dioceses have already voted to disassociate themselves from the Episcopal Church and to associate with another Province. At least several dozen parishes have done the same. Numerous individuals have more quietly departed, often for a congregation that advertises itself as “Anglican.” In other words, the geographic model is irretrievably broken in the United States. Those who have left believe the divisions that were the catalyst for their move are too deep, too significant to permit dissidents to continue their Christian journeys within the Episcopal Church. One can no more coerce ecclesial unity than marital unity. Even as the Episcopal Church rightly recognizes its understanding of the Bible, theology, and ethics must change with the continuing unfolding of knowledge and moving of the Spirit, so should the Church be open to revising its thinking about ecclesial structures and polity.
A non-geographic model actually offers some advantages. In England, many communicants ignore parish boundaries to attend a parish that has the style of churchmanship or offers the programs the communicant desires. Latin American dioceses, for various reasons, have chosen to affiliate with the Episcopal Church. In the United States, parishes openly “compete” with one another, and with congregations of other Christian Churches, to attract communicants. This competition promotes quality programming, can better ministers to individual needs, and partially explains why Christianity flourishes more strongly in the U.S. than in England. Admittedly, like most things, ecclesial competition can have negative dimensions including promotion of ecclesial consumerism and clerical careerism at the expense of fidelity to the gospel.
Acknowledging the reality of multiple Anglican bodies within the geographic boundaries of the Episcopal Church would introduce refreshing notes of honesty and grace into the present turbulent controversy. This step might preserve Anglican unity by abandoning the dishonest hubris of insisting that the Episcopal Church is the only Anglican presence in the United States. Recognition of another Anglican province could provide an option for individuals, parishes, and dioceses to transfer, even as clergy now transfer from one province to another. A minority who wish to remain in the Episcopal Church but are part of a parish that wishes to transfer could establish a new parish or affiliate with an existing parish. Similarly, those in a diocese who wish who remain in the Episcopal Church after the diocese voted to realign could affiliate with an adjoining diocese that extends its borders or reconstitute the disassociated diocese.
My prognostication is that regardless of what the Episcopal Church may think or do, formal recognition by the Anglican Communion of a new province, perhaps co-terminus with the Episcopal Church or also including Canada, is inevitable. Alternatively, if that does not happen, then the Anglican Communion will persist in a state of denial, formally fracture, or authorize provinces to engage in extra-provincial ministries in the United States and perhaps elsewhere. Any new (or adapted) structure will launch with a brief surge, quickly plateau, and then linger, slowly losing relevance and impact. Those who wish to disengage from the Episcopal Church are wrong: gender does not determine suitability for ordination; gender orientation does not determine eligibility for receiving God's blessing of a faithful, monogamous relationship; etc. Truth, not error, will prevail.
Who – other than Anglicans (and only a minority of us) – cares about the structure of the Anglican Communion? Who else cares if the Episcopal Church is the sole Anglican body in the United States or if other provinces also function in the States? I honestly cannot think of any non-Anglicans who might care. Consequently, I recognized that my fighting about Anglican jurisdictional boundaries is a red herring that distracts me (and the larger Church) from the much more difficult task of the Church’s real mission, i.e., engaging in creative, life-transforming ministry. For the most part, whether a Christian belongs to the Episcopal Church, a different Anglican province, or another Church is relatively unimportant when millions are dying of physical needs and spiritual hunger. We must again move forward and cease waging an already-decided, rear-guard action.
The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.