This op-ed is in response to the news of ACNA’s consecration of a bishop for missionary work in the United Kingdom and Europe
By Dan Ennis
Dear Brothers and Sisters in the United Kingdom,
Britons, we’re with you. Consider the news that GAFCON, an aggrieved alliance of former Episcopalians and disaffected Anglicans, has dispatched a “missionary bishop” to the British Isles. This missionary bishop is intended “to respond to the voice of faithful Anglicans in some parts of the Global North who are in need of biblically faithful episcopal leadership.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, who by implication has been accused of failing to provide Britons with that “Biblically faithful episcopal leadership,” is not amused:
The idea of a “missionary bishop” who was not a Church of England appointment, would be a cross-border intervention and, in the absence of a Royal Mandate, would carry no weight in the Church of England.
Thus the Church of England (and the Scottish Episcopal Church, recently chastened by that selfsame GAFCON) has entered the first stages of a process familiar to American Episcopalians. Whether you call them traditionalist, fundamentalist, or orthodox, disaffected Anglicans act predictably when they break away. Disgusted with the local Anglican Communion presence (TEC in the U.S.), they erect alternative pseudo-Anglican structures. In the United Kingdom, this missionary bishop will reach out to those who desire Anglican-style worship, but who seek to to exclude homosexuals from church life, such exclusion being the ne plus ultra of a certain breed of the “Biblically faithful.”
Episcopalians in the United States are familiar with the phenomenon of “missionary bishops,” as GAFCON and other Anglican-adjacent organizations have been lobbing prelates into North America for more than a decade. We offer our friends in the United Kingdom three hints as they prepare for life with a missionary bishop underfoot:
Missionary bishops are touchy about invitations and membership
Lots of faith organizations employ the title of bishop. Methodists have bishops. Mormons have bishops. UFO worshippers have bishops. GAFCON bishops, however, want the world to know they are official, on-the-level, capital-A Anglican bishops. They are repelled by inclusiveness of the Anglican Communion, but they crave inclusion. For example, getting invited to a meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury is a big deal for a breakaway GAFCON bishop. Imagine how disappointing it must be when that the same Archbishop of Canterbury declares that your particular breakaway group is not part of the Anglican Communion. You Britons should expect the new missionary bishop not only to loudly lobby for invitations to Lambeth, but also to ostentatiously fling any such invitations into the Thames. This thirst for recognition leads fantasies of church polity, in which breakaway Anglican bishops insist they are authentically Anglican, the evidence being that they sometimes appear in photos beside bona fide Anglican bishops. One is reminded of the great theologian Groucho Marx, who declared that he would not want to be a member of a club that would admit him. In the case of your missionary bishop, expect him to simultaneously insist he’s a card-carry member of the Anglican Communion, but also to cast doubt on the integrity of any communion that includes the currently apostate Church of England.
Where there is one missionary bishop, others will follow
Whenever three breakaway Anglicans gather in His name, a consecration is likely to result. Or at least that seems to be the case, judging from the enthusiasm with which former Episcopal priests in the United States love to don the purple for breakaway Anglican organizations. If our experience in the US is any guide, you folks in the UK should prepare for your friendly neighborhood missionary bishop to be joined by a bevy of additional bishops from the various factions of the ever-splintering “Continuing Anglican” movement. The US is swarming with bishops from the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA), Province de l’Eglise Anglicane au Rwanda (PEARUSA), the Anglican Communion in North America (ACNA), the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), the Federation of Anglican Churches in the Americas (FACA), other Anglican-ish organizations.These groups merge and split on occasion, but despite their doctrinal feuds they all seem to agree that the ratio of lay people to bishops should be as close to 1:1 as possible. It may be that they are worried about the moral character of their laity — otherwise why so many shepherds for so few sheep?
Missionary bishops minister to you whether you like it or not
Like the spurned woman in the film Fatal Attraction, a GAFCON bishop will not be ignored. Britons might be forgiven in assuming that their new missionary bishop will have his hands full running his missionary diocese. Unfortunately for the CofE, breakaway Anglican churches tend to shrink, leaving breakaway Anglican bishops with idle hands. It won’t take long for your missionary bishop to realize that ginning up outrage about the Church of England is good advertising for GAFCON. Therefore, expect the missionary bishop to be an expert in concern trolling. He will issue jeremiads, edicts, and condemnations of CofE so exhausting that were he still among us a shaken G.K. Chesterton would have to steady himself on the furniture. Over here in the States, when The Episcopal Church sneezes, ACNA clergy rush to the pulpit to announce it’s imminent death. You Britons should expect your new missionary bishop to follow the CofE with obsessive attention, offering helpful (if occasionally apocalyptic) advice along the way.
In the end, you Brits will be fine. Remember the “keep calm carry on” graphic that you loosed upon the world? The meme may be played out, but the sentiment holds. If he is like his American GAFCON counterparts, your missionary bishop will rapidly fade from your line of sight. After an initial strident splashing ashore on the sceptered isle — breakaway bishops, like Trollope’s Bishop Proudie, are “prepared to take a conspicuous part in all theological affairs” — his real influence will be confined to a modest sect. During missionary bishop’s consecration, the Archbishop of Nigeria called upon the newly-elevated cleric to “correct, rebuke, and encourage.” If indeed any corrections, rebukes, or encouragements are generated, they will resound primarily in the Anglican blogosphere.
In the United States, GAFCON bishops have provided Christians unlikely to be reconciled to TEC a church home and an attractive theological worldview. Sure, occasionally an American GAFCON bishop will accuse TEC of being aligned with “the spiritual forces of evil,” but that’s just how they talk. In the absence of the legal action that has generated so much bad blood in the US, Britons may find that a network of breakaway Anglican churches in the UK will have a positive effect on the spiritual lives of CofE loyalists. Your synods will still be venues for lively debate and a range of perspectives, but they will not longer be conducted in an atmosphere of walkouts, boycotts, and hysteria, derailed by GAFCON’s dual emphasis on eschatology and sex. For Anglicans in the Global North (including our kin in Canada), the appearance of a GAFCON bishop is a welcome sign that one’s church is becoming uncomfortably, scandalously, and even radically inclusive.
Dan Ennis and your friends in the Episcopal Church
Dan Ennis is a member of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Conway, SC.