Religions that survive millennia tend to be adaptable to new circumstances. After all, if you can’t adapt to meet a conquered culture halfway, then religious conversions tend to be half-hearted at best, and as cultural norms change over the centuries, any religion that can’t similarly change is slowly abandoned in favor religions that can. I’ve often wondered if Christianity in toto was in the midst of a great period of change, or whether it was about to collapse under the weight of it’s own inflexibility. It’s for this reason that I’ve been following the growing chasm between the liberals and the conservatives within the Anglican Communion over the elevation of practicing homosexuals (specifically Gene Robinson of New Hampshire) to be bishops. The latest out of Canterbury is that the Communion has decided to work toward a covenant that would develop both short- and long-term solutions to the impasse between Anglican liberals and conservatives.
I’d heard that the growing split was largely over whether gay men could be Bishops, but apparently there is more to it than that. Many of the conservatives initially had problems with the Communion permitting women priests starting in 1998, so the elevation of Robinson by vote within his Diocese in 2003 was simply one more straw for many of the conservative Anglican churches and Dioceses. And the argument is partly over whether the Bible permits same-sex marriage, gay clergy, or even women clergy. But that’s not all. The argument is also over money and property.
Dozens of parishes have left the Episcopal Church and moved under the authority of foreign bishops, and some have tried to keep their property and buildings, worth millions of dollars. Some have lost, but others have won.
The control over money and church property is also not the only issue. The final issue (that I’ve come across, anyway) is fundamental to the current construction of the Anglican Communion – whether the Archbishop of Canterbury has the temporal authority and right to force the conservative churches to stay within the Communion or, as the conservatives would prefer, arbitrarily force Bishop Robinson to step down. In other words, is the Archbishop of Canterbury roughly equivalent in power to the Pope, or is he merely the elected organizer of all his peers. Historically, the answer has been that the Archbishop was not a Pope-light figure, but rather that he’s usually had the authority to determine who was, and was not, part of the Communion. I hope that the conservatives realize that, if their indirect campaign to give the Archbishop of Canterbury Pope-light power turns successful, that they might find themselves tossed out in favor of the liberals in the UK and North America. Be careful what you wish for….
The Episcopal Church in the U.S. is one of the most liberal Christian churches I know of, and along with the Anglicans of the UK, the two seem well prepared to lead the Anglican Communion forward and keep it relevant to the modern world. Other Christian sects (such as the fundamentalist Southern Baptists and evolution-denying Calvary Baptists) seem to be hell-bent on making themselves irrelevant to the modern world, and while the jury is still out on the Roman Catholics, their choice of Pope Benedict XVI doesn’t exactly invoke great confidence that the Catholic Church is prepared to adapt to the future.
The Anglican Communion’s slow-motion schism will continue to be very interesting to watch. With luck, it won’t get too much more bitter than it has already become. At least this time there aren’t any threats of beheading or imprisonment for heresy, blasphemy, or apostasy. Not yet, anyway.