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Anglican Agonies

What happens when one church is really three?
by Father Dwight Longenecker | Source:


This summer the Anglican church is in meltdown. Two issues have revealed the deeper fault lines in the foundations of Anglicanism, and these faults are producing the Anglican Communion’s most severe earthquake ever. The two issues are homosexuality and the role of women in the church. The fault lines are the question of Anglican identity and authority in the church.



To understand the fissures that are widening within Anglicanism, it’s necessary to understand the nature of the Anglican church. Anglicans have always prided themselves on being an inclusive, broad church. There are three basic groups of priests within Anglicanism: evangelical, liberal and Anglo-Catholic. 

The evangelical is Protestant in his theology, liturgy and understanding of the church. He preaches from the Bible, celebrates holy communion once a month, tolerates ritual and sacraments and robes for worship as part of the tradition, but can do without them. For the evangelical, the personal experience of Christ is the main thing. 

The liberal prides himself on being intellectual, open minded, tolerant and concerned not with rules, regulations and dogma, but with the “real” issues of peace and justice, love and working with the poor. The liberal values science and learning and believes it is vital to reconcile an ancient religion’s medieval trappings with the modern world.

The Anglo-Catholic believes the Anglican church is part of the ancient Catholic Church. He likes to think that the Anglicans are equal players with the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox on the world stage. He looks very Catholic. He uses the Catholic liturgy, has devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary, goes on retreats and pilgrimages, hears confessions and says “Mass” every day.

These three groups have traditionally existed together in an uneasy alliance. Essentially, they have all three agreed to co-exist with unspoken but understood boundary markers between them. Everybody understood that Holy Trinity parish was evangelical, for example, and a bishop would never appoint an Anglo-Catholic as its parish priest. Everybody understood that this or that diocese was “high church,” and it became a haven for Anglo-Catholics. Everybody understood that in certain parishes and the real positions of power in the universities, cathedrals and bishops’ palaces were occupied either by liberals or those who would work harmoniously with the liberals.

Now all of that is about to be shattered.

The liberals in England, Canada and the United States have allowed practicing homosexuals to be ordained and made bishops. They have allowed homosexual “marriage” and the evangelicals won’t stand for it.

Furthermore, the evangelicals are not dominated by well-mannered English country vicars who hate extremism and have learned how to compromise: The majority of evangelical Anglicans are from the developing world. Their faith was forged in martyrdom and the battle against paganism, animism and Islam. They have fought in the past, and they are willing to fight for the future. 

This month, all the world’s Anglican bishops met in England for the Lambeth Conference, a gathering every 10 years. Last month, evangelical bishops from around the world met in Jerusalem for their own conference and formed a new group within the Anglican communion called Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. Shrewdly, they are not threatening to pull out and form a new church. Instead, they promise to stay within Anglicanism and establish a new network of alliances between evangelical Anglicans worldwide. This is, in effect, an alternative “church within a church,” and besides being a thorn in the side of the liberal establishment, it promises to be far more disruptive than an outright schism.

Meanwhile, the Anglo-Catholics in England (who value apostolic succession and a strong relationship to Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy) are still against women priests, and they are hopping mad about the Church of England’s plans to join other provinces in the Anglican communion by consecrating women as bishops.

The Anglo-Catholics in England have formed their own pressure group and are threatening to pull out of the Church of England and seek union with the Catholic Church if women are made bishops. They, too, want a church within a church. They want either chosen dioceses or a non-geographical province permanently established where there will be no female priests or bishops. They also plan for this traditionalist Anglo-Catholic structure to be established globally.

If both of these plans go ahead, we will see the breakdown of the Anglican Church as she has always existed.

The ancient structure of geographical parishes and dioceses will disintegrate as evangelical parishes and priests ally themselves with a bishop of their choice, and Anglo-Catholics have their own parishes, dioceses and a province which is a no-go area for female clergy. Bishops will not be welcome in parishes within their dioceses. It is difficult to see how the problem can be resolved in any conventional way. The evangelicals are not willing to compromise over homosexuality. The Anglo-Catholics are not willing to compromise over women clergy. The liberals (who are promoting both divisive causes) are not willing to budge over issues they see as crucial to justice and peace.

Beneath these particular quarrels are two deeper problems within Anglicanism, and these problems shed light on the deeper problems within every ecclesial body derived from the Protestant Reformation.

The first problem is one of identity. Just what is Anglicanism? Before it went global, Anglicanism was the Church of England, with all its genteel and lovely customs. The Anglican Communion was the Church of England transplanted. 

Things have moved on. Now, most Anglicans live in Africa. Anglicanism is uncertain about itself. Is it English or African? Is it Protestant or Catholic? Is it essentially liberal? It used to be that no one much cared. Now the Anglicans in all three groups are entrenched and are increasingly adamant about their own stance — and are prepared to fight the other two sides for the heart of their church. 

The second foundational problem is the one of church authority. When I was an Anglican priest, thinking through the problem of women’s ordination, I listened to both sides. They both had their experts. They both had arguments from Scripture. They both had arguments from tradition. They both were made up of prayerful, sincere people who believed they were being led by the Holy Spirit. How to decide? 

This question led me to realize that Christians need an external authority structure to make the final call, and of course, that question led me to the banks of the Tiber.

As Catholics, it is important to understand the problems facing Anglicanism because the underlying fault lines can expand into our own church if we are not careful. The Catholic Church is also struggling to cope with an expanding and powerful population in the developing world. We also struggle to reconcile the demands of the modern world with an ancient faith. We also struggle with the hot button issues of women’s ministry and a fast-changing sexual morality. 

The key weapons to cope with these challenges is a strong Catholic identity which is determined, not by ethnic customs or national cultural assumptions, but by a vigorous, firm orthodox theology. This clear identity will be further strengthened by the visible signs of orthodoxy through beautiful, clearly Catholic worship and prayer.

Finally, we face the challenges by building on the rock that is the papacy. With a strong, intelligent and compassionate Pope, we can give the firm answers that are needed to unify our lives, our families, our churches and our nation.

Father Dwight Longenecker is chaplain to St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina.  He also serves on the staff  of St. Mary’s Church.  

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Published by: loida briones
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
that isn`t true, We are sure in God, in latin america the evangelical churches are growing each day more, what happen whith the catholics?

Published by: loida briones
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
that isn`t true, We are sure in God, in latin america the evangelical churches are growing each day more, what happen whith the catholics?

Published by: loida briones
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
that isn`t true, We are sure in God, in latin america the evangelical churches are growing each day more, what happen whith the catholics?

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