What's Ahead for the Fractured Episcopal Church?
United in their aversion to the liberal drift of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, a group of conservatives on Wednesday launched a new North American branch of the Anglican Communion.
Leaders of the new conservative Anglican Church in North America count about 100,000 members, including four dioceses that recently voted to leave the Episcopal Church. In contrast, the existing U.S. and Canadian churches count more than 2.8 million members.
With their increasing acceptance of homosexuality and liberal theology, the U.S. and Canadian branches of Anglicanism have essentially removed themselves from the communion, the conservatives argue.
"Work done today marks five years of labor in attempts to get together," said Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan, who will lead the new church. "We have come together to form a province that could be part of the Anglican world."
But a number of significant hurdles lie ahead for the Common Cause Partnership, as the conservatives' umbrella group is known. The self-declared province will need to:
- Gain recognition from leading Anglican archbishops;
- Win the favor of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the communion's spiritual leader;
- Overcome serious theological discord among its own members.
"It's like starting a new business," said the Rev. Kendall Harmon, a conservative leader from South Carolina who is not formally affiliated with the splinter group. "It's a whole lot harder than people think."
Under Anglican rules, formal recognition of a province usually requires the assent of two-thirds of the communion's 38 primates — or leading archbishops. But Wednesday's unprecedented announcement raises new questions.
Bishop Martyn Minns, a leader in the Common Cause Partnership, estimates that nearly a dozen primates will support its new venture, about half the number it needs for recognition. Gaining the approval of more primates may prove difficult, said the Rev. Ian Douglas, of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
"What happens in one province could set a precedent and come back to their own (province)," said Douglas.
Similar concerns could be raised by the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), a 70-member international body that must also approve the new province, said Douglas, who sits on the council.
In an essay published online, the Rev. Ephraim Radner, a leading North American conservative, argued that these obstacles are nearly insurmountable.
The new province "will probably not be recognized at the primates' meeting as a whole or even by a majority of its members," he said. "Nor will it be recognized at the ACC. Thus it threatens to be yet another wedge in the breakup of the communion."
The new province would also need the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who as the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, binds its 38 worldwide provinces together.
But leading conservatives, including several high-profile African archbishops, have dismissed the archbishop as a relic of the Church of England's colonialist past, which may alienate the 58-year-old prelate.
A spokesperson for Williams issued a short statement on Thursday, saying that "there are clear guidelines set out … detailing the steps necessary for the amendments of existing provincial constitutions and the creation of new provinces."
"In relation to the recent announcement from the Common Cause Partnership in Chicago, the process has not yet begun," the statement concludes.
The Episcopal Church, meanwhile, is determined not to let secessionist conservatives take church property with them. Protracted legal battles will cost each side millions in lawyers' fees.