DIVORCE IN THE ANGLICAN FAMILY: A Look Back at the Break-Up

In September 2019, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, shared some reflections with clergy and laity in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles on the state of the Anglican Communion.

“I am saying ‘Anglican family’ rather than ‘Anglican Communion’ because we’re a very fractured communion but we’re still family – like so many families, quarreling till the cows come home,” he said…. There is uncertainty, division, a measure of suspicion still and a sense that our conventional and inherited ways of being Anglicans together across the world have come under almost unmanageable strain.”

Archbishop Williams’s switch from “communion” to “family” reminded me of something I had written fifteen years ago, titled “The Divorce,” because while “quarreling until the cows come home” is a nice sentiment, it is not the way many families end up. Fifteen years on, real repentance and reconciliation seem as far away as ever.

So at the risk of reviving unhappy quarrels around the supper table, here it is:

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Let’s face it: the Anglican Communion is breaking up. Statements about “breaking ties,” “impaired communion,” and “loose federation” are commonplace since the election and consecration of Gene Robinson last year.[*] Call it what you will, Anglicans throughout the world are going through a divorce.

Divorce is a painful and contentious reality and has been so since time immemorial. God put the prophet Hosea through a divorce in order that his experience might testify to the overwhelming consequences of unfaithfulness to God’s covenant. Current wisdom holds that it takes two to make a marital tangle, but it is also true that it takes one party to will a divorce. The prophet’s wife Gomer’s reported attitude – “I will go after my lovers,” reveals another essential feature of divorce – willfulness. Indeed one party’s unfaithfulness often causes the other to separate.

Unfaithfulness and willfulness are at work in the current break-up of the Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church – call her Gomer – has been unfaithful to the historic and biblical faith.[†] Her husband, represented by the bishops at Lambeth and the Primates, has repeatedly exhorted her to turn back – but she will have her way and follow her lovers. And she will not repent. A solid wall of defense has been thrown up by the Episcopal establishment over the past twelve months. The Presiding Bishop has called for all manner of dialogue, but repentance and reversal are clearly off the table.

Another thing about divorce: while the parents may indulge in denial, the children always suffer. Hosea’s children took on shameful names, “Unloved” and “Not My People”; and no doubt their childhood was affected by the break-up. The Episcopal Church is a family of dioceses, parishes and individuals. Despite assurances from on high that all is well, many have become ashamed to call themselves Episcopalians; some have walked away from the church of their upbringing or choice; some have withheld their tithes; some have set up alternative structures looking to the day of divorce.

Divorce battles usually focus on salvaging reputation and property. As to the former, even in no-fault societies, people know that the marriage broke up because Father was having an affair, or because Mother left home in mid-life to find herself. And denial is the bedmate of shame. The shamed partner will react by denying that there is a problem, or will even try to turn the tables and blame the innocent party.

I cannot help but think that shame and denial are at work in the defenses of the Gene Robinson affair. Why don’t church liberals act liberally and say something like this: “OK, we admit our actions are a radical innovation from the biblical and historical tradition of the Christian Church. We believe God is doing a new thing, but we acknowledge that many Episcopalians don’t see it that way and in fact can’t live with it. So if you must, take your churches and go your way. May God bring us back together in time.”

But they don’t say that. They have stonewalled every attempt that would give true autonomy to the consciences of traditional Episcopalians. They’ve patronized us, saying “We’ll give you our form of deputed oversight – take it or leave it.” And as for disputes about property, they respond as if they are the offended party: “Go if you wish,” they say, “but leave the family heirlooms behind or we’ll see you in court.”

Divorce in one house is bad enough, but the divorce we are facing is international in scope. The current Eames Commission may struggle to find a “middle way” around the crisis, but it won’t succeed because the true Anglican via media has always held that there are biblical essentials that cannot be tampered with. And that is exactly what the Episcopal Church has done. This simple truth may evade the loftiest theologians and cleverest canon lawyers, but it is transparent to the vast number of Anglicans worldwide.

In Africa, for instance. On 23rd August, the Archbishop of Uganda [Henry Orombi] confirmed that parishes formerly in the Diocese of Los Angeles have been admitted to the Province of Uganda (Diocese of Luweero). The Presiding Bishop’s [Frank Griswold] reaction was shock, shock, that any bishop would dare cross territorial boundaries.

This same man signed a Primates’ Statement in October 2003, which says: “If [the consecration of Gene Robinson] proceeds… this will tear the fabric of our Communion at its deepest level and may lead to further division on this and further issue.” Two weeks later he proceeded to officiate at Robinson’s consecration. Now the consequences forewarned are coming upon him, and he does not like it. Radical adjustments to polity are required when a church deviates radically from the historic Christian faith.

The Anglican Communion is breaking up. Christ promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church, but not any particular branch of it. Will this branch ever be reconciled and reconstituted? I know of several miraculous remarriages of divorced spouses, but they have always occurred when one partner has been converted and come back on bended knee. Hosea bought his wayward wife back as a sign of God’s grace in the face of Israel’s stubbornness. Did she ever turn to love him and not her Baals? We don’t know.

So it is with the Anglican Gomers of North America: maybe in the mercy of God a remnant will turn back before this crisis is over. But it is also possible that God will raise up a new generation of Anglicans in North America. Maybe they will be black immigrants, maybe they will be (gasp!) fundamentalists who love episcopacy and liturgy. And it may be that this new group of Anglicans God will call “sons of the living God” (Hosea 1:10).

Notes:

[*] Robinson married his wife in 1972 and had two daughters with her. In 1986, he “came out” as gay and divorced his wife. In 1988 he began a relationship with Mark Andrew. They were married in 2008 and divorced in 2014.

[†] I am not going to argue this point. Robert Gagnon (The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 2001) has demonstrated irrefutably that gay ordination and unions are contrary to Scripture. I and many others have argued repeatedly that these innovations constitute a breach of catholic doctrine and Anglican essentials. The issue now facing Anglicans is not a matter of biblical interpretation or moral theology but ecclesiology.

Photo: Grey Divorce (Flickr Commons)