Quo Vadis Canterbury?

St. Peter, as the legend goes, was fleeing the persecution in Rome when he met Christ going the other way. The Lord asked him, “Quo Vadis?” — where are you going? He might well be asking the members of the Anglican Communion the same question. Their reply would be, “We’re not quite sure, Lord, but we think we’re going in about five different directions right now.”
In other words, the Anglican Communion is splitting up. Like a great ship that has hit an iceberg, the whole thing is breaking into pieces. This summer has seen several different events that have brought the crisis to a climax.
Before looking at those events, it is worth taking a moment to understand the nature of the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Communion is a confederation of national churches that have a shared heritage of worship and tradition from the Church of England. Its geographical makeup reflects the British Empire, as English missionaries went out to the colonies and established churches. However, they did not establish a church with canonical and formal links with the Church of England; instead, each national Anglican church enjoyed independence and autonomy of governance. Because the Anglican Communion is a voluntary confederation of these churches, no one has overall authority over anyone else. Each national province has its own rules, its own hierarchy, and its own particular character.
Added to this is the theological complexity of Anglicanism. Since the Act of Settlement under the reign of Elizabeth I, Anglicans have agreed to disagree about matters of theology. They can be subdivided into three basic groups, with three very different theological perspectives:
  • The Evangelicals are the heirs of the Protestant Reformation. Their perspectives and practices are Protestant.
  • The Anglo-Catholics are the product of the 19th-century Oxford Movement, which sought to return the Anglican Church to her catholic and apostolic roots. Their beliefs and practices are very “catholic.” They use the Roman liturgy, venerate the Blessed Virgin, practice confession, and profess to be “catholic within the Anglican Church.”
  • The Liberals are essentially modernistic. They believe the Church needs to adapt to the age and culture in order to be relevant.
To complicate things further, for historical reasons the three theological groups have geographical territories throughout the communion. Because certain African provinces were evangelized by Evangelical missionaries, they tend to be Evangelical. Certain other provinces were evangelized by Anglo-Catholic missionaries, and they tend to be catholic. So the Anglican Church in Papua New Guinea is very Anglo-Catholic, while the Anglican Church in Nigeria is very Evangelical. The Liberals have control of the old established churches in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States.
These tensions were tolerated for many years. Anglicans prided themselves on the breadth of their church, their tolerance, and the fact that Christians from such a wide range of opinions could find a home in the Anglican Church. This was very pretty wallpaper covering very nasty cracks in the load-bearing walls of Anglicanism. Now the paper is faded and falling. The cracks are apparent, and turn out to be widening every day.
The crisis this summer was brought on by two events — the first crisis within the Church of England itself. Since 1994, the Church of England has ordained women as priests. Anglo-Catholics have always been opposed to this innovation in apostolic orders. For the last 15 years, English Anglo-Catholics were permitted to dissent from the decision, and their parishes were allowed to opt out of women’s ministry. They had their own “Episcopal Visitors” — bishops who came in to minister to dissenting clergy and parishes.
In July, however, the Church of England’s General Synod voted to accept women in the episcopate, while simultaneously ruling out any special provision for those dissenting. To be blunt, the Anglo-Catholics were told, “Women clergy are here to stay. If you don’t like women bishops, there’s the door.”
This prompted a letter from 1,500 Church of England priests threatening to leave. At the same time, the Vatican was pondering how to reply to an interesting proposal from the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC). Claiming to represent 70,000 Anglicans worldwide, the TAC is a confederation of catholic-minded Anglicans who, over the years, have broken away from the Anglican Communion to form their own churches. Last autumn the leaders of the TAC wrote to the Vatican asking to be received into “sacramental communion.” Exactly what they were asking for is unclear, but last month Cardinal Levada sent a response asking the TAC to wait for a more full reply. Many people hope that the Vatican will devise a way toward unity that will not only include members of the TAC but also the disenchanted Anglo-Catholics in England.
If the Anglo-Catholics are furious about the feminist agenda of the liberal Anglican establishment, the Evangelicals are just as mad about the homosexualist agenda. When the Episcopalians consecrated Gene Robinson as the bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, there was open revolt: Bishop Robinson was not only a practicing homosexual, he divorced his wife in order to live with his boyfriend. (This summer the two were “married” with Robinson gushing, “I always wanted to be a June bride!”)
The no-nonsense Evangelicals from the developing world joined forces. Soon, parishes in England and America were voting to pull out of allegiance to their dioceses and form new non-geographical alliances with African bishops with whom they shared Evangelical, Bible-based theology and a rejection of homosexual behavior. Lawsuits started to sprout as wealthy and powerful parishes (and even whole dioceses) tried to pull out of the Episcopal Church and take their property with them.
Which brings us to the second big event this summer — the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference. This conference gathers the world’s Anglican bishops in Canterbury to discuss the needs and mission of the Anglican Communion. But this year the Evangelical bishops mounted a counter-conference in Jerusalem the week before Lambeth. Furthermore, even though Bishop Robinson was not invited, over 200 bishops (nearly a quarter of the world’s Anglican bishops) boycotted Lambeth.
The Archbishop of Canterbury attempted to come up with a “covenant” that everyone would sign, basically agreeing to disagree. The Episcopalians would promise not to consecrate anymore homosexual bishops and stop performing homosexual weddings, while the Evangelical conservatives would agree to stop poaching parishes and dioceses. But the only ones who would agree to such a covenant were the wishy-washy bishops caught in the middle who wouldn’t take these drastic steps anyway.
It’s hard to see the silver lining in this cloud, but there is some good coming out of this year’s Anglican wars. First of all, the battles are taking place because people actually not only believe something passionately, they are prepared to fight for it. The Evangelicals really do believe the Bible, and that God disapproves of homosexual behavior, no matter what Western society says. Anglo-Catholics really do believe in the apostolic church, and that women priests are an impossibility. Likewise, Liberals really do believe that it is God’s will for the church to liberate women and homosexuals. In this relativistic age, the fact that Anglicans believe anything at all is encouraging.
This summer may well go down in Anglican history as the summer of clarity, for the present crisis has helped all three groups to see both themselves and their fellow Anglicans more clearly. Liberals are starting to realize that the Anglo-Catholics and Evangelical conservatives are a very different sort of Christian, and not just because they have a different taste in worship. Likewise, Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics are realizing that they and the Liberals are operating from totally different philosophical and theological assumptions. As one Evangelical bishop said as he came out of yet another “dialogue” with Liberals, “The discussion was like trying to play tennis with someone on an adjacent court.”
This realization has also led to the acceptance of an even starker reality: that the Anglicans’ historic attempt to make room for everyone has reached its end. The elastic has been stretched as far as it will go, and the only thing left is division and formal schism. The senior Church of England bishops of Winchester and Exeter actually proposed that the Lambeth Conference should end with a formal declaration that a split was happening, giving traditional Anglicans a way forward.
Finally, as Anglicans view themselves and their church more clearly, they must also start to see the larger issues more clearly. Liberals, Anglo-Catholics, and Evangelicals are all beginning to acknowledge the mammoth in the chancel: the question of authority in the church. All three groups are asking, “How do we decide these issues? Where is the authority to exercise discipline? Where is a structure or an institution that can bring us to unity of belief and practice?”
While, sadly, most of them will avoid the obvious conclusion that the Catholic Church is the only institution that can offer them that authority, an increasing number will not — and the banks of the Tiber are getting crowded with those who are contemplating the swim.

Image: Fiona Hanson/PA

Rev. Dwight Longenecker


Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is The Romance of Religion published by Thomas Nelson. Check out his website and blog at www.dwightlongenecker.com.

  • Tybourne

    The Anglican Communion has passed the Gamaliel test- the fact that it has lasted this long is proof that it is from God. Yet, exactly what God’s plan is remains to be seen.

    In my opinion, following the teaching of Venerable John Henry Newman in his Catholic years, the Anglican communion is an uncovenanted movement of the Holy Spirit which has its eternal end in heaven and its temporal end in reunion with the Catholic Church.

    Since it seems the Anglicans cannot mend their differences without discarding the teaching of Christ on human sexuality, we should pray that through the intercession of Cardinal Newman, a substantial portion of catholic-minded Anglicans will be able to enter full communion with Holy Mother church, while keeping many of their laudable spiritual and liturgical traditions. In England at least, this would require a change of heart on the part of many British Catholic bishops who remain wedded to a false understanding of Vatican II and have yet to accept the revolutions of Popes John-Paul II and Benedict.

    To my mind, it is no coincidence that moves towards Newman’s beatification are happening at the same time- Newman in taking on the mantle of Christ, has become, like the Lord, another Moses, leading Anglicans out of the comfortable slavery, desert and the confusion and chaos of the Communion into full union with the “one true fold of the Redeemer”.

  • Bender

    Psst. Father, I’m afraid you have it backwards. It was Peter who asked, “Quo Vadis, Domine?” when he saw Jesus heading toward Rome while Peter was fleeing Rome. When Jesus replied that He was going to Rome to be crucified again, Peter realized that he was wrong, so he turned around and headed to Rome toward certain martyrdom.

    The analogy still works though. Only it is the Anglicans responding to Jesus with “good luck with that, then” and continuing to run away, rather than doing the right thing.

  • Ben

    The Anglican Communion had such a wealth of good things behind it and the remnants of a true church within it, and on that basis, it managed to stagger along for a few centuries before it became a total wreck. Now, it has not only hit the rocks, but in getting here it took all sorts of good things with it.

    We might have said a similar malediction over the great schism and the protestant reformation. However, if the church is really going to pass Gamaliel’s test, it needs to find the faithful from among the rubble of all these disasters, bring them back together, and then witness and baptize the rest. The reunion of much of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic was a great step. If only there were some way to really separate the chaff from within the roman folds and conquer the state-sponsored orthodox remnants. Absorbing the good christians from the anglicans may actually help with that, because they have tasted the bitterness of ‘womanpriests’ and homosexualism.

    Perhaps it will take a great world-wide persecution, however, to get the Robinsons and Sprongs to stop pretending to be christian – to strip the UCC and Universalists of their grand titles – and to eliminate the ‘social justice’ and ‘cafeteria’ Catholics – and reforge the church now broken.

  • Augustine

    Hasn’t the relativistic crisis really begun when the Anglican priestly ordination ceased being apostolic?

  • Tito Edwards

    Eucharistic adoration and praying for Mary’s intercession will solve all things.

  • an anglo-catholic priest

    “…we should pray that through the intercession of Cardinal Newman, a substantial portion of catholic-minded Anglicans will be able to enter full communion with Holy Mother church, while keeping many of their laudable spiritual and liturgical traditions.”

    Amen. I can attest that I and many of my brethren among the “catholic-minded” anglican priests (particularly the young priests) have given up on the Anglican ecclesiological experiment, and are looking to Rome. I pray that the Holy Father and the curia will seize this moment, and that we on the Anglican sided will have the humility of submission. And i pray that the souls entrusted to our care will be able to see the gift of Petrine primacy; that we will be enabled to lead them.

    John Henry Newman, pray for us! Dominic Savio, pray for us!

  • The young fogey

    Don’t forget the fourth kind of Anglican, middle-of-the-road/middle-stump/Central Churchmmen, more like the old pre-Tractarian high churchmen than Anglo-Catholics.

    Anglo-Catholics can always go to Rome or the Orthodox, Evangelicals to conservative Presbyterianism and Liberals to any other mainline denomination but the Centrals, quintessential Anglicans, really are left out in the cold.

    English Anglo-Catholicism is Anglo-Papalism so of course to Rome it should go. This can only happen if Pope Benedict goes over the heads of the disloyal liberals in his own organisation (people with more in common theologically with Katherine Jefferts Schori than the magisterium) as part of his Catholic restoration of his church.

    Andrew Burnham and the other Romeward people in the Church of England are not asking for recognition of orders – of course the clergy would be reordained – but ‘to bring our folk with us’ meaning keeping them together as parishes much like Polish, Italian etc. ‘national’ RC parishes in the US founded for immigrants. This is to keep the wonderful Anglo-Catholic culture – learned, arty and wry with a sense of fun and never tolerant of heresy but always of people’s failings.

    Authority indeed. As I’ve been saying for some time this all comes down to church infallibility: Roman Catholics and Orthodox believe in it; Protestants don’t, which means Catholics believe the bishops can’t change certain things (such as ordaining women or having gay weddings) whilst Protestants can discard precedent and change whatever they want.

  • Michael Healy, Jr.

    Good article, but there seems to be an error:

    The Traditional Anglican Communion claims to have 400,000 members, not 70,000.


  • Kevin Tracy

    This is by far the best analysis I’ve read this summer of the Anglican Schism. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

    It’s amazing the Anglican Communion lasted as long as it did.

  • Chris Garton-Zavesky

    As a former Anglican, one who became convinced of the truth of the Catholic Faith, I look forward to welcoming those from Anglicanism’s latest meat-cleaver compromise, as it will mark another nail in the coffin of the Henrician Empire.

  • Dave

    Three comments,if you please Father:

    1.Your personal commentary on Bishop Robinson’s divorce lead the unknowing reader to a conclusion that is far from the truth.

    2.Your observation about the “crowds of people” on the “banks of the Tiber” contemplating going over to Rome is a dream that is not reflected in reality. While I agree that Anglicanism does indeed have it’s problems, most Anglicans do not fancy trading Anglican heresy for Papal-inspired Roman heresy.

    3.I find the odd that Cardinal John Henry Newman would be brought up[smiley=think], given the current situation surrounding him. Seems Rome wants his remains back, but not the remains of his same-sex partner buried along with him (as per Cardinal Newmans strictly written wishes). Magisterial Hypocricy to the nth degree.