By Cole Hartin
This past January, my family and I moved from the cool fog of New Brunswick, Canada, to the balmy pines of East Texas. This also meant a transition from service in the Anglican Church of Canada to the Episcopal Church. These two provinces of the Anglican Communion are remarkably similar for the most part, but there are some crucial differences.
One of the cultural differences that has struck me is the presence of Anglican Church in North America congregations throughout the large and sprawling Episcopal Diocese of Texas. Since ACNA did not really have a presence within hundreds of kilometers of where I was serving in Canada, I did not think much about the problem of competing Anglicanisms except as theoretical. But now that I am here, I am starting to think about this problem of our divided churches in more concrete ways. And to that end — as an exercise in thinking out loud — I want to suggest a number of theses about the ACNA and Episcopal schism that might be stating the obvious. But stating the obvious in this case — I pray — might be a witness to the truth.
So here are my theses:
- Both TEC and ACNA are diminished churches because of the schism.
No one’s hands are clean and no one has the higher ground — at least on the ecclesial level. That the founding churches of the ACNA felt pressed to separate from TEC is a failure of both bodies. Both lacked the will and imagination to bear witness to Christ together.
TEC has pandered to the worst of liberalism for decades, and this came to a head with an abandonment Christian sexual ethics in favor of the values of Hollywood. As far as I can tell, TEC has sided with those in power once again, with views on marriage and family that would be lauded in centers of power in America — from elite colleges to the hubs for the most fashionable entertainment.
On the other hand, the ACNA — in an effort to preserve pure Christian teaching — has left many queer Christians out in the cold. Moreover, the rigorist separation from swaths of siblings — the wheat and the tares together — is just as reprehensible as the values from which they are trying to flee.
No one has done right, but all of us like sheep have gone astray.
- The only genuinely Christian teleology for the two churches is reconciliation and reunification.
I understand that this may not be on the horizon of many of our minds. But, keeping in view Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17 and the reality that separation from individual sisters and brothers in Christ is purgative, “so that their souls might be saved in the day of the Lord,” this means that reunification in Christ ought to be the goal for the ACNA and TEC. This must always be on the table. And we cannot have a Christian vision of the future unless it includes some kind of movement toward wholeness.
More practically — unless some kind of scheme for reintegration is on the horizon as churches plan and discern for the future, we have lost the plot.
- Time is of the essence.
The longer TEC and ACNA wait for formal, institutional mutual repentance and recognition, the more difficult it will become. This is a purely pragmatic reality. Each church will continue to develop its own institutional structures, be solidified in their own liturgical traditions, and struggle with decline.
This latter point is especially important. While the decline narrative within TEC is ubiquitous, post-pandemic numbers show that ACNA is facing the same issues, if to a different degree. There are no winners here. Putting off conversations about how churches can work toward common ground is only to delay the inevitable, even if those conversations begin as ecumenical dialogues.
- We have all the time of in the world.
I must also point out that God does God’s work in God’s time. The work of reconciliation is not linear, and through fits and starts it will continue to go on. It took Lutherans and Roman Catholics almost 500 years to converge on the doctrine of justification. It may take 500 years for Anglican convergence in North America. Likely, it will at least take the retirement of the shell-shocked leaders in both churches who still bear the wounds of the initial split.
- Reconciliation is already happening at the grassroots; this ought to be recognized and celebrated.
While the formal teaching of Christian churches is extremely important, what churches actually do can be equally as instructive.
While TEC and ACNA are out of communion, at the grassroot level, Episcopalians and other North American Anglicans are sharing in mission and perhaps even communion across differences. The cease-fire in places like Duke and Nashotah House offer salutary examples, but so does the complex communion that both churches share with provinces in parts of Africa and Asia. What does it mean when Episcopalians and Anglicans living in the same city are not in communion, if when they travel to Egypt or Kenya they both receive the sacrament together?
That clergy and laity pray together, serve together, and perhaps even share the Eucharist together calls for some recognition.
The church in North America faces strong cultural headwinds. Increasing secularization and generational trends of disaffiliation from Christian churches mean that the future is challenging. This is to say nothing about the internal rot that is present in all churches. This is manifested in many ways, from clerical abuse to unsound teaching. Anglicanism is not immune to any of this, and the scandal of division weakens rather than strengthens Christ’s Church as whole. As TEC and ACNA plot their future, imagining a way to walk together is an opportunity to witness to the gospel.