Gay marriage divides Anglican Communion

In establishing a new church jurisdiction called the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter back in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI was adding something new to a chapter in Anglican history called “going over to Rome” — British slang for joining the Roman Catholic Church.

Last November, that particular chapter grew longer again. Pope Francis named Msgr. Steven J. Lopes, an American official in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as the first bishop of the ordinariate — a diocese-like ecclesiastical structure for former Anglicans in the United States who want to be Roman Catholics while retaining elements of Anglican worship.

Now, the archbishops of the worldwide Anglican Communion have made their own addition to the chapter — or at least one not unrelated to it. Meeting at the invitation of Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, they suspended the U.S. Episcopal Church — the Anglican Communion’s American branch — from active participation in the communion for three years while issuing a statement strongly opposing same-sex marriage.

The disciplinary action was a response to the Episcopal Church’s general convention last summer authorizing Episcopal priests to preside at gay weddings.

The archbishops’ move appeared intended to deliver a wrist slap to the Episcopal Church while placating traditionalists and preserving the Anglican Communion. Whether it will succeed in any of those things, and with what results, has yet to be seen. Among other things, there could be more going over to Rome. Or there could be fewer.

‘Fundamental departure’

The Anglican Communion is a loose grouping of 38 essentially independent churches claiming 85 million members in 165 countries. The Archbishop of Canterbury has symbolic primacy but little real authority.

The disciplinary action against the U.S. Episcopal Church was said to have been supported by about two-thirds of the archbishops attending the closed meeting in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.

In a statement citing the American church’s approval of gay marriage, the group called it “a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our provinces on the doctrine of marriage.”

“The traditional doctrine of the Church in view of the teaching of Scripture upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union,” the statement said.

It added that the majority of those in attendance “reaffirm this teaching ... Such actions [as that by the Episcopal Church] impair our communion and create a deeper mistrust between us.”

The sanctions imposed on the U.S. body exclude it from participating in the Anglican Communion’s decision-making process “on issues of doctrine or polity” or representing Anglicanism in ecumenical and interfaith groups. It also said the Archbishop of Canterbury would establish a “task group” aimed at “restoration of trust” between the Americans and the rest of the communion.

Anglican history

This is hardly the first time Anglicanism has been involved in controversy.

Although Anglicans sometimes say Anglicanism dates back to the sixth century, that was when Catholic missionaries sent by the pope began the evangelization of England.

Anglicanism as such originated in the 16th century. Eager for a male heir, anxious to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and infatuated with Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII broke with Pope Clement VII after being refused an annulment of his marriage to Catherine. The annulment was approved by Henry’s handpicked Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, as was the king’s marriage to Anne, whom the king later executed.

To seal the break with Rome, Henry VIII in 1534 had Parliament declare him supreme head of the church in England. Among those refusing to comply, and executed for refusing, were Cardinal John Fisher and Thomas More, Henry’s former Lord Chancellor. Both are now canonized saints.

Henry remained largely attached to Catholic elements of doctrine and worship, but his new church grew increasingly more Protestant under his successors. Relations between Anglicans and Catholics were tense and conflicted for the next 400 years. But eventually change set in. Since Vatican Council II, there has been an active Anglican-Catholic dialogue, and popes and archbishops of Canterbury have often exchanged cordial gestures.

During the 19th century, Church of England missionaries spread Anglicanism throughout the then-thriving British Empire. Now an estimated 60 percent of all Anglicans are in Africa, even as the number falls in countries like Great Britain and the United States. On matters like same-sex marriage, African Anglicans tend to be much more traditionalist than their coreligionists in the West.

Brewing conflict

The current split in Anglicanism burst into the open 12 years ago, when the leadership of the U.S. Episcopal Church chose Gene Robinson, an openly gay cleric with a same-sex partner, to be bishop of New Hampshire. Since then, says John Bingham, religion affairs correspondent of the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, “the individual ties between the North American provinces and most of those in the global south, where Anglicanism is still a major force, have already withered, in what all but the most optimistic admit amounts to a full schism.”

While the conflict plainly is rooted in doctrinal differences, it also has ethnic and political dimensions reflecting differences between conservative African Anglicans and the liberal Anglicans of North America and Europe. Archbishop Welby once summed up the Africans’ perspective this way in an interview:

“It is a sense of, hang on: you are telling us whom and what we should be. A senior figure in one country said to me a few years ago — he said, ‘I didn’t go through the colonial period and get rid of you people in order for you to come back in a different form and do the same to me as you were doing before.’”

The conflict that came to a head at Canterbury recalls events at the Catholic Church’s synods on the family held in Rome in October 2014 and October 2015. On both occasions, Catholic bishops from Africa clashed with Catholic bishops from Europe and North America over issues related to marriage and family, with the Africans arguing for traditionalist views and objecting to being patronized by some on the other side of the argument.

Before the Canterbury meeting, it was reported that Archbishop Welby would float a proposal for greatly weakening ties within the Anglican Communion so as to prevent it from breaking down entirely. Instead, the archbishops produced a weak censure of the Episcopal Church, a strong endorsement of traditional marriage, and a three-year delay.

In their statement, the archbishops said they intend to “walk together.” No doubt they do. But where the path leads is a question with no clear answer now.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.