Is the Anglican Communion about to split over different views of sexual ethics?
You might think so after reading headlines about the archbishop of Canterbury’s proposal to “loosen” the structures of the Communion — a way of retaining his relationship to the liberal wing of the Western churches as well as the traditional Anglicans of the Global South.
But to interpret the archbishop’s recent announcement as a split over sexuality is to miss the bigger picture. First, the impending dissolution of Anglicanism as it currently exists institutionally is over much more than sex. Second, the divorce has already taken place, just not formally.
The Anglican Communion is divided over much more than sex.
The morality of homosexual behavior is the flash point in the Anglican crisis today, but the controversy over sexual ethics is just a symptom of a disease that Anglicanism has battled for decades now. Even if all Anglicans would “agree to disagree” on the nature of marriage, their differences would still be profound.
The communion is ultimately divided on the authority of the Bible. You can see the differences even in how Anglicans are responding to the news of a potential split. Archbishop Eliud Wabukala of Kenya has expressed hope that the Bible would be restored to the center of the communion. Like other African primates, Wabukala sees the crisis as much bigger than simply maintaining relationships across different cultural contexts. For Anglican leaders in the Global South, the communion is on the verge of schism because of false teaching that continues unabated, without a call to repentance or the exercise of discipline.
For decades now, traditional Anglicans have watched leaders in the West abandon key components of historic Christianity.
Back in 1963, Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson published the best-selling “Honest to God,” which criticized traditional Christian teaching and introduced situational ethics. Just before his death, author and apologist C.S. Lewis commented on Robinson’s work and others like it as “a scandal” responsible for “turning people away from the church” by “continually accommodating and whittling down the truth of the Gospel.”
Lewis wrote: “I cannot understand how a man can appear in print claiming to disbelieve everything that he presupposes when he puts on the surplice. I feel it is a form of prostitution.”
Even in 1963, Lewis saw clearly that the liberal wing of the communion maintained the form of true Christianity while denying its power.
One wonders what Lewis would have thought about David Jenkins, the former bishop of Durham, England, who in the 1980s denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Or John Shelby Spong, the former bishop of Newark, N.J., who denies that Jesus was born of a virgin or raised from the dead and has argued that Christians should move away from theism (belief in God) as a foundational teaching. Or Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, who recasts the historic Christian understanding of individual conversion as a form of “heresy” and claims Jesus may not be the only way to God.
If you consider the 2003 appointment of an openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church as the origin of today’s crisis, pay closer attention. The recent crisis is merely the manifestation of deep and lasting fissures that go back for decades.
The communion is already divorced, just not formally.
The Guardian quoted an unnamed source that described the possible changes to Anglican structure as “sleeping in separate bedrooms” instead of a divorce. In other words, the Anglican “identity” can remain loosely tied to the Church of England, but common doctrine would no longer be the source of unity for the churches across the world.
But what kind of union is this? When you see the primates in Africa hoping Anglicans will restore the Bible to the heart of the communion and Western leaders condescendingly “tolerating” their global counterparts to keep formal schism from taking place, you can rest assured the communion is already divided. The schism took place decades ago; all that remains is for the divorce papers to be signed.
Almost a century ago, Presbyterian church leader J. Gresham Machen wrote with unusual foresight concerning the coming crises in mainline denominations.
“The great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief,” he wrote, “which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology.”
The thesis of his most famous book, “Christianity and Liberalism,” was that despite its retention of certain rituals and symbols (the worship service, the sermon, Communion), the liberal vision of Christianity was not Christianity at all, but something else altogether.
Machen’s analysis shines light on the state of Anglicanism today. There may be one Anglican Communion institutionally, but there are two Anglican Communions — one that appeals to Scripture as ultimate authority and the other that appeals to experience.
On the one side are the shrinking liberal churches of the West, whose primary identity appears to be “running errands” for liberal social causes. On the other side are the growing churches of the Global South, whose historic connection with Christianity is doctrinal, not merely institutional.
One side of this church is a shell. The other is the heart.
— by Trevin Wax
Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After.”