There won’t be any white smoke coming out of the chimney, but they’re calling it a conclave, similar to a papal election.
Bishops of the Anglican Church in North America — a breakaway denomination formed by conservatives dismayed by liberal trends in the Episcopal Church and its Canadian counterpart — will gather at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe beginning Thursday to elect a successor to Archbishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, whose five-year tenure as its founding archbishop is concluding.
That vote is to be followed next week by policy deliberations and a wider denominational assembly with worship, speaking and other events. The organization will mark some strides from its ad hoc origins in the heat of conflict toward greater stability — the publications of a new catechism and prayer liturgies and the launching of several new congregations.
The Anglican Church in North America was formed in 2008, fusing a disparate collection of individuals, churches and dioceses — some in favor of women’s ordination, some opposed, with some identifying more with Catholic sacramental and liturgical traditions and others with the more spontaneous evangelical and charismatic movements.
Those who admire Archbishop Duncan as a faithful and determined organizer and critics who see him as leading a destructive schism agree that the new denomination that emerged bears the strong mark of its founding leader.
Even as he gives up his top role — whose duties include convening meetings, making key appointments and representing the church internationally — Archbishop Duncan, 65, won’t be retiring entirely. He will remain as bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh — comprising the majority of churches that were in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh before voting in 2008 to secede.
In an interview, Archbishop Duncan said the assembly is gathering here “to say ‘thank you’ to the Diocese of Pittsburgh.”
Recalling a historian’s aphorism that the colony of New Jersey was the cockpit or central fighting arena of the American Revolution, he added, “Pittsburgh was sort of the cockpit of the [Anglican] revolution.”
The region, he said, has been a base for influential, conservative Episcopal clerics and the evangelical-flavored Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge.
The new denomination claims about 113,000 members in 983 churches, some of them newly launched, many of them having broken from the Episcopal and Canadian churches. Those denominations claim about 2.5 million members in total, though their ranks have been decreasing. Legal disputes over church property persist, as does the fledgling denomination’s claims to be officially “Anglican.”
The Anglicans’ Pittsburgh diocese currently oversees more than 50 Pennsylvania parishes and several more in other states. The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh claims 37 active congregations in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Even with the split, bishops of both local dioceses cooperate in areas such as the ecumenical Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania.
“We commit to keep them in prayer during this time,” Episcopal Bishop Dorsey McConnell said. “We have so many relationships, family and friends that go across these lines.”
Episcopalians and other Anglicans trace their roots to the Church of England, founded in the 16th century and, over time, grafting in Catholic sacraments and liturgy along with the liberal and evangelical strains of Protestant theology.
Decadeslong tensions ignited in 2003 with the Episcopal Church’s ordination of its first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, and the Anglican Church of Canada’s similar affirmations of gays and lesbians. Then-Episcopal Bishop Duncan protested loudly and eventually led the secession. The global Anglican Communion continues to recognize the Episcopal and Canadian churches, but not the Anglican Church in North America, although leading Anglican archbishops in Africa have recognized the newer denomination.
Those African connections, however, have drawn notice in recent months, as Anglican primates in Nigeria and Uganda have praised newly codified laws in their lands authorizing heavy prison sentences for homosexual activity and advocacy, even while opposing even more draconian laws. Archbishop Duncan and his denomination have not spoken publicly on this, although he did sign a joint statement with African bishops declaring solidarity with those experiencing “the backlash from the international community in Uganda from their new legislation.”
“I don’t understand why there hasn’t been just a clear, simple statement that ‘while we have mission relationships with the churches of Nigeria and Uganda, we are not in favor of sending gay people to jail for long periods of time.’ … That’s not a hard thing to say,” said Jim Naughton, who edits Episcopal Cafe, a website of news and liberal commentary, and does communications work for advocates of greater inclusion of gays and lesbians in churches.
Archbishop Duncan said that while sexuality may have ignited the Anglican divisions, they resulted from deeper, long-running disputes about the authority of the Bible and the divinity of Jesus. And that, he said, is personal, citing a turbulent family life when he was growing up.
“When I was a teenager, I learned that I could trust the Lord and that I could trust his Word,” he said.
“I don’t know if I would have survived my teen years if I hadn’t learned that. I’m not about to cheat today’s teenagers of knowing that they can rely on God’s Word.”
Archbishop Duncan — who served in various pastoral, administrative and academic roles before becoming Episcopal bishop of Pittsburgh in 1996 — declined to speculate publicly on whom the bishops will choose to succeed him when they meet between Thursday and Sunday.
But five years ago, when the Anglican Church of North America was forming, “There was no question in anybody’s mind that Bob Duncan was the man,” said Bishop Charles Masters, coadjutor bishop of the denomination’s Canadian diocese.
Canadian Bishop Donald Harvey added that Archbishop Duncan worked tirelessly to bridge divisions on such issues as women’s ordination, which Archbishop Duncan supports and which remains a local option.
Bishop Harvey lauded Archbishop Duncan’s challenge to launch new congregations to reach the unchurched, not just disaffected conservatives.
“We were there as a lifeboat,” he said. “That lifeboat has turned into a fishing boat.”
Peter Smith: email@example.com or 412-263-1416.