LATROBE — Marking the growing consolidation of their new denomination, nearly 1,000 people converged here Wednesday for the start of a three-day assembly of the Anglican Church in North America.
They began with an opening worship service that mixed high-church liturgy, complete with clerics and choristers in vestments of various colors, and more spontaneous charismatic worship music echoing off the marble and granite surfaces of the basilica church at Saint Vincent Archabbey. The Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery is playing host to the gathering in a gesture of ecumenical cooperation.
The assembly continued with a series of speakers urging the Anglicans to stay their conservative course even as the secular trends show greater toleration of same-sex marriage, one of the defining issues that triggered their split from the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada.
The Ambridge-based denomination, with 112,000 members in more than 900 churches on the continent, was formed when various groups and parishes split in opposition over liberal trends over homosexuality and theology.
Archbishop-elect Foley Beach of the Diocese of the South, whom fellow bishops selected earlier this week, saluted founding Archbishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, whom he will succeed upon completion of the latter’s five-year term at the end of the assembly Saturday.
“Archbishop Duncan’s shoes are very big, and my feet are not that big,” Bishop Beach said. “I’m counting on Jesus to fill the gap.”
He said the denomination, with new congregations and many participants who joined without ever participating in the Episcopal Church, is seeking to move forward beyond the years of conflicts that preceded the ACNA’s founding.
The split came after long-building tensions exploded after the Episcopal Church’s consecration in 2003 of an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Conservatives reacting to such trends here and in the Anglican Church of Canada organized the new church in 2008.
Bishop Beach decried the Episcopal Church for continuing costly legal battles over the ownership of parish properties when congregations left the Episcopal for the newer denomination.
“It’s disconcerting that Christians in the Episcopal Church will not act Christian in the way they are treating us,” he said.
He said that denomination should turn over buildings to those whom he said paid for them.
He acknowledged that “in some places our rhetoric hasn’t been as Christian and loving as it could be. ... Where relationships were hurt, I think on our part, [we need] to make sure we’ve done everything we can to be in right relationship on a personal basis.”
Bishop Stacy Sauls, chief operating officer of the Episcopal Church, said he’s familiar with Bishop Beach’s arguments but disagreed.
“Our position on the property is that the law of the land is pretty clear, and our position has been upheld everywhere we’ve had to litigate it except for South Carolina,” he said.
Gifts to churches “were given over decades and sometimes centuries to the church, and not to any particular group of people who might be in the church at any given time,” said Bishop Sauls. The church has a “moral obligation to protect the purpose for which they gave the gifts,” he said. “I’m sorry that Foley might not think we’re Christian for doing that.”
Rich Creehan, spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, said that while property disputes remain, both sides have been working to resolve them and “have agreed to proceed in a Christian manner, because that is our identity and our mission.”
The global Anglican Communion continues to recognize the Episcopal and Anglican churches but not the Anglican Church in North America, although several leading archbishops and provinces in the Global South recognize the latter.
The communion includes churches under the symbolic head of the Archbishop of Canterbury, with historic roots in the Church of England. Bishop Beach said many of the most populous Anglican provinces in the Global South already recognize the denomination.
“The focus to be legitimate for us is not necessarily to be recognized by Canterbury, because we’re already recognized by most of the Anglican Communion,” he said.
Bishop Beach, based near Atlanta, oversees Anglican churches in 10 Southern states. Before that he helped launch a church in Georgia.
In that congregation, “the percentage of folks who are a part of that church who were never a part of the Episcopal Church is extremely high now,” he said. “The Episcopal Church is no longer an issue because they were never a part of it.”
Asked if the Anglican Church in North America’s adoption of historic practice was off-putting to a generation with little sense of denominational loyalty, he said, “We're finding that ... folks in their 20s and 30s love us if [the worship is] done in a way they can relate to.”
Those attending the conference said they see it as celebrating its progress.
Greg Malley of Savannah, Ga., recalled attending an early organizational conference in 2005 before the denomination was established. “To see where the Anglican Church in North America has grown and matured is phenomenal,” he said.
“This is the culmination of a lot of work,” agreed Kimberly Talbot of San Jose, Calif., who is preparing to become a priest.
She recognizes that the denomination is still studying the issue of women in ministry, having agreed to disagree in the meantime, but she appreciates that “it’s a genuine theological discussion.”
Bishop Beach ordains women deacons but, unlike Archbishop Duncan, not women priests.
He said he recognizes he’ll now be “the archbishop of all the women clergy, and I will treat them with honor and respect.” He said he hasn’t resolved whether he’d preside alongside a woman priest at the altar, but many who disagree with his stance are his “spiritual heroes.”
“I’m not going to let that issue hinder me or break fellowship.”
After turning over leadership to Bishop Beach, Archbishop Duncan will remain as bishop of the denomination’s Diocese of Pittsburgh, the same title he held previously with the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh before he and a majority of the diocese’s congregations seceded to form the new group.
Bishop Foley said he also would study whether the denomination’s small central staff should remain in Ambridge or move to Georgia.
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1614.