It could be a meeting of hearts, or it could be the collision of tectonic plates, shaking along the same ecclesiastical fault lines that saw the rupture of the historic Episcopal community in southwestern Pennsylvania in the past decade.
National leaders in the Anglican Communion, the world’s third-largest Christian tradition, are scheduled to gather Monday in Britain for their first big gathering after years of frosty stalemate. And it could be their last time together if the most ominous forecasts bear out.
Local bishops are echoing their colleagues’ call for prayer for what has so far defied human efforts — to repair the rupture in the communion over liberalizing trends on homosexuality and theology in Western churches such as the Episcopal Church in the United States. Anglican churches across the Southern Hemisphere, many of them fast-growing churches in Africa, have deeply opposed such changes.
Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury — the figurehead of 85 million-member communion of churches with roots in the Church of England and its blend of Protestant theology and Catholic liturgical traditions — called the meeting and made a major concession to the so-called Global South primates.
Not only did he invite Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, he also invited Archbishop Foley Beach, head of the Anglican Church in North America, whose break with the Episcopal Church was especially significant in the Pittsburgh area. Normally a meeting of primates would only include the top official in each of the communion’s 38 national churches.
In the confusingly overlapping names involved, the Anglican Communion recognizes the Episcopal Church as its U.S. church, rather than the Anglican Church in North America. But the latter has received recognition from Global South Anglicans, made up of primarily non-Western nations.
The primates can’t tell a national church such as the Episcopal Church what to do. But the meeting could see the communion split or redefined as a looser federation.
Bishops of both dioceses of Pittsburgh — Dorsey McConnell of the Episcopal Church and Robert Duncan of the Anglican Church in North America, who preceded Archbishop Beach as its founding leader — agree that the stakes are huge.
“Archbishop Justin is rightly concerned that the old way of doing business, which was just to try to balance deeply conflicting points of view across the communion, was not working and that what’s necessary is some other approach,” said Bishop McConnell
Bishop Duncan said he expected the Global South primates will quickly want to get down to business and “talk about the hard thing before anything else.”
The conservative primates, he said, want to return to a 2007 ultimatum that, among other things, the Episcopal Church stop ordaining openly gay bishops and moving toward affirming same-sex unions. The Episcopal Church refused, and many Global South churches declared themselves in broken communion with it, but not with the Anglican Communion as a whole.
Despite the high-level breaks, Bishop McConnell said grassroots ties remain. For example, many Pittsburgh-area Episcopalians work with Ugandan Anglicans on projects to help orphans and prevent malaria, he said.
And while many local conservatives left for the formation of the separate Anglican diocese in 2008, those that remained included a spectrum of conservatives, moderates and liberals who have worked hard to stay together, he said.
“We could be a helpful example for the primates,” Bishop McConnell said, “both as an object lesson regarding the terrible cost of division and as a positive example in the way that, following the split, we in the Episcopal diocese have built a strong functional unity across a great diversity of views and theological perspectives.”
Bishop Duncan said conservatives would do what they could to preserve unity, but not at the price of “the faith once delivered to the saints.”
“It would be heartbreaking to have the West decide to do it its own way and for Anglicanism to cease to be a coherent theological tradition,” he said.
He noted there are similar global divides in other Protestant denominations.
“This is epochal,” he said. “It’s not just about Anglicans, but everything is re-arranging between the biblical party and a progressive party.”
Peter Smith: email@example.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.
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