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Anglican Conservatives Step Back From Split Threat

When nearly 300 bishops from Africa, South America and breakaway churches in the U.S. gathered in Jerusalem last week, the big question was: Will they declare schism from the more liberal churches in the West?

The answer turned out to be easy.

"We all sat around the table, and pretty well with one voice, we said, we are not leaving the Anglican Communion," Archbishop Greg Venables, who oversees several countries in South America, said from Jerusalem. "We are not going to break away and form another church."

There had been talk preceding the meeting of a theological divorce. The group did not split because, Venables says, "we are the true Anglicans."

"We don't accept that we can hand over the franchise of Anglicanism to people who suddenly, without consulting anyone, decided to create a new version of Anglicanism," he says.

Shots Across The Bow

That new version that liberal Anglicans embrace, of course, is a modern interpretation of Scripture that allows for gay clergy and same-sex blessings.

With the two sides unwilling to compromise, the conservative leaders aimed two shots across the bow. First, they declared that they no longer see the archbishop of Canterbury as the one who decides who is Anglican or not. Second, they said they intend to form an alternative church or province in North America — one that would compete with the Episcopal Church for members, money and church property.

"Things don't become so because they say they're so," says Jim Naughton, the canon for communications at the Diocese of Washington, D.C. "They can decide that they are naming their collection of churches a province, but that doesn't mean the rest of the world will regard them that way. All these folks have managed to do is put a bow on the status quo, and call it a present."

Naughton says neither the archbishop of Canterbury nor the rest of the worldwide communion would allow foreign bishops to carve out a new church in the U.S. without permission from the Episcopal Church.

Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, warned conservatives that they were treading on thin ice: "Any claim to be free to operate across provincial boundaries is fraught with difficulty," he said in a statement. He urged them to "think very carefully."

'Who's Going To Stop Us?'

Martyn Minns, who moved his Virginia parish from the Episcopal Church to the more conservative church of Nigeria, asks: "Who's going to stop us? We don't have ecclesiastical jails these days; there's freedom of religion, there's freedom to associate and freedom of religious expression."

And, Minns says, freedom to let people choose which form of Anglicanism they like. Which brings us to an important undercurrent of this debate.

"Let's not be too naive about this all being theological and biblical argument," says Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire whose election sparked the current crisis. "This is also about money and property."

Dozens of parishes have left the Episcopal Church and moved under the authority of foreign bishops, and some have tried to keep their property and buildings, worth millions of dollars. Some have lost, but others have won.

On Friday, for example, a Virginia judge ruled that 11 breakaway churches have a constitutional right to keep their properties. If conservative churches can create an alternative province in the U.S., Robinson says, that would strengthen their arguments in the courts.

But Robinson and others are taking a historical view. He says time and again — in debates over things like the prayer book or women's ordination — conservatives have said the end is near.

"There have been lines drawn in the sand before, or a donnybrook predicted, and then it doesn't happen," Robinson says.

Still, the conservatives claim close to two-thirds of practicing Anglicans, and their numbers are growing. Eventually, they say, their views will prevail.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.