An inevitable divide

By George Clifford

Several weeks ago, my wife and I were sitting in a Paris train station waiting for a train to Giverny. A man came over, inquired if we spoke English, and upon discovering that we, like him, were American, requested that we watch his luggage so that he could use a restroom. We quickly agreed, glad for the opportunity to help a fellow traveler. Upon his return, he treated us to a brief but thankfully mild tirade about the inefficiencies of the French and their lack of gratitude for the U.S. having liberated them from the Germans in World War II.

While hoping that not too many of the people within earshot spoke English I wondered why this man traveled in France if he found the nation and its people so objectionable. Then I reminded myself that I was an Anglican. A great many Anglicans are similar to that sad traveler: they journey in a country that they do not appreciate with companions they do not understand. Why don’t those unhappy people change their journey’s route?

Having nothing to lose since the train we had hoped to take was cancelled and the next did not depart for half an hour, I asked my new acquaintance why he traveled in France when he knew that he disliked the culture and its people. He replied that he had attended an elder hostel on spying in the UK and was now on his way to a second one in the south of France. These were the only sessions he could find on this somewhat arcane topic.

Again, my thoughts turned to the many unhappy Anglicans. At this point, the analogy broke down. Anglicanism has never claimed to be the exclusive path to God or the only true Church. Anglicanism may not even be the best Church and is certainly not the best Church for everyone. Those unhappy with Anglicanism’s direction, ethos, or people have options. The recent Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) represents a large step toward an unfortunate but inevitable divide as some of the unhappiest depart. Although those departing may claim the name Anglican, in fact the historic definition of Anglican is one who is in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Nigerian province has already removed every reference to Canterbury from its canons.

At least three factors contribute to dissidents’ reluctance to depart from The Episcopal Church (TEC). First, issues of finances and property bind people to TEC for emotional and practical reasons. These issues incarnate our theology of unity. Second, overcoming our normal human inertia requires investing substantial personal and group energy and resources to reach the threshold where departure appears more attractive than remaining. Theologically, inertia helps us to maintain a steady course, to avoid each minor breeze or current sweeping in a new direction.

Third, united primarily by their unhappiness and dissent from an inclusive Anglicanism many dissidents fear that future harmony and unity will prove even more elusive. The historic pattern of schism is that one break inevitably precipitates further fractures. Once departure from the Anglican Communion removes the centripetal force of opposition to an inclusive Church that now unites dissident Anglicans, centrifugal forces are certain to cause repeated fractures. Some follow a polity that embodies strong central authority, some seek creedal conformity, some oppose the ordination of women, and some yearn to return to older forms of worship and belief.

Conflict need not be unhealthy. Anglicans reject all claims to infallibility, including that of the Pope (or even a council of Primates!). Through constructive dialogue Christians and the Church can move toward a fuller understanding of the truth. During that dialogue, Christians and the Church must accept diverse opinions expressed with mutual respect, modeling for others our ongoing search for a fuller grasp of truth. The gospel of John reports Jesus’ promising his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit to lead them into all truth (John 16:13), a promise that implicitly acknowledges that Jesus’ disciples – including us – do not yet know all truth.

No scriptural basis exists for establishing views about human sexuality as a litmus test of one’s orthodoxy or suitability for communion. Dissident Anglicans have clearly focused on this issue because sexual issues generate emotional energy and because this is perhaps the only issue that unites them. The time has arrived when faithful Christians, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion must stop defining their identity based on their views about human sexuality. I like sex, I have strong views about sex, and I believe that sex is a wonderful aspect of creation. However, sexuality does not determine the primary contours of either my faith or that of the Church. The Church must reclaim the fullness of its agenda as God’s people.

Similarly, the time has come to end unhealthy conflict within TEC and the Anglican Communion. Any constructive dialogue that may have occurred between those holding disparate views largely ended years ago. Minds have closed, opinions hardened, and negative feelings of anger, exclusion, and bitterness now dominate. The conflict is an acid eroding morale and mission effectiveness within both TEC and the Communion.

My wife and I journeyed to Giverny to see Claude Monet’s home and gardens, entranced by his ability to capture beauty and light in his impressionistic paintings. Monet moved to Giverny because of its light and affordable property. He died there after forty years of productive work. Those who now find the Anglican Church (my country) inhospitable should find another Church in which to live out their journey in greater peace, joy, and faithfulness. Deleting all reference to Canterbury from Provincial canons and establishing new loci of authority are significant steps in that direction, regardless of the accompanying rhetoric. Those who find Anglicanism hospitable must similarly resume their faithful travels in peace and joy, seeking the truth, engaged in dialogue with fellow travelers, and agreeing to disagree when necessary. Life is too short and too great a gift for anyone to waste it in unproductive, let alone destructive, unhappiness.

The Rev. George Clifford, a retired priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years.

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