Friday, November 23, 2007

New denominations make the baby Jesus smile

I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose... Is Christ divided? - 1 Corinthians

If you don't like the way your current Christian church is being led, you can always just leave and start a new one. This fundamental Protestant principle has resulted in an absurdly number of denominations, many of whom can't really remember why they're different anymore (what, for example, is the current real difference between the Baptist Genral Conference of Canada, the Baptist Union of Western Canada, and the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada?). Usually it's the newer and more agitated Protestants - the spiritual descendants of the Anabaptists, for example - who are accused of religious factionalism. So you can imagine my surprise when I opened the Ottawa Citizen this morning to discover that Anglicans are capable of joining in the factional fun.

Of course, during the inane gay marriage and gay ordination debates of the last few years, there was already a de facto independent Anglican church operating in Vancouver, after some of the churches in one diocese began blessing same-sex unions and some of the other Anglican churches in the province retaliated with the rather petty decision not to share communion with the evil pro-gay people. (Given the decidedly non-central importance of the issue in Jesus's teachings, it's interesting and almost evangelical for Anglicans to decide to effectively declare they don't consider the offending churches to be Christian anymore simply because of an inappropriate stance on homosexuality.)

Now, however, the Anglican Network of Canada, a conservative splinter group within the Anglican church, has decided it's time to give up on the official church and create a rival faction. According to J.I. Packer, one of the theological leaders of the group, the Anglican Church of Canada has been "poisoned" by liberalism, which "knows nothing of a God who uses (the Bible) to tell us things and knows nothing of sin in the heart and in the head." At a meeting in Burlington attended by 260 clergy and lay people, former Manitoba bishop Malcolm Harding proclaimed his allegiance to the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, which is South American. Harding explains that he has "lost hope for reformation." His move followed former Newfoundland bishop Donald Harvey's, last week. Apparently 16 parishes are presently aligned with the Network and more are expected to follow.

The New Westminster bishop who sparked the same-sex problems, Michael Ingham, is not pleased. He accuses the Network of "Orwellian double-speak," which might be a bit of an exaggeration, although there's certainly a great deal of rhetorical bullshit being issued by the Network. For example, their leaders insist that they are not, in fact, "leaving... the Anglican Church of Canada." Instead, everyone else in the Anglican Church has already left, so "we will not see that as a leaving, but as a staying." The logic is so twisted that I find it unlikely anyone with the modest intelligence necessary to become a bishop would actually believe what they're saying, but I suppose anything is possible.

The churches claim that they're doing what's best for God, truth and the Bible (which has become the New Trinity in evangelical circles), but what they're really doing is shifting Anglicanism towards a Protestant denominational pattern. It used to be that the Anglican church had a fairly organized hierarchy: one "church" for one country (or at least one region). Parishes who are now proclaiming the right to join other regions' churches are effectively saying that the church should be reorganized on doctrinal lines rather than geographical ones. They may not like the fact that the Anglican Church of Canada has an inappropriate stance on gay marriage (on the other hand, most tolerant Christians also haven't been too impressed by the rather schizophrenic approach taken by the Anglican Church this year, in which churches refuse to bless same-sex unions but also refuse to declare the unions in opposition to doctrine). But they should drop the fiction of maintaining one mother church, because what they really want is a theological splintering.

On the one hand, I don't like religious institutionalism. I dislike it because it promotes precisely these sorts of problems: the institution links itself to a particular doctrine, usually one which is in no way central to Christianity, and this leads to resistance from others with often equally nonsensical re-interpretations of their faith. Some such people make some effort to reform the current church, but eventually they decide the institution is not worth saving. But resistance is a difficult act in any circumstances, and it's genuinely hard to conceive of what you'd do beyond what you've always known and done. So the solution to the Anglican church of Canada being "decayed" is to start a new Anglican church of Canada, which will probably end up worse than the one it has left: declining membership, an unhealthy fixation with the homosexuality debate, but much less tolerance towards alternative interpretations of Christianity. Those who begin revolutions by storming Bastilles, usually end up building new ones.

On the other hand, the Anglican Church of Canada had a lot going for it, at least from my perspective. In my limited experience, churches claimed to welcome people who considered themselves Christian regardless of their stance on what were seen to be peripheral areas of debate. If Christians are ever going to move beyond petty factionalism, they're going to have to acknowledge that there are many such areas of debate, that these will not be easily resolved, and that ultimately the decision of whether someone is a Christian or not lies between them and God, and is not something to be declared one way or the other by any church. And, despite the formal hierarchy, most of the local Anglican churches I've had friends in have typically had more genuine democratic activity than the Baptist churches I've belonged to, whose community votes frequently felt something like Soviet-style elections, and usually had similarly one-sided outcomes.

The Anglican Network has a website here. Interestingly, one of the three core components of its "identity" is that it is in "serious theological dispute... with the Anglican Church of Canada." That's interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it means that we've expanded the "culture war" to include other Christians as well as the "evil secular liberals," although since many of those evil liberals are also Christians, I suppose this is less of an expansion than it seems. Second, what precisely is going to happen when either the Network becomes an effective independent denomination in its own right, or its "theological" issues with the Anglican Church are eventually resolved? Assuming the Network doesn't fail completely, one of the former two outcomes is going to happen. It's really not very healthy (though it's also not uncommon) when one's religious "identity" is determined in opposition to the identity of others. That basically justifies inter-church conflict as a necessary part of Christianity.

"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."


Anonymous said...


I can't believe I am reading this: I mean the Anglican Church was created as an ecumenical movement shortly after the Reformation and the focus has always been on worship rather than theology. The focus on worship made it easier for everyone to get together and praise God even if each person's theological interpretations were quite different.
On the other hand, this new Anglican Church is not a surprising move and in reality it does not provide any real theological division that doesn't already exist elsewhere. Several conservative denominations would gladly take in conservative Anglicans. In terms of diversity, it would be best for the conservative group to remain within the Anglican Church. Historically, from Anabaptism onwards Christianity has been about knowing who the Elect are and excluding the non-Elect. On these grounds, it is clear that these Christians would not wish to be part of a diverse Christian organization.
If the Anglican Church cannot keep Christians from diverse theological backgrounds together it is difficult to imagine an organization that can, and as you have noted, perhaps the organizational structure enables schisms. Yet it is difficult to imagine Christianity without any organizational structure. I must admit that I would love to hear thoughts from you on this, or from other readers, because the real point about Christianity isn't to have theological arguments with everyone who doesn't agree with us.

shawn said...

Well, this is kinda interesting.. I've seen this forming in the debates for a while, with me attending the Anglican services over the past year..I was secretly hoping that it would subside, but apparently not.. still I think the main branch will prevail and continue onwards with it unification efforts with the Catholic church and other denominations.. I still think of it as an exciting place to be, and I think these people who are upset about the gay issue will eventually be marginalized within Christian communities, as this is really a tired debate.. I am so tired of hearing about the supposed evils of gays and homosexuals, instead of the teachings of Christ and the bible..