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LETTER FROM AMERICA: The Anglican communion in North America

April 2016 | by Ben Wilkerson

During the twenty-first century, Anglican churches in Canada and the USA have experienced turmoil and division over same-sex marriage.

As early as 2002, Canadian dioceses began to split away from the Anglican Church of Canada over the issue. Many more American Anglican churches were to follow suit and form a new denomination, the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).

Today the ACNA has 32 dioceses and close to 112,000 congregants. Some of those dioceses have been part of the ‘Province de L’Eglise Anglicane au Rwanda USA’ (PEARUSA), a province (jurisdiction) of the Anglican Church of Rwanda, but they will soon complete the legal process of transferring to the ACNA.

African Anglicans

The PEARUSA is only one of many church groups in North America that has been planted, aligned or organised by African Anglicans. Ever since the Canadian dioceses joined it, many other American Anglican churches have been strongly influenced by Anglican leadership from Nigeria, Rwanda, Bolivia, Uganda, Kenya, and other countries associated with the Global South.

Historically, Anglicanism is no stranger to efforts to reform it from within. For example, there were two different movements during the seventeenth century seeking further reformation, namely, Puritanism and Separatism.

While the Separatists completely removed themselves from the Church, the Puritans stayed in and sought to reform it. Various groups of Puritans held different views on church polity (for example, presbyterian and congregational), but all sought the Church’s reformation.

Puritans of different persuasions made it to the American colonies and established settlements, including the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As early as 1607, Anglican parishes were established throughout the American colonies.

Eventually, the Church of England would become the established church in Virginia, New York, Maryland, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. By the time of the American Revolution, there were close to 400 Anglican congregations.

The war of independence meant that ties to the Church of England in Great Britain were severed and the hierarchical episcopal church was stranded within a society that had embraced democratic and republican values. This remnant would eventually become what is now the mainline Episcopal Church of the USA (ECUSA). The ordination of its first bishop within the United States took place in 1785.

During that same year, one Anglican church with its minister, broke away to form a Unitarian church and there were some minor schisms after that, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that large groups of Anglican churches began to split from the ECUSA over doctrinal differences.

Deep doctrinal divisions

The debate during the 1970s was over whether women could legitimately become bishops or deacons. After ECUSA assented to this, many dissenting congregations left to form the Continuing Anglican Movement (1977).

Efforts to reform the ECUSA from within birthed the Episcopal Missionary Church in 1992, then also, as mentioned, the ACNA. All these new ‘denominations’ have sought to remain within the Anglican Communion, while ‘realigning’ themselves under the jurisdiction of other Anglican churches.

The complexity of the situation is increased by such realignments being technically against Anglican polity, as governed by canon law and historical precedent. Anglican churches are assigned to geographical parishes and dioceses (groups of related parishes, usually in geographical proximity) and one diocese cannot govern what goes on in another diocese.

Yet this further complexity has arisen because these churches desire to remain true to the Scriptures, as well as obtaining episcopal oversight from a diocese that agrees with them. By God’s providence that oversight is generally being provided by the Global South. The PEARUSA is one such group being overseen by a Global South episcopacy.

Under the name of the Anglican Mission of America, the Rwandan part of the Anglican church has sought to reach the unchurched of North America, beginning, in 2000, by planting churches and overseeing churches that had left ECUSA and were seeking like-minded oversight.

This Rwandan movement was initiated by Archbishops Emmanuel Kolini of Rwanda and Moses Tay of Southeast Asia and their efforts have not been in vain. Many American bishops have been consecrated for these church plants, new clergy have been trained, and scores of churches planted.

Anglican missionary vision

Today there are 68 congregations that are the fruit of this missionary effort. These are scattered all over the US and there is one even within my own town. The goal of PEARUSA (as with other missions from the Global South) is not to have longstanding jurisdiction over American churches. Rather, it would love to see these churches grow and become part of larger American denominations such as the ACNA. The relationship with the church in Rwanda would simply be one of fellowship.

As of last September, churches belonging to PEARUSA are now seeking to come under the complete legal jurisdiction of the ACNA. As far as Anglican polity goes, this is a very sensible step and great news for Anglican unity in North America. The legal procedure becomes final in June of this year.

Jonathan Edwards, the great American pastor and thinker of the seventeenth century, once said that ‘all countries and nations, even those which are now most ignorant, shall be full of light and knowledge. Great knowledge shall prevail everywhere.’

‘It may be hoped, that then many of the Negroes and Indians will be divines, and that excellent books will be published in Africa, in Ethiopia, in Tartary, and other now the most barbarous countries; and not only learned men, but others of more ordinary education, shall then be very knowing in religion’.

Nearly 260 years later, his prophetic words are ringing true, as parts of Africa and Asia are full of gospel knowledge and are seeking to spread that knowledge in the places that first brought them the gospel.

Archbishop Bernard A. Malango, an Anglican primate of Central Africa, explained it this way: ‘All these people brought Christianity to us, but now the church is growing here [in Africa] like wildfire, it’s spreading everywhere, while the church in England is withering, the church in the States is going completely, and there has been a cry, “Why don’t you come? You should have come here a long time ago to evangelise.

‘We need to send missionaries, even to Britain; we need to send missionaries to the United States, and we need to send missionaries to Canada, because those who brought the church here have lost what their intention was, and the same Bible they brought to us is being misinterpreted”’ (Boston Globe, 9/2007).

Theologically aware Global South

Not all find the African influence is welcome, and some even state that American ‘right-wingers’ are funding this venture. Jim Naughton, a spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, DC, and editor of a blog called Episcopal café, said that, ‘Only the most ardent homophobes are getting ready to bolt … and the separatist agenda is losing ground everywhere.

‘The idea that the average African is looking to cause a split over homosexuality is ridiculous. This is about a small coterie of leaders that over the years have received a great deal of money from American conservatives who are eager to push this agenda’ (ibid.)

Despite such bitter opposition from theological liberals, the number of churches now planted or governed in the USA by Global South dioceses number well over 250.

The South is not blind to the real reason why Anglicanism is dying in the US. ‘Sadly, the sexuality issue isn’t the issue — it’s about Scripture’, said Archbishop Gregory J. Venables, the primate of South America. What’s happened in the States is that they’ve moved away from the view that God has revealed himself in Scripture, and they’re rewriting that with post-modernity relativism’ (Ibid.).

This missional effort from the South has been a boon to conservative churches, who still face huge legal and financial woes as they seek to separate from the liberal episcopal churches.

Please pray for those Anglican Churches in the USA and Canada that are seeking to make a stand for doctrinal orthodoxy. Please ask God to continue to reform and guide them, as, within these groupings too, there is still much doctrinal confusion.

Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is now a Christian writer residing in the USA