Editor: From time to time, this site posts articles that speak to the larger issues of Anglican unity. While not endorsing every position held by Dr. Toon, there is much to consider in this offering written almost a decade ago.
The Anglican Continuum – some thoughts for its renewal
One of the realities that advocates and members of the Anglican Way have to face in the USA is the divided state of what has been called the "Continuum" or "the Continuing Anglican Churches." These bodies (or the original components of them) separated from the Episcopal Church in the 1970s, often as a haven for conscientious laity, clergy, and even parishes that had been persecuted in the ECUSA for their faith. Their announced purpose was to maintain classic Anglican orthodoxy in doctrine, liturgy, and polity.
Thus it is that the divisions of the Continuum bring embarrassment and pain to all faithful Anglicans seeking to fulfill the same purpose, for they cause good people to be set against each other. Furthermore, ordinary people (either as observers or as victims of these divisions) find it difficult to see why there should be so many competing Continuing groups (20 plus) — each with its own bishops — claiming to be authentic jurisdictions of the one Anglican Way. The question becomes in their minds, "Was this a painful but necessary separation for the sake of the faith, or was it only an institutional secession for the sake of the ambition of men?"
What kinds of explanation can be offered to begin to understand this sad state of affairs and, thus, begin to work for its healing?
1. However righteous and just be the Continuing Churches’ complaint against the cultural captivity of the present-day ECUSA, they are themselves too much a part of the surrounding secular culture. Individualism, understood as the unencumbered "right" to hold any opinion and always to "do one’s own thing," is a prime doctrine of that secular culture. Competitive religious bodies, each majoring on minors (and claiming those "minors" as the distinctives of their "true identity") are endemic in the American cultural and religious scene. Thus, when there is a disagreement, great or small, it is often easier for a group to subdivide, with each subdivision going its own way and claiming that division is "God’s will," than it is to take up the hard work of agreement and reconciliation. The "curse" of the American supermarket of religions is not only the continuing competition of churches, but also the constant addition of new religions and the failure of old ones.
2. Once the Continuum had broken with the ECUSA in the 1970s, the traditionalists within it did not take seriously enough the danger that the principle of secession might very well become a part of their ethos. When such a principle becomes part of the ethos of a religious body, it is relatively easy to resort to secession again and again when challenging circumstances arrive. It is also relatively easy to find justification for doing so, especially in the name of an imaginary "perfection" or "purity" that is simply impossible in this fallen world. The Anglicans of the 1780s in a newly independent Church in a newly independent republic faced the same danger, but they overcame it by achieving a spiritual communion strong enough and humble enough to discern the difference between the universal and the purely local, the essential and the non-essential.
3. Not a few of the original organizers of the Continuum were of a very strongly Anglo-Catholic persuasion. Many of them were veterans of the bruisingly partisan conflicts over churchmanship that took place in the ECUSA in the 1930s through the 1960s. Their experience of conflict, often courageous, left them ill-prepared to embrace a spirit of comprehensiveness, both principled and irenic, that would allow the presence of both high and low churchmen in the same diocese. Rather, it seemed only right to them that all clergy and all parishes should be of the same Anglo-Catholic mindset. This attitude is still an important ingredient of the Continuum. It is fair to suspect that given the seriousness of the faith of so many in the Continuum, that the Continuing Churches would have grown rather larger and more robust if they had welcomed more readily a wider range of the historically legitimate expressions of the Anglican Way. It is also fair to note, as a cautionary example, that one of the earliest Continuing Churches took an equally exclusivist approach at the other end of the spectrum of churchmanship. It has essentially withered away.
4. A vast number of the members of the Continuum have not asked themselves critically enough the hard question, "Precisely what are we continuing?" As Moses learned long ago, it is much easier for a people to leave Egypt than it is for those people to leave the ways of Egypt behind. Those who left the sick and diseased ECUSA often brought with them the same sickness and disease that had blighted that body, transplanting them into their new ecclesiastical bodies. Thus there entered into the Continuum (howbeit now in a conservative ethos) much of the same brutal, secular political activity that was endemic in the ECUSA. While some in the Continuing Churches have recognized this disease and desired to be cured of it, many have sought, not a new start based on godliness and good learning, but merely a correct liturgy or some other particular interest of their own. Such an approach has done little to heal the politicized minds of their members. Thus politics, not as the art of the possible among those who share in good faith a common polity, but as a way of getting one's own agenda accepted, has characterized much of the Continuum for two decades.
5. The people and leaders of the Continuing Churches, just as is true of every other human being in this fallen world, suffer from both original and actual sin. It would also appear that some of the clergy of the Continuum suffer in particular from the sins of pride and vainglory. However unpleasant it is to say, this seems to be the only rational way to explain the tremendous competition among them to be bishops, or the claims of some of their bishops to excessive titles. Another form of pride, equally destructive in the ECUSA (where it began), is the importation into the Church of secular management theory and techniques. Too many of the clergy, and especially of the bishops, act as if they were not the godly pastors and shepherds of Christ’s Church, but merely the chief executive officers of small religious corporations. Both sorts of pride serve to create divisions and then to maintain them.
What initial suggestions can be offered to begin the work of repentance, reconciliation, and union that we all seek for the sake of Jesus Christ’s Church and the preservation of the Anglican Way?
1. Pray the Lord to send a godly leader or a small group whom all or most of the Continuum can accept, and who can begin the task of uniting the divided.
2. Pray the Lord to use the current negotiations between overseas Primates of the Anglican Communion and conservative leaders within the ECUSA to lead to a new orthodox Province of the Communion in which a large space will be made for the Continuum.
3. Pray the Lord to impress on the minds of the present leaders of the Continuum (and on the minds of their parishioners) the need to be specifically committed to the primary Formulary of the Holy Scriptures as the foundation upon which have been built the secondary formulary of the dogma of the Ecumenical Councils and the historic and classic formularies of the Anglican Way (the BCP, the Ordinal, and the Articles—as adopted by the PECUSA, 1789-1801). Holding to the Anglican formularies will bring a sense of comprehensiveness and allow for a variety of churchmanship and ceremonial in any one diocese.
4. Suggest to any Anglican group that has, as a matter of deepest conscience, a greater sense of empathy with the Roman Catholic Church than with the Anglican Communion of Churches, especially if it is using a Liturgy that is more Roman than Anglican, that those who cannot follow them in that direction will honor and respect their decision to pursue a closer or explicit connection with the Roman Church. At some point, however, and with all due respect, it is fair to ask them as a matter of conscience whether or not they should continue to use the name "Anglican" (which is best reserved for those who live within the comprehensiveness of the historic Anglican Formularies). Such a question is asked, not to exclude, but to seek clarity in the lives and work of those who do embrace the Anglican Formularies wholeheartedly. Nor does it preclude the establishment of lawful alternative uses, under the authority of the Anglican Formularies, as is already the case in certain of the Continuing Churches.
5. Suggest to all in the Continuum that they seek to have fraternal relations with the conservative elements in the ECUSA, the Anglican Church of Canada, and the other Churches of the Anglican Communion that are fighting the same fight for the honor of Christ and the welfare of his Church.
The Rev’d Dr Peter Toon, November 15th 1999