Is the ground shifting under ACNA?

Change is afoot in the Anglican world—and already its effects are beginning to be felt.

There’s a new archbishop of Canterbury, of course, who will be formally seated in his new cathedral on Thursday. Rowan Williams was a convenient whipping boy for breakaway American Anglicans. (This is the group that has left the Episcopal Church and affiliated with various overseas provinces. Many are now grouped under the Anglican Church in North America [ACNA].) They bemoaned his alleged liberalism and chastised him for not going after “apostate” liberals more forcefully and chucking them out of the Communion.

But Justin Welby is not so easy to pigeonhole. For one thing, he’s no liberal. His public statements on sexuality-related issues, for instance, have been entirely in keeping with what ACNA Anglicans say they’ve wanted to hear from Lambeth. He comes from the centre of contemporary Anglican evangelicalism, Holy Trinity Brompton.

Yet already he’s causing ACNA Anglicans to have fits. Welby’s early statements have been all about reconciliation, a profoundly Biblical concept—and ACNA Anglicans have busily set about redefining reconciliation and downplaying its significance. A less Biblical move I cannot think of. Welby gave a major stage to the deeply holy relationship between Tory Baucum and Shannon Johnston—and GAFCON Anglicans apparently put tremendous pressure on Baucum that he had to contort his own rhetoric to end the relationship. No matter the surface justifications, this is not the move of a strong organization.

But the potentially more significant change is taking place in Rome. Anglicans don’t always like to admit it but Rome has always had huge influence on Anglicanism—things we adopt usually start there first. The stature of the pope is such that we can’t avoid the effects of what he does. ACNA Anglicans relied on Pope Benedict as a handy backstop. In his opposition to same-sex marriage, say, and his theological acumen, these Anglicans could—and did—say, “See, there’s the kind of leader we need to have—bold and orthodox.” They trumpeted their meetings with him.

Francis has only been pope for a few days but already things seem different. He talks about the poor, for one thing—a lot. There’s a hint that he was once open to blessing same sex relationships. Most significantly—and the thing I have found most appealing about him—he takes himself with a kind of holy lightness, one thing that has been in short supply in the church (of any communion) in recent years. He looks like he’s having fun.

It is way too early to say anything with any certainty but two of the verities that ACNA Anglicans have relied on in recent years—a “weak”, “liberal” leader at Lambeth and a backstop in Rome—are quickly changing. These breakaway Anglican groups have lots of money and lots of time to come up with new ways to make their case and I have no doubt they will. But the fact that they are scrambling is significant.

I don’t wish ACNA ill and I make these comments with no value judgment. But I do wish for a new narrative in Anglican relations, one that is a little more accurate, interesting, and fruitful. Change is coming. Let us hope it move us closer to reality.

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