Anglican Dissipation: The Break-Up of the World's Largest Small Group

In the wake of the decennial Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, the distinguished British magazine  The Economist muses about why the Anglican Communion is in such trouble compared to other churches:

“Most churches are riven by tensions: it is not so long ago that the Roman Catholic Opus Dei glared at liberation theologists, and Moscow’s Orthodox still squabble like mad with Constantinople’s. But Anglicans lack the glue that binds those churches together: the power of the pope to impose discipline on straying Catholics; the body of undisputed theology that unites Orthodox believers even when they quarrel. Anglicanism works through relationships, a sense of belonging to a family with a shared inheritance. That now has waned. Despite the apparent reprieve, this year’s Lambeth conference could well be the last of its kind.”

There’s a lot going on in the Anglican Communion and I don’t pretend to understand it all. But one thought has occurred to me: We’re seeing something at a huge scale that I’ve seen much closer to home.

Christians, like people in general, get together and stay together for one or more of various reasons. They like each other and want to spend time together. They have a common concern and can pursue it better together than separately. They are compelled to congregate by an authority they each recognize. There is some powerful ulterior motive, such as financial advantage, to be gained. Or the choice is between associating with this lot versus other, even less desirable, people.

Anglicans no longer have a common concern sufficient to get together and stay together. They believe radically different things about every major point of Christian doctrine, and the argument over homosexuality is really just the last bit of theological and ethical consensus giving way. They believe radically different things about what the church is and what it is for. They believe radically different things about what should be done to heal this division. And they believe radically different things about where the church’s best future lies. What remains that they agree on now is utterly insufficient to justify the pain of constantly encountering what they disagree on.

Anglicans do not have an authority that compels them to get together. The Economist means that they lack a pope. But they have no other, Protestant authority, either. They disagree about the value, function, and teaching of church tradition. They disagree about the authority and interpretation of the Bible. They disagree about what they believe the Holy Spirit is saying today. So they lack even the grounds upon which to argue about this or that question, whether homosexuality, or the authority of bishops, or even whether and why they should remain in communion with each other.

What about an ulterior motive? The great Canadian church historian John Webster Grant used to observe, in his deadpan way, that a lot of ecumenism is prompted by money. His own United Church of Canada came together in the 1920s largely because its constituent denominations found it ridiculous to support each their own tiny churches dotting the vast Canadian prairies.

The Anglicans can afford to split up. The liberal churches are nicely endowed in Britain and North America (where most or all of them are located) while the more conservative churches generally have the support of enthusiastic and growing congregations who can endure whatever temporary hardship is imposed by the loss of church property. (I’m not implying, by the way, that they ought to lose their property. Heretical bishops that want to clutch the buildings of congregations they have alienated by their declension from the faith merely add to their eventual woes before the Last Judgment.) So there is insufficient financial incentive to stay together.

Finally, there seems to be no external threat, at least in the West, sufficient to warrant Anglicans remaining together as the least bad of the range of alternatives. In countries facing a powerful countervailing force, such as militant Islam or Communism, Christians might decide to remain together, disputes and all, for fear of what might happen if they don’t. But the Anglican Church in the (North-)West has become so comfortable in mainstream society that the genuinely anti-Christian forces of secularism, consumerism, and hedonism seem vague and unthreatening—although, of course, they aren’t.

That leaves mere affection and affinity. And there’s precious little left of those.

So the worldwide Anglican Communion is disintegrating just like a typical church “small group.” Once the common concern for worship or education or evangelism or other ministry disappears, there’s no other reason to keep meeting. Appeals to “fellowship” and “community” might keep it together a few more weeks or months, but pretty soon people ask out loud just why they’re bothering to meet together when they can enjoy fellowship and community with people who actually share their most important concerns and will enjoy working with them to further those concerns.

Jesus called Christians together in order to worship, to build each other up in the faith, and to serve a needy world. He never said that getting together for the sake of getting together was enough.

And it isn’t . . . as the Anglicans worldwide are now proving.

0 Responses to “Anglican Dissipation: The Break-Up of the World's Largest Small Group”

  1. Alex

    Where will all these disappearing Anglicans go? To which church will they find a home? I hope they don’t simply not go to church anymore.

  2. Peter

    i think there is at least one other thing that ties Anglicans together: the Book of Common Prayer. it is true for sure that people feel comfortable in a recognizable environment, for the most part. so Anglicans the world around can unite on this one thing.

    i agree with your perspective for the most part, but i felt the last commment may have been a little strong. i do think there is much merit for meeting together with other Christians. and there is huge merit of staying together in communion regardless of theological differences.

    of course, at some point, this is no longer possible, but i believe that there are many things that make us fellow members more so than drive us apart. for instance, i dont think that splitting over doctrine is a good thing, unless that doctrine denies the life death and resurrection of Jesus as Christ and the Son of God our Lord and Savior. This truly is central to our walks and homosexuality is not (nor most of the divisive issues). although i believe homosexuality is a sin and there shouldnt be gay clergy, this doesnt mean i should divide from brothers who interpret Scripture differently.

    just my perspective…

    by the way, one of the biggest influences has been francis schaeffer’s the mark of a Christian. schaeffer being very conservative and from a denomination whose background is covered with separations and splits (and schaeffer himself early in life went through a separating from the presbyterian denomination he was a part of, only to regret the split later).


  3. Wil


    WIth all due respect, your comments serve to underline the confusion non-Anglicans feel at your perspective. There are many bad reasons for Christians to split up just as there are many good reasons for Christians to split up.

    Speaking in tongues – not the best reason, in my opinion.

    Denying the Trinity – good reason.

    It seems as though, from an outsider’s point of view, some Anglicans can’t differentiate between a different perspective and a wrong one. If the Bible calls some behaviour a sin, and others have to do theological gymnastics to try to justify it and celebrate it, what common ground do you have? Either something is sin or it is not. Sure, the divinity of Jesus is a topic to divide over, but half of the old Testament and New Testament deals with how God’s Chosen people succumb to false sexual gods, Baal and Ashteroth. The Old Testament Prophets and Saint Peter both tell God’s people to abstain from sexual sin, or else we will not inherit the Kingdom of God. There is no room for ‘dialogue’ there, and now for the Anglicans, there is no more time.

  4. preacherman

    I have been asking the same questions as #1. Thank you for addressing this brother. I hope you have a wonderful week in Jesus Christ.

  5. Paul

    As an orthodox insider in this whole mess, a couple reasons some of us are committed to staying:

    1. We believe in the resurrection. Not only do we believe in the actual, historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. But we also believe that resurrection is the model of how God deals with the world. Life emerging from death. Apostles emerging from pharisees. Faithfulness emerging from unfaithfulness. (I only have to look at the liberalism I was raised in to see this in my own story).

    2. We believe in leaving the 99 in search of the one lost sheep. It is often said that there is more faithfulness in Canadian Anglican pews than in pulpits. There are faithful believers (individuals and parishes) throughout the Anglican Provinces of the West whose clergy, parishes, and bishops are abandoning orthodox faith. Who will care for them, gather them, walk with them? What about so many parishioners who I have met who hold the default liberal position of the denomination without education or much conviction? Who can preach to them, lovingly struggle with them, commend to them a different (orthodox) way to see these issues? (Again, I’ve seen incredible metanoia in some of these “lost sheep” that I’ve been privileged to know.)

    3. We also believe that persecution is inevitable — even within the Christian family. I can’t read the New Testament (or the Hebrew Bible) for that matter without being confronted by the inevitability of persecution of the faithful. I know what it means to be hated, ridiculed, and even barred from “promotion” in a denomination that is mostly controlled by liberals. And yet, I still have a parish, a pulpit, an altar, and a authorized voice in my denomination. And miraculously, sometimes the voice of the persecuted is heard — even by the liberal leadership.

    Certainly it is not supposed to be like this. Jesus’ High Priestly prayer (“that they would be one, as we are one” ) is the right picture of Christian community. And yet, everywhere I look (inside and outside my denomination) I see heresies, controversies, and bad-blood between brothers and sisters in Christ. So, until the structures change (which they may well) so that orthodoxy is forbidden within Anglicanism, some orthodox priests, like me, will remain.

    Pray for us.

  6. John Stackhouse

    Brother Paul,

    Thanks for writing, and you know I agree with you. Indeed, my post attempts only to describe and explain, certainly not to prescribe. Your vocation is one that is, in my view, entirely honorable and I am confident it will continue to bear good fruit.

    Indeed, those who think you should just leave might ask themselves: Suppose Brother Donison was given instead a teaching position among Mormons? Or Muslims? Or Marxists? Should he give that up? Maybe, but also maybe not!

    Of course these situations aren’t parallel! The Anglican Church of Canada is still officially Christian and contains many faithful Christians–unlike the other scenarios I mention. I’m just saying that it would be odd, if not contradictory, for certain orthodox Christians to chide you for remaining in a pluralistic situation if they would also be excited about a Christian voice in a clearly non-Christian one.

    So let us bless those who will stay in as well as those who separate, since both could well be led by the Spirit to different modes of service.

  7. mac

    So it comes to this, Jesus’ vision of vines being pruned by God in John.

  8. Raj Rao

    Dr. Stackhouse,
    I dont know if this is the best place to post this, but… is it possible for you to increase the font size of your blog?

    ~Raj Rao

  9. John Stackhouse

    Dear Raj Rao–and others suffering, as I do, with this smallish font,

    The short answer is No, I can’t increase the font size. But your browser should let you increase the viewing size, no?

  10. Daniel Ginn

    Quoting John Stackhouse–“I’m just saying that it would be odd, if not contradictory, for certain orthodox Christians to chide you for remaining in a pluralistic situation if they would also be excited about a Christian voice in a clearly non-Christian one.”

    Wow, there could be a whole sermon–or even a book–based off that statement. In fact, I feel like that’s a good criticism of some of us evangelical (capitalize it in your mind if you feel appropriate) Protestants in general.

    How do we be in the world and not of the world? Is our primary virtue as Christians to be prudence, or is it to be charity? How does one balance “Bad company corrupts good character” against “Love the sinner but hate the sin”?

    And, more particularly for me in my own wrestlings with God, am I merely masking my own pathetic patterns of idolatry by engaging a community of fellow hobbyists and white-washing my involvment by calling it a “mission field opportunity” or whatever appropriate out-reach jargon you’d slap on it?

    I ask forgiveness of those whom I’ve jarred with my seeming non sequitors. This conversation reminded me of my own struggles, so I thought I’d share a few of the thoughts running through my mind.

    But praise God for His great grace, even when I fail to get it right. And that’s probably not only me but all of us. Even since becoming a Christian, I’ve never stopped needing the passive righteousness afforded by the Atonement.

  11. William Millsaps

    I am grateful that this particular blog of John Stackhouse was sent to me. Having left the “establishment” years ago, I still see there is no perfect church body. I was not seeking one then either, but I was seeking a body where there was
    agreement on many basic things and to avoid spending the rest of my life in debate within the Church on even the most elemental teachings.In my opinion Anglicanism is still more of a “club” than a Church and a parade rather than a procession. There are many devout Christians in the club, but there is the tendency to think those in the club are just more upper class than those not in it. Pride is one of the deadly sins. None of us can destroy it within ourselves, only God can shatter the false images of that mirror.


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