The Anglican Communion effectively banished its American branch, the Episcopal Church, for three years last week because of disputes about same-sex marriage. That rift is just the surface of a much deeper division, reflecting the polarization of Christian life in the 21st century.
The Anglican Communion, which began as the Church of England under Henry VIII, is now a global network spanning 165 countries. There are about 85 million Anglicans in the world, including about 2 million Episcopalians mostly in the U.S. As of this week, however, those Episcopalians are second-class Anglicans: Members cannot vote in any Anglican Communion decisions on church doctrine and cannot represent the communion in any interfaith bodies. Essentially, for three years, Episcopalians are Anglicans without any standing in their own church.
The suspension took place at a meeting of “Primates,” the archbishops and other leaders representing the 44 constituent Churches of the Anglican Communion. The reason for suspension came last June when the Episcopal Church removed doctrinal language defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and authorized marriage rites for same-sex couples. While it’s still up to individual churches whether to solemnize same-sex unions, but the vote formally allowed them to do so.
According to the Primates, these actions were improper because the Episcopal Church acted on its own. “Such unilateral actions,” the Primates said in their official statement, are “a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion.”
According to some Episcopal leaders, that is bunk. National church bodies routinely make doctrinal decisions on their own. (Some Anglican Churches still do not ordain women, for example.) What this is really about is homosexuality—and what that is really about is what kind of church the Anglican Communion is today.
The answer, for decades now, is a divided one.
Until the 19th century, the Anglican Church was—as the name implies—basically British, and headed officially by the British monarch. With the spread of the British Empire, however, came the spread of Anglicanism to all corners of the world. By the end of the century, the contemporary Anglican Communion came into being, including not only the Churches of England, Scotland, and Ireland, but also the Episcopal Church and churches in “provinces” across the world.
Two major developments created the schism facing the church today: the liberalization of the Episcopal Church, and the growth in power and numbers of African, Asian, and South American ones.
George Washington was an Episcopalian. So were Madison, Monroe, FDR, and seven other presidents—11 in total. And in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Episcopal Church was perhaps the leading Christian denomination in America.
During this time, Episcopalianism embodied American propriety and upper-class values—conservative but reasonable. J.P. Morgan, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush. Prim church services, without the Catholic “smells and bells” but with the decorum and hierarchy. V-neck sweaters, pearls, and country clubs.
That began to change in the civil rights era. African American parishes had been around since the 1850s, but often separate but (un-)equal. In 1958, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention passed a resolution affirming “the natural dignity and value of every man, of whatever color or race, as created in the image of God.” Over the objections of Southern leaders, the church began to take sides in the civil rights struggles of the time.
The change was gradual and uneven, but by the end of 1970s, liberals had the upper hand, and conservatives had mostly left, often to join the newly minted Christian Right, made up largely of evangelicals, Baptists and Catholics. Women were ordained as priests in 1976, and as bishops in 1989. Prim church services started to loosen up. By the 1990s, the Episcopal Church had changed from the starchy denomination of Rockefeller Republicans to a smaller denomination of (mostly) liberals.
At the same time, the rest of the Anglican Communion was changing radically, with adherents in the Global South coming to outnumber those in Europe and North America. The churches in British Commonwealth countries emerged in different social contexts, with different values, and different (often hostile) relationships to liberalism. Moreover, they found themselves competing with evangelical inroads, conservative (until two years ago) Catholicism, and Islam, with the most pious-seeming religious tradition often “winning.” For all these reasons and more, the emergent Anglicanism of the Global South was a far more conservative Anglicanism even than the old Episcopalianism, let alone the new one.
The watershed moment came at an important Anglican conference in 1998, when theological conservatives from Africa, Asia, and Latin America defeated the liberals on a key vote: homosexuality.
Arguably, the split we saw last week is just a later stage of the process begun 18 years ago. Homosexuality is the catalyst but not the only contentious issue. To liberals, the Episcopal Church is moving into the 21st century, setting aside Biblical fundamentalism and responding to how people actually live their lives. But to Anglican conservatives, the Episcopal Church has lost its way, moving toward a mushy universalism that downplays Christian exclusivity in favor of pluralism, and takes liberal positions on abortion, LGBT equality, and other hot-button issues.
Perhaps the great open question in American religion is whether liberal denominations like Episcopalianism have a future or not. (As Jack Jenkins at ThinkProgress noted, Presbyterianism—Donald Trump’s denomination—is even more liberal than the Episcopal Church, and Presbyterian leaders have frequently criticized Trump’s positions on immigration and Islam.) American Christianity in general is in a period of steep decline, and mainline Protestant denominations—plus white, non-Hispanic Catholics—are declining the most.
We are moving toward a religiously polarized America. Thirty percent of Americans between the ages of 18-29 profess “none” as their religious affiliation, while at the other extreme, around 35 percent of Americans subscribe to a resurgent ultra-fundamentalist evangelicalism. (77 percent of those evangelicals believe we’re living in the End Times.) Mainline Protestants, once the dominant religious group in America, are now just 18 percent of the population. Episcopalians are less than 1 percent.
To the extent religion continues to provide a source of inspiration, community, purpose, and ethical motivation in people’s lives, liberal Christianity should have a lot to offer, seeing as it provides those things without preposterous beliefs, divisive social mores, or fire-breathing sermons. And it does, to many. But even though 92 percent of Americans say they believe in God, they seem uninterested in expressing that belief in moderate, reasonable churches.
The American religious landscape, then, resembles the Anglican Communion as a whole. On one end, a shrinking number of religious liberals, and at the other, a fierce religious conservatism. In coming apart at the seams, the Anglican Church looks a lot like us.