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The Anglican Communion is already divorced (COMMENTARY)

Archbishop Justin Welby with Archbishop Eliud Wabukala during Welby's recent visit to Nairobi. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili
Archbishop Justin Welby with Archbishop Eliud Wabukala during Welby's recent visit to Nairobi. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili

Archbishop Justin Welby with Archbishop Eliud Wabukala during Welby’s recent visit to Nairobi. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili

(RNS) Is the Anglican Communion about to split over different views of sexual ethics?

You might think so after reading headlines about the archbishop of Canterbury’s proposal to “loosen” the structures of the Communion — a way of retaining his relationship to the liberal wing of the Western churches as well as the traditional Anglicans of the Global South.

But to interpret the archbishop’s recent announcement as a split over sexuality is to miss the bigger picture. First, the impending dissolution of Anglicanism as it currently exists institutionally is over much more than sex. Second, the divorce has already taken place, just not formally.

The Anglican Communion is divided over much more than sex.

The morality of homosexual behavior is the flash point in the Anglican crisis today, but the controversy over sexual ethics is just a symptom of a disease that Anglicanism has battled for decades now. Even if all Anglicans would “agree to disagree” on the nature of marriage, their differences would still be profound.


READ: Proposal to loosen Anglican Communion ties draws mixed responses


The communion is ultimately divided on the authority of the Bible. You can see the differences even in how Anglicans are responding to the news of a potential split. Archbishop Eliud Wabukala of Kenya has expressed hope that the Bible would be restored to the center of the communion. Like other African primates, Wabukala sees the crisis as much bigger than simply maintaining relationships across different cultural contexts. For Anglican leaders in the Global South, the communion is on the verge of schism because of false teaching that continues unabated, without a call to repentance or the exercise of discipline.

For decades now, traditional Anglicans have watched leaders in the West abandon key components of historic Christianity.

Back in 1963, Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson published the best-selling “Honest to God,” which criticized traditional Christian teaching and introduced situational ethics. Just before his death, author and apologist C.S. Lewis commented on Robinson’s work and others like it as “a scandal” responsible for “turning people away from the church” by “continually accommodating and whittling down the truth of the Gospel.”

Lewis wrote: “I cannot understand how a man can appear in print claiming to disbelieve everything that he presupposes when he puts on the surplice. I feel it is a form of prostitution.”

Even in 1963, Lewis saw clearly that the liberal wing of the communion maintained the form of true Christianity while denying its power.


READ: Bible must be at center of Anglican meeting, global group says


One wonders what Lewis would have thought about David Jenkins, the former bishop of Durham, England, who in the 1980s denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Or John Shelby Spong, the former bishop of Newark, N.J., who denies that Jesus was born of a virgin or raised from the dead and has argued that Christians should move away from theism (belief in God) as a foundational teaching. Or Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, who recasts the historic Christian understanding of individual conversion as a form of “heresy” and claims Jesus may not be the only way to God.

If you consider the 2003 appointment of an openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church as the origin of today’s crisis, pay closer attention. The recent crisis is merely the manifestation of deep and lasting fissures that go back for decades.

The communion is already divorced, just not formally.

The Guardian quoted an unnamed source that described the possible changes to Anglican structure as “sleeping in separate bedrooms” instead of a divorce. In other words, the Anglican “identity” can remain loosely tied to the Church of England, but common doctrine would no longer be the source of unity for the churches across the world.

But what kind of union is this? When you see the primates in Africa hoping Anglicans will restore the Bible to the heart of the communion and Western leaders condescendingly “tolerating” their global counterparts to keep formal schism from taking place, you can rest assured the communion is already divided. The schism took place decades ago; all that remains is for the divorce papers to be signed.


READ: Kim Davis’ altered marriage licenses raise legal questions


Almost a century ago, Presbyterian church leader J. Gresham Machen wrote with unusual foresight concerning the coming crises in mainline denominations.

“The great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief,” he wrote, “which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology.”

The thesis of his most famous book, “Christianity and Liberalism,” was that despite its retention of certain rituals and symbols (the worship service, the sermon, Communion), the liberal vision of Christianity was not Christianity at all, but something else altogether.

Machen’s analysis shines light on the state of Anglicanism today. There may be one Anglican Communion institutionally, but there are two Anglican Communions — one that appeals to Scripture as ultimate authority and the other that appeals to experience.

Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including "Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After." Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media

Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After.” Photo courtesy of LifeWay Media

On the one side are the shrinking liberal churches of the West, whose primary identity appears to be “running errands” for liberal social causes. On the other side are the growing churches of the Global South, whose historic connection with Christianity is doctrinal, not merely institutional.

One side of this church is a shell. The other is the heart.

(Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project and author of multiple books, including “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt and What Comes After.”)

YS/MG END WAX

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Trevin Wax

49 Comments

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  • Trevin, Perhaps you will tell about post modernism’s impact on the Christian churches and how your brand will avoid it.

  • The Protestant Reformation has officially failed. It’s time for our separated, but faithful, brothers and sisters to be reconciled to the Church.

  • The numbers have told the story for decades. I think it is hard to argue with this thesis. The sociological work of Rodney Stark on the Church in the US supports it as well.

  • Schism is not a bad thing. It is only fundamentalist foolishness which thinks there is any one singular version of a given faith (always theirs).

    Trevin Wax’s employers exist because of just such a split between a mainline church which was progressive in nature and its more bigoted relation. Given Mr. Wax’s constant denigration of mainline and progressive faiths, one need not guess which branch he works for.

    Its about time the colonialist churches split between their “mother countries” and their “former colonies”. The leadership in the developed world has much different priorities than its developing world rank and file.

    In developing countries churches can still use scare tactics, local superstition and bribery for proselytizing that they can’t do in more developed places. Its far easier to push theocratic and discriminatory agendas there. Given the weak governments, it is far easier for these churches to entangle themselves within a given society.

  • He’s an employee of the Southern Baptist Convention. His church has been fighting modern thought ever since people objected to owning humans as chattel property.

  • Jesus was long dead before they made a religion according to his words.

    I would think he would be doing a lot of facepalming if he saw what people did and said in his name.

  • Saint Paul started the process on not owning people.

    Christians are not owned by their enemies either. Except of course in Muslim countries. And parts of the USA in the progressive states.

    FYI

  • Nancy,

    Pearls before swine?

    Don’t water your time on the persecutors.

    Jesus has a way with logic, reason and absolute fact.

    All these anti’ can do is rant and bash.

    BB

  • Not even remotely true.

    Slavery would continue for over 1600 years since then. Slavery considered to be well in line with Christian belief and practice for all but a handful of sects. The idea that slavery was reviled by Christianity in scripture and practice, in its entirety, is fiction.

    Trevin Wax’s denomination was FOUNDED on the idea that God supported the right to own human beings as property.

  • Oh no, I am calling you out on nonsense and fictions you give on behalf of your religion. Such persecution! I guess you were persecuted when they said there was no Easter Bunny or Santa Clause. 🙂

    I am doing you guys a favor by forcing you to come up with original arguments rather than resort to the canned bovine fertilizer that passes for fundamentalist talking points.

  • He’s just repeating the myth of Shawnie.

    St. Paul started the process. 1800 years later, it was a done deal. Therefore, Christianity is responsible for the removal of slavery.

  • Memory troubles, Ben?

    Slavery dwindled away as Christianity spread, until by the 1100s it was a done deal in Christendom — while it was going strong everywhere else (the fabled “innate human empathy” notwithstanding). Increased contact with Islam during the age of exploration brought it back, only for Christianity (and nothing else) to render it a “done deal” a second time.

    Still waiting for that list of atheist abolitionists…

  • BB,

    “Jesus has a way with logic, reason and absolute fact.”

    And you, BB, have a way with myths, fantasy, and imaginary facts.

  • Slavery of Christians dwindled away in the Middle ages with lack of centralized governments necessary to enforce it and economic conditions, which made serfdom more tenable. Slavery of non-Christians was always going full force whenever possible. Especially when Europeans found a source of heathen manpower in its imperial efforts. Once it became economically viable again, slavery was resumed with no sort of resistance from the majority of Christian sects.

    The fact that slavery was endorsed by most Christian sects for 90% of the history of the faith refutes any claims that the faith has any inherent objection to the practice.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2011/01/the-abolition-spirit-is-undeniably-atheistic/
    “in this great struggle, we defend the cause of God and religion. The abolition spirit is undeniably atheistic ”
    Benjamin Palmer-Theologian

    Plus there is Elizur Wright, atheist, abolitionist, and actuary.

  • More to the point, Trevin Wax’s denomination, The Southern Baptist was founded on the religious defense of slavery.

  • OMG, Larry found himself an atheist who qualifies as an abolitionist! Never mind that the man was a born-and-bred Christian abolitionist, of Christian abolitionist parents, until later in life when he became an atheist at about the same time he largely lost interest in abolitionism. Good job, Lare!

    And as you have pointed out many times, theologians like Benjamin Palmer are not historians — as most historians are quite aware of the roots of abolitionism going back to late antiquity. And would, as well, laugh at your assertions that medieval Christian Europe was, alone among all of the regions of the world at the time, unable to support and enforce slavery.

    More than 500 Native American tribes simultaneously occupying the North American continent could keep and trade slaves quite effortlessly — but a handful of European nations could not. LOL!

  • Some research on the guy noted he became an atheist out of a love of education and his disgust with the way Christians dealt with matters like slavery. Go figure.

    Theologians are not historians, but they are good at describing how Christians thought and believed during their time. Any pretense that Christianity in its totality opposed slavery is bereft of any factual support.

    Your lack of knowledge as to life in the Dark/Middle ages is duly noted. Feudal lords were hardly like Roman aristocrats. Their power was dependent on contributing military service to a monarch, they couldn’t expect cooperation from their fellows and had no centralized government to hunt runaways and had to deal with increased urbanization which could easily hide fugitive slaves. Serfdom worked far better with limited resources.

    Native Americans could rely on low population density and insularity of their tribal communities. One simply could not blend in to a new tribe from the outside.

  • “Feudal lords…had no centralized government to hunt runaways and had to deal with increased urbanization which could easily hide fugitive slaves.”

    Sounds a lot like medieval Norway, in which slavery and other atrocities flourished just fine…until the nation became Christian under Olaf Tryggvason and suddenly abolished slavery. Another one of those doggone coincidences…

    “Native Americans could rely on low population density and insularity of their tribal communities. One simply could not blend in to a new tribe from the outside.”

    Native American tribes were not “insular” and bringing in people from outside to “blend in” was their primary means of population replacement after warfare. Neither the presence nor the lack of cities or “central government” presented any obstacle to slavery in any other culture on earth. It was omnipresent. Certainly atheism contributed nothing to counter it. Only Christianity produces abolitionists.

  • “Theologians are not historians, but they are good at describing how Christians thought and believed during their time.”

    Here is what “rational people” thought about the movement for abolition and its roots: “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade public life.” — Future British Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, in response to the efforts of William Wilberforce and others to abolish the slave trade in America.

    Gee, where have we heard THAT sentiment before??? 😀

  • The Church began restricting slavery at the beginning, and by 500 realized that it was incompatible with Christian equality and love. By 1100, it was nearly gone from Europe. Slavery lingered on in the margins during the Medieval period and was not revived until the Conquistadors conquered the New World. The Church immediately condemned the enslavement and massacre of the natives and Africans, held a conference confirming their historical opposition to chattel slavery. One pope even excommunicated slave traders. Nobody paid the least attention. This is history, not opinion. Larry is incorrect because he is focusing on the marginal denominations, not the broad general consensus of the majority of Western Christianity. Science said that slavery was good for Blacks, not the Christian church.

  • Please guys by all means make the claim that Mr Wax’s denomination isn’t really Christian because it was founded to defend slavery. That is what you are trying to say when you make the fictitious claim that Christianity as an entire faith opposed slavery.

    Go right on ahead and call him an apostate. That is your real point here. 🙂

    Oh wait, being a fundamentalist means never having to be honest or consistent in ones arguments.

  • No the bible is pretty explicit in its slavery advocacy and detailed instructions for what owners can do with slaves. Can’t take that back.

  • “You make the fictitious claim that Christianity as an entire faith opposed slavery.”

    Nobody has made that claim. I do claim, however, that virtually all of the opposition that civilization has ever managed to muster against slavery has come from within Christianity. It’s simply a fact of history.

  • Ed – The OT was the first code of laws in a world with universal slavery that gave rights and protections to slaves. The NT said slaves had to be treated exactly like family, and that soon developed into the realization that this meant abolishing slavery. Slavery was universal. Only the Christian religion and Christian civilizations abolished it. It’s hard to abolish something that is universal, and it was uneven and hard, but we’re the only ones who tried.

  • More like so many people were pressured into being Christians at that time that it was very tough to be an exception. Christian bully is what you are now too Shawnie. Same old same old Christian push and shove, never changes.

  • Yeah, sounds like Lord Melbourne was one of those. Claim nominal Christianity, chase the pop culture, and look down your nose at those who actually find life-changing power in the gospel.

  • It isn’t that the Law no longer rules — it’s that the bar is far higher, for Jesus’s purpose is to restore us to the kind of fellowship God originally meant for us to have with Him.

  • You sure seem to be the experienced one here at looking down your nose. “Life-changing power” ha, for you that comes more from Christian bullying. That’s the power you wield.

  • Bullcr-ap again from you Shawnie. The OT was all too clear and onside for owning and bashing slaves, and Jesus said it still rules. Your god book was wrong then and is wrong now.

    Can’t take that back so eat your lumps all hearty now and no more sneering.

  • That is because you are too much of a dishonest apologetic to follow through on your argument. If slavery was so unchristian, Southern Baptists must be apostates for being its chief defenders in America.

    I see you have decided to shift goalposts once more. You backed off of the claim Christianity opposed slavery inherently. The claim bb made and you chimed in to defend. That renders your input here a complete waste of time. Whatever. What else is new?

    There is no point any further comments on such an obvious digression.

  • I never moved any goalposts, Lare. You did that by trying to attribute a claim to me that I never made. Just like almost every liberal with whom I have ever attempted to converse. No strawmen, nothin’ doin’.

    Obviously not all Christians have been abolitionists, but just about all abolitionists have been Christians — because only Christianity could come up with a compelling argument against it. It’s that simple.

  • Trevin,

    As a congregant in a shrinking liberal church of the West, I must tell I’m offended to be referred to as a mere shell of Christianity’s promise.

    I am also offended to have my differences with many churches of the Global South misrepresented, and painted with the same brush as the theological fringes of liberalism.

    My stances on sexual ethics, particularly as they relate to homosexuality, may be a terrible flashpoint for the Communion, but I come by them through Scripture. The Bible has offered me this view, not the other way around. You may feel that I have gone astray, but at least do me the respect of not treating me like I’ve done so out of laziness, or disregard for God.

    One last thing. Many of the Bishops in your “heart” side of the church fully extol the virtues of laws that criminalize homosexuality, even to the point of a capital offense. Do you really believe the heart of Christianity is to condemn, jail and often murder homosexuals? Where is the…

  • So you agree with the African Anglican (but American Evangelical inspired) effort at emulating ISIS, in jailing and murdering gays. That is what you are advocating. Giving credence to persecution/pogroms.

  • >>The communion is ultimately divided on the authority of the Bible. You can see the differences even in how Anglicans are responding to the news of a potential split. Archbishop Eliud Wabukala of Kenya has expressed hope that the Bible would be restored to the center of the communion.<<

    If Christ and His Scriptures are not the center of and authority in your life why bother calling yourself a Christian? In my mind the Anglican Church has long ceased to be Christian.

  • My memory is quite good. I’m just not willing to pollute the facts.

    According to you and others, Christianity shaped Europe and created its culture. So, it is not too surprising that anti-slavery thought came from Christians; they were the dominant intellectual force in Europe. There were few atheist abolitionist atheists for the obvious reason: there were few atheists in a time when it could get your murdered, jailed, or ostracized.

    you claim that poor, victimized Christians caught the slavery disease from the heathens and the arabs. The virtual slavery of the Indians in California under “Father” Serra would disagree as would the Indians in colonial mexico.

    Not to mention: One more claim: poor widdle Christians are always victims. Like the claim that Hitler wasn’t a Christian: a lot of REAL Christian germans bought the crap he was selling. It appealed to them.

    What remains? Methodists split over slavery, as did Baptists. The Baptists apologized for it in 1995.

  • Yet another “no true Christian” fetishist.

    Where exactly does the bible recommend imprisonment and judicial murder for gay people? Where does it condone exclusion of gay people from anti discrimination laws, exclusion from adoption of needy children, exclusion from the military, or refusal to obey the civil law that governs all of us?

    where does it support four times married Kim Davis? Or thrice married fornicating adulterous Newt Gingrich, who can divorce his current adulterous wife and get married again tomorrow?

    What you are complaining about is that your particular, peculiar version of Christianity isn’t the only one, and has no authority over the lives of others in civil law.

    It would seem to me that a great many Christian clergy know far more about sharia than a great many imams.

  • “So, it is not too surprising that anti-slavery thought came from Christians; they were the dominant intellectual force in Europe. There were few atheist abolitionist atheists for the obvious reason: there were few atheists”

    Ben, again you miss the point. “Anti-slavery thought” did not just spring up accidentally in a place that happened to be predominantly Christian. It flowed logically from the premises of Christianity, the Imago Dei in particular. Otherwise we would have expected to see it elsewhere in the world. But. We. Don’t.

    I am often amused when scoffers characterize the Renaissance/Age of Exploration, closely followed by the Enlightenment, as the era when intelligent people “threw off the shackles of religious thought” or somesuch. Does it even occur to you that this was also the time of slavery’s revival–heartily endorsed by those same “enlightenment men?” And who stepped up again to oppose it?

    C’mon, Ben. You’re smarter than this.

  • Ben, the New Testament, set forth by our Lord Jesus, calls ALL to repentance, and all to live in a manner in accord with the Will of God. The gay lifestyle is just one of the grave sins that must be avoided. You mentioned adultery, as well, and the list goes on. Everyone has their own cross to bear. And each person must battle their desires & temptations, which violate the Will of God. Yes we all fail, but we must get back up, and go to battle once again. I am currently reading a book by Sister Emmanuel, called, Peace Will have the Last Word, and it is a collection of mini-stories of how God has worked in the lives of many people. One was a man named Dave, who was sexually abused by his male neighbor at age 7, since then his life was one of disgust, and he eventually decided to commit suicide. But before doing so, he went to Medjugorje, and while there, Mary spoke to him, and promised him if he would give her his problems, and allowed her to lead him, she would. And indeed she has

  • As a cradle Anglican, I have lived through the global struggles of the Anglican communion as well as the devolution of its western branch.

    Some of the comments above either state or imply that everyone or most everyone who does not approve the ordination of homosexuals or their promotion to bishop and even beyond wants them enslaved or murdered. What utter nonsense.

    The original article is correct in its interpretation that the essential schism in our communion is — from my lifelong experience — exactly as described.

  • And which church would that be. I see no evidence that the reformation has failed in fact I see it stronger then ever. you will also see false teachers in the catholic church right up to the popes themselves.

  • It’s Shawnie again shoving the goalposts around as usual, standard Christian bully tactics, no surprise there. Your book of slave treatment is very explicit on some pretty vicious treatment of slaves, and other people too.

  • I’m not Anglican but sine I have several good friends who are, I came here interested to find out what is going on in their communion only to find that this article is written by a Southern Baptist.

    I’m guessing Southern Baptists would’t want people from other denominations writing authoritative-sounding articles about the inner workings of their denomination so I don’t think Mr. Wax should have done the same.

    To think that he should have passed such judgments in so authoritative a tone is arrogant and presumptuous. I guess I shouldn’t even be surprised at such things anymore but the arrogance and presumption is astounding, nevertheless.

    Were there no Anglicans (or even former Anglicans) who could have written this article?

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