The Anglican Church in North America turns 10 as the battle for Biblical fidelity continues
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Rugged pioneers settled a desolate landscape in the plains of north Texas nearly two centuries ago. So, it seems fitting for a group of Christians who fled an arid spiritual landscape more than a decade ago to gather here and survey their progress after pulling up stakes to build something new.
These Anglicans aren’t cowboys, but they do know something about tough conditions: Many walked away from valuable church property and comfortable church networks to break ties with The Episcopal Church (TEC) over issues of Biblical fidelity. They eventually formed the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Last month the group marked its 10th anniversary during an assembly at Christ Church here, 20 miles north of Dallas.
A showdown over homosexuality was the flash point for many churches leaving TEC, but the conflict had much deeper roots. Some Episcopalian bishops had long since rejected the authority of Scripture, the resurrection of Jesus, and the exclusivity of Christianity. And those who were Biblically faithful had a big problem: TEC hierarchs would not let them maintain faithful witness.
The faithful needed help—and, in a reversal of past missionary patterns, Anglicans from Africa became the cavalry riding to the rescue. That was especially surprising because Anglicans in Rwanda were still recovering from a devastating genocide. Anglicans in Nigeria faced the threat of an Islamist radical group known as Boko Haram. Anglicans in Uganda and other countries endured poverty and distress.
But Ugandan Archbishop Henry Orombi, who was WORLD’s co-Daniel of the Year in 2006, said in 2007 that Ugandans had “provided a home for refugees from Congo, Rwanda, and Sudan. Now, we are also providing a home for ecclesiastical refugees from America.” Without the work of the African archbishops, ACNA members would be cut off from the worldwide Anglican communion.
FOR LAURENT MBANDA, struggle isn’t new.
Mbanda, born in Rwanda, fled ethnic violence in the country in 1959, when he was 5 years old. Mbanda and his family faced deprivation in a series of refugee camps, but he eventually attended college in Kenya and graduate school in the United States. He earned a doctorate in education from Trinity International University in Deerfield, Ill.
After working with Compassion International for several years, he left his job to serve the Anglican church full time. He became archbishop of the Anglican Church of Rwanda in 2018.
These days, he’s focused on training pastors and promoting discipleship and education in the country. He says the church is still involved in helping Rwandans recover from the ethnic violence of 1994, when tribal extremists killed some 800,000 people in 100 days.
Many Rwandans died in churches where they had sought refuge but met slaughter by militias. Though American Anglicans did not face physical danger, Mbanda says Rwandans’ own sorrows deepened their sympathy for Christians trying to adhere to the gospel: “We are a country that went through the upheavals of the sinful nature of men.”
It would be easy for Rwandan bishops to say no one came to their aid during the violence, so why should they help others? But Mbanda remembers Rwandan bishops saying the opposite. Since no one helped them, they didn’t want to refuse a cry for help: “We have a soft heart as a country that went through a difficult time.”
Benjamin Kwashi had been through a difficult time as well.
Now an archbishop in Nigeria, Kwashi has watched persecution by Islamist militants grow severe. He says he’s faced three attempts on his own life. Last year, members of the Fulani tribe attacked his compound in Jos, where he and his wife provide shelter and care for orphans who have lost parents to violence.
But he says that when Anglicans in America faced difficulties, Nigerians didn’t consider their response as a mission to save them but as an opportunity to serve the church. They saw that Anglicans in America lost valuable buildings and their ministers faced financial uncertainty. Some faced scorn for holding to Biblical truth.
When congregations began leaving, officials in The Episcopal Church argued that church law required departing congregations to surrender their property to TEC or their dioceses, even though the congregations usually had financed and maintained buildings themselves.
In some cases, congregations walked away from buildings instead of mounting protracted lawsuits. In other regions, departing dioceses are still battling TEC to maintain the properties of their congregations. (Some congregations have remained in TEC and tried to press for change from within.)
ACNA Archbishop Foley Beach says partnerships Americans forged with Africans and others were both critical and encouraging. “There has been a preparation, watching our brothers and sisters encounter intense physical persecution. … It’s prepared many of us for the cultural persecution that we’re all facing here in the West.”
Last month’s Texas gathering brought together more than 1,000 Anglicans from 23 countries. During a packed worship service they sang about the church’s one foundation in Christ: “Soon the night of weeping will be the morn of song.”
FROM HIS BASE IN ENGLAND, the archbishop of Canterbury holds the most recognizable position in the Anglican Communion. He doesn’t function as a pope, but he does convene the Lambeth Conference—one of the communion’s most important gatherings for bishops from around the world.
In 1998, the Lambeth Conference affirmed a resolution “rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture” and rejecting the ordination of practicing homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions. But TEC has continued to ordain gay clergy, despite a censure from the Anglican Communion in 2016.
Just last month the Episcopal diocese of Michigan elected an active lesbian as its next bishop, and Episcopalians in Maine consecrated Thomas James Brown, an openly gay man, as their bishop. TEC’s presiding bishop, Michael Curry, led the service, which included a recitation of the Nicene Creed. A video of the service appeared to show Brown changing the words of the creed to refer to the Holy Spirit as “she” instead of “he.”
The Church of England isn’t removed from controversy either. In December, church leaders released pastoral guidance for conducting a service to affirm gender transition. The guidance included ways to adapt the liturgy used for reaffirmation of baptism. It suggested presenting a Bible with the transgender person’s new name inscribed on it.
Meanwhile, the next Lambeth Conference is slated for 2020, but the ACNA isn’t invited as a formal participant. The archbishop of Canterbury doesn’t recognize the ACNA as a legitimate province of the communion, though the bishops representing the majority of Anglicans around the world do. The archbishop’s formal invitations do include openly gay bishops from other provinces around the world (though he did not invite their spouses).
Some Anglicans wonder if such developments are leading to a deeper split in the Anglican Communion. ACNA already helps lead a conference known as Gafcon with Anglican bishops and leaders from around the world, including the Africans and others who won’t be attending Lambeth.
Gafcon reported that African bishops from at least four countries—Rwanda, Nigeria, Uganda, and Kenya—have said they won’t attend the Lambeth Conference next year, though more than half of the world’s Anglicans live in Africa. Kwashi from Nigeria says he had hoped for a different outcome: “But it’s become like a dictatorship. … We’re just saying, ‘Look, the way that you are going isn’t right.’”
Rwanda Archbishop Mbanda asks: “How do you value me when you don’t value what I believe?” He says the core issue is fidelity to the authority of Scripture: “When you let go of that, what do you have to hold onto?”
Earlier this year, Gafcon hosted a smaller conference that included church leaders from countries with severe restrictions on Christian practice. The leaders wrote a letter expressing the joy of suffering for the gospel and explaining why departing from Biblical fidelity is damaging to Christians all over the world—not just a matter of politics or preference.
“We heard of the sense of betrayal they [persecuted Christians] experience when the very gospel for which they are suffering is being undermined and denied by other parts of the Anglican Communion,” the leaders wrote: “It grieves us that those who reject the clarity and authority of the Scriptures … undermine the credibility of our witness amongst our fellow citizens of other faiths and of none.”
Though the split with The Episcopal Church has drawn widespread attention in the U.S., similar divides have happened in other countries.
In May, representatives from 12 churches in New Zealand met to form a new Anglican diocese. This month the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) is voting on changing church law to approve gay marriage. Dozens of churches left the ACC during the last decade, and some faced fallout like that enveloping TEC-leavers. Many of those churches are now part of the ACNA.
Churches in Brazil have wrangled with their country’s Episcopal Church, which eventually ex-communicated them. The churches now have three dioceses. At the ACNA event, Bishop Marcio Meira scrolled through his phone and showed a picture of the church building one of the local congregations lost when it left. The building sits empty and neglected. He says his own church in Brazil holds five services each weekend to accommodate the number of people attending: “It’s a joyful time.”
For all the controversy, it does seem like a joyful time for American Anglicans. Membership is around 134,000 Anglicans in 1,062 churches, with 25 new churches coming on each year.
ACNA leaders say much of their growth now comes from people who are new to Anglicanism. Many don’t feel defined by the struggles of the past decade. Some don’t even know much about those struggles.
Still, they face challenges of their own: The ACNA doesn’t allow women bishops, but it does allow dioceses to decide whether they will ordain women. The differences haven’t caused a divide so far, but they remain a substantial point of disagreement between some in the province.
Robert Duncan, the ACNA’s first archbishop, says he thinks the ACNA’s biggest challenge will be moving forward but staying true to the Biblical principles they began with: “The future will be determined by our adherence to the very same values with which we were founded. … If we submit everything to the Word of God, it will go well for us.”
Other denominations in the United States held gatherings this summer, including the nearly 15-million-member Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Delegates to the convention, known as “messengers,” conducted a slew of business at their June meeting in Birmingham, Ala., including actions to address sexual abuse in churches.
The SBC messengers voted to establish a standing committee to review allegations of sexual misconduct in SBC churches and to make recommendations to the Executive Committee on whether a congregation appears to be in cooperation with the denomination’s standards for handling cases of sexual abuse.
A separate vote approved an SBC constitutional amendment to formally designate the mishandling of sexual abuse cases as grounds for cutting ties with an SBC-affiliated church. (Messengers will vote next summer on whether to finalize the amendment.)
The messengers didn’t act on establishing a database of sex offenders—a move some victim advocates had called for—but SBC leaders said they would continue to explore the possibility.
Two weeks later, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) held its General Assembly in Dallas. Questions related to sexuality topped the agenda, particularly in the wake of controversy over Revoice—a conference hosted by a PCA church in Missouri in 2018 and held at a separate St. Louis venue this year.
Revoice leaders have billed the event as a gathering to support “gay, lesbian, same-sex attracted, and other gender and sexual minority Christians.” They’ve also said they aim to help such men and women observe “the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality,” including abstaining from sex outside of heterosexual marriage.
Some PCA leaders raised concerns about Revoice, including its use of language like “gay Christian.” In response, the assembly voted 803-541 to affirm the Nashville Statement—an evangelical statement on human sexuality produced by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
The statement includes the declaration “We deny that adopting a homosexual or transgender self-conception is consistent with God’s holy purposes in creation and redemption.”
The statement also includes the gospel hope offered to all sinners: “The grace of God in Christ gives both merciful pardon and transforming power, and … this pardon and power enable a follower of Jesus to put to death sinful desires and to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.”
Still, the General Assembly set up a study committee to write a new statement on the matter. —J.D.
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