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An Anglican tempest in Charleston

The disinviting of a panel speaker shows the challenges facing conservative Christians

Calvin Robinson speaks at the 2023 Pastors Summit San Diego hosted by Turning Point Faith on Sept. 14, 2023. Wikimedia Commons/Photo by Gage Skidmore

An Anglican tempest in Charleston
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When it comes to American church drama, Anglicanism doesn’t tend to get much attention. But a recent Anglican controversy in Charleston, S.C., highlights fault lines that Protestants should take note of as we consider the future of our cultural witness.

Last weekend, I attended the Mere Anglicanism conference, hosted by St. Philip’s Church of the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina, where a range of speakers were invited to discuss the challenges of the new morality. Among other topics, this was supposed to include thorny conversations about identity politics. Of the speakers, the British influencer Fr. Calvin Robinson has the largest platform and is known for delivering forthright conservative opinions on hot-button cultural topics. But after unexpectedly focusing his remarks on feminism and female ordination, he found himself disinvited from the conference’s closing panel discussion.

On his Substack, Robinson provides a rough transcript of the talk and reports that St. Philip’s rector, Fr. Jeff Miller, initially asked him to speak about critical theory, a broad umbrella topic that could potentially include many subtopics. As Neil Shenvi has pointed out, feminism is a critical social theory, so it wasn’t entirely off topic, as has since been claimed. Among other forthright remarks on how it subverts God’s plan for gender roles, Robinson bluntly said that female priesthood is “ontologically impossible.” While the talk as a whole could have been better constructed, I admired Robinson’s boldness.

In the immediate aftermath of the talk, Fr. Miller seemed surprised but chose to keep the mood light, praising Robinson for having “the courage of his convictions.” While acknowledging that not all the speakers would share all of Robinson’s opinions, he said it was in the spirit of this conference to produce conversations where “iron could sharpen iron.” However, closing panel moderator John Dickson has claimed that the mood was less jovial behind the scenes, where the organizers discussed whether Robinson could be “trusted” to participate well. Meanwhile, one attendee told me he’d observed some ordained women walking out during the session. Complaints began to roll in on social media, asking whether the organizers had pre-approved Robinson’s topic.

The next morning, Robinson says, he was called in for a tense closed doors meeting with Miller and Bishop Chip Edgar (who favors women’s ordination). Robinson was chastised for not speaking exclusively about critical race theory, which hadn’t been clearly spelled out in the invitation. If it had, Robinson bluntly writes that he would have turned it down, because “I am not a brown face for hire to speak about race.” 

Denominational drift is an accumulation of small choices.

To say this is bad optics would be an understatement. There were many gracious and professional ways to steer the closing panel discussion without disinviting Robinson, who says he would have welcomed a good-faith challenge. As it is, the organizers have only provoked yet more backlash. In comments on the conference’s Facebook page, many are now outraged on Robinson’s behalf and demanding a public apology.  The page moderators are instead inviting people to schedule private appointments with Fr. Miller.

As a conservative Anglican myself, I would love to see the ACNA get in the game and make a bold contribution to cultural engagement. But it’s clear that as long as women’s ordination remains unresolved, the denomination can’t speak with a unified voice. For all that Anglicans like to downplay the controversy with euphemistic language about “dual integrities,” it is not a secondary issue. This debacle also shows in microcosm that the conflict is zero-sum. There was no “third-way” compromise that would have allowed the organizers to please everyone and avoid favoring a side, even if individual clerics like Fr. Miller still personally oppose women’s ordination. The choice to disinvite Robinson was a clear concession to the left. Denominational drift is an accumulation of small choices like this, gradually tilting the balance of power until conservatives no longer have a hand on the wheel. 

Meanwhile, without Robinson, the final panel proved to be a lackluster affair, with digressions into topics like Christian nationalism and (of all things!) cancel culture. There was also a disappointing lack of strong guidance on practical questions like whether Christians should attend gay weddings. Sam Allberry labeled it a “wisdom issue” with “good reasons” on both sides. When other panelists were invited to disagree or even offer a qualifying nuance, nobody did—not even Dr. D. A. Carson. Despite the conference’s stated theme, attendees hoping to receive a clear word on this and other issues walked away unsatisfied.

It remains to be seen whether the conference can recover and return stronger in the future, but my hopes are not high. Conservative Anglicans, and conservative Christians in general, need to do much better. If we can’t even have good conversations with each other, then how can we expect to have good conversations with anyone else?

Bethel McGrew

Bethel McGrew is a math Ph.D. and widely published freelance writer. Her work has appeared in First Things, National Review, The Spectator, and many other national and international outlets. Her Substack, Further Up, is one of the top paid newsletters in “Faith & Spirituality” on the platform. She has also contributed to two essay anthologies on Jordan Peterson. When not writing social criticism, she enjoys writing about literature, film, music, and history.


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