The Church of England threw a lifeline to a breakaway group of former Episcopalians on Wednesday, saying it “recognizes and affirms” the aim of the fledgling Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) to be part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
After hours of wrangling and debate in London, the Church of England’s General Synod signaled that it sympathized with conservatives who have left the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada over radically different views on biblical authority, same-sex unions and the elections of two gay bishops.
But the synod stopped short of doing what several African and other developing provinces have done — formally recognize the 100,000-member ACNA, which was formed in June as a parallel Anglican body of 28 member dioceses with 742 parishes and 800 clergy.
The resolution originally called for the synod to “be in communion” that is, officially recognize the breakaway group. But the language was watered down in a compromise resolution that passed by a vote of 309-69. The final wording was as follows:
“That this Synod, aware of the distress caused by recent divisions within the Anglican churches of the United States of America and Canada:
a) recognize and affirm the desire of those who have formed the Anglican Church in North America to remain within the Anglican family
b) acknowledge that this aspiration, in respect both of relations with the Church of England and membership of the Anglican Communion, raises issues which the relevant authorities of each need to explore further; and
c) invite the Archbishops to report further to the Synod in 2011.”
The earlier version of the resolution was submitted by Lorna Ashworth, a lay member from the Chichester diocese in southeastern England.
She told the London Times that she objected to “the shocking and unjust treatment of historical, biblical Anglicans as they seek to continue to live out their faith in this province. Many have been subject to legal actions over property, and some have been deposed from their orders.
“In proposing this motion,” she said, “my desire is that the members of synod would have the opportunity to express their own view on the consequences of the behavior of those in authority in” the two liberal North American churches.
ACNA, which sent representatives to London to monitor the vote, lauded the outcome.
“The overwhelming sentiment of the Church of England is they recognize and affirm our desire to remain in the Anglican family,” ACNA Archbishop Robert Duncan said from his home south of Pittsburgh. “This is very substantial for us. The fact they invested an entire session to our consideration is a noteworthy development.”
The resolution was entirely a grass-roots reaction by British lay believers, not the Church of England hierarchy, he said, adding, “We had never asked for anything. British understatement being what it is, I think they went very far down the field. They have basically said they favor overlapping provinces here.”
He was referring to the ACNA’s wish to be considered as a 39th province to be added to the 77-million-member Anglican Communion’s existing 38 provinces, which include the liberal-leaning U.S. and Canadian bodies.
A spokeswoman from Episcopal Church headquarters in New York declined to comment on the vote, and Jim Naughton, a spokesman for the Diocese of Washington, said he was paying it little heed because “it makes nothing happen.”
But the Episcopal Church had followed the issue closely.
Anglican blogger David Virtue leaked a set of “talking points” related to the vote that the Episcopal Church sent out to its bishops on Feb. 4.
For example, Mr. Virtue reported, the Episcopal Church reminded its bishops to call any claims of persecuted conservatives “an inaccurate and misleading image … when in reality those who have remained have felt deeply hurt, and now in some cases are exiled from their own church buildings by ACNA.”
The Church of England’s resolution sets the stage for an April meeting in Singapore of half of the Anglican Communion’s archbishops.
Known as the “Global South primates” because they represent fast-growing churches in the Southern Hemisphere, they have invited the ACNA to attend as an associated province. Archbishop Duncan said he expects “an even stronger affirmation of the ACNA at that meeting.”
The vote in England came out the same day as a report in the Toronto Globe and Mail that says if the Anglican Church in Canada keeps losing members at its current rate of 13,000 per year, it may be extinct by 2061.
Between 1961 and 2001, the church lost 53 percent of its membership, declining to 642,000 from 1.36 million. Between 1991 and 2001 alone, it declined by 20 percent.
The U.S. Episcopal Church has had similar membership declines, going from 3.6 million adherents in 1966 to barely more than 2 million today.