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Dean of cathedral explains background on Anglican Communion


Upon hearing of his own demise Mark Twain was said to have written a public response declaring that “rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”  That is how I feel about the recent meeting of the heads of the various branches of the Anglican Communion. 

Some reports declared that we have been expelled from the Communion, others that we have merely been suspended.  Neither happened, nor could they have. 

The Anglican Communion is composed of the branches of Christianity that trace their history back to Jesus and the disciples through the Church of England, which was formed after the Reformation.  Wherever the British Empire went, there went the Church of England, and today those churches that were once outposts of the Anglican Church in the colonies of the British Empire comprise the Anglican Communion. 

The concept itself dates in a formal sense only to approximately the 1870s, when the Archbishop of Canterbury decided to invite bishops from all branches of the Anglican Church throughout the world to a conference.  At that point the United States was the only colony that had successfully separated from England, and the Archbishop received a lot of advice against inviting the American Bishops. 

He invited the Americans anyway, and from then on we have been members of the Anglican Communion.  In addition, from that day to this, membership in the Anglican Communion has been determined by a single person, the Archbishop of Canterbury.  No other person or group has ever presumed to determine membership in the Communion, and none did at this meeting. 

What did happen recently is that the heads of some of the African provinces, with support from a number of others, presented a resolution demanding that representatives from the Episcopal Church on the various committees of the Anglican Communion take no part in any discussion, and exercise no right to vote on any measure for the next three years. That resolution passed.

In the public statement the Primates—that is what the heads of the various branches are called—declared that they wish to hold the Communion together, but profound differences in the understanding of marriage between the American Church and most of the other branches of the Communion made it necessary to take this step.

We all know what this means.  The problem is not with differences over polygamy, a practice still observed in some cultures within the Anglican Communion.  The problem is that the American Church, along with Canada and a couple of others, now allows same sex marriage.  It is exactly that simple. 

It is certain that three years from now we will still differ on that same issue with the folks who advanced this resolution. 

The Primates had no authority to order the various committees to refuse voice and vote to any members.  That is up to the committees themselves. 

Some will likely obey the injunction, and some probably won’t.  What happens if most don’t remains to be seen. 

In view of the central role in determining who is in and who is out of the Communion, it is very likely that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, will receive enormous pressure over the next three years to expel the American Church, or at the very least to announce that we will no longer be invited to the decennial—once in 10 years—meeting of the bishops of the Anglican Communion called the Lambeth Council. 

No one knows, perhaps least of all Archbishop Welby himself, how he will respond to this pressure. The next three years will thus determine whether the Anglican Communion continues in its present form. 

Whether it does or does not, the Episcopal Church in the USA will continue its mission of proclaiming the gospel, and that, as far as I am concerned, is all that matters. 

The Very Rev. Bill Ellis
Episcopal Cathedral of St. John

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