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Changes Put Future of Church in Doubt

NEW YORK, JULY 17, 2006 (Zenit) - Recent decisions by the Anglican Church in Britain and the United States have raised the specter of further splits. Last weekend, the Church of England's Synod voted in favor of allowing women to be ordained bishops.

Already 14 out of the 38 autonomous Anglican churches in other countries have approved women bishops, reported the BBC on Monday. The British decision, however, was important given the status of England as the home of Anglicanism.

During the Synod debate the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, told participants that bishops had a special leadership role in the Church, and that just because it had women priests, it did not mean that women bishops were legitimate, the BBC reported. In the end the vote was 288 in favor of women bishops and 119 against.

The vote in favor of women bishops came shortly after data revealed the increasing presence of women clergy. Fourteen years after the go-ahead for women priests in the U.K., 283 women were recommended for the seminary last year, compared with 295 men, reported the London-based Times newspaper, June 24.

The experience of the Anglican Church in Britain was recently analyzed by Hilary De Lyon, chief executive of the Royal College of General Practitioners. She contributed a chapter to the study "Production Values: futures for professionalism," published June 22 by the U.K. think-tank Demos.

The first women deacons were ordained in 1987, and women were permitted to enter the full priesthood in 1994, explained De Lyon. Although it has been only 12 years since women were first ordained, they already make up over 20% of clergy, and hold 50% of the unpaid posts held by priests. In addition, they hold only one in six of the paid posts and one in five of the chaplaincy posts.

Two-tier church

The latest vote comes after a long period of tensions in the Anglican church. Shortly before the Synod meeting the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that all the national churches would be asked to sign a covenant declaring they believed in the basic biblical tenets of Anglican doctrine, reported the Times newspaper, June 28.

Williams threatened that those who refuse to sign the declaration would be excluded from full membership of the Church and would instead become "associates." The proposal will be discussed by the Anglicans at the 2008 Lambeth Conference.

Anglican disunity is not the only threat; ecumenical relations are also in doubt. Before last weekend's vote Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, warned that allowing women to be ordained bishops would further complicate attempts to achieve unity.

In comments reported by the Times, June 7, the cardinal said that as it was, the ordination of women as priests had led to a "cooling off" in the relations between the two churches. The advent of women bishops would cause a "serious and long-lasting chill." He also warned that: "Without identity, no society, least of all a church, can continue to survive."

American divisions

On the other side of the Atlantic, the American branch of the Anglican Church, the Episcopalians, continues to be riven by disputes. In May, Episcopalians in San Francisco did avoid electing a homosexual as local bishop, reported the Washington Post, May 7. Instead they chose Mark Handley Andrus, currently the bishop suffragan from the diocese of Alabama.
Andrus ran against six other candidates, three of whom live openly with same-sex partners, according to the Post article.

But the following month controversy arose over the election by the Episcopal General Convention of Nevada bishop, Jefferts Schori, as its leader in America. She is the first woman to head a national grouping of the Anglican Communion, reported the Washington Post, June 19.

Her election immediately raised concerns. Schori had backed the election of a declared homosexual, V. Gene Robertson, as a bishop in 2003. Before this, no openly homosexual bishop had ever been consecrated in the history of the Anglican Church. Moreover, the same meeting of American Episcopalians that elected Schori refused to impose a moratorium on the election of additional homosexual bishops, reported Reuters, June 20.

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Reacting to the election of Schori, the Bishop of Rochester, England, Michael Nazir-Ali, said that divisions between liberals and conservatives were so profound that a compromise was no longer possible. His comments came in an interview published June 19 by the British newspaper, the Telegraph.

"Anglicans are used to fudging things sometimes, but I think this is a matter of such seriousness that fudge won't do," said Bishop Nazir-Ali.

Nigeria's Anglican bishops had even stronger words, saying that the U.S. branch is "a cancerous lump" that should be "excised," reported the BBC on July 4.

Doubts over where Schori will lead Episcopalians were raised by her statements in the days following the election. In a sermon shortly after her election she referred to "our mother Jesus," reported the Times, June 22.

Then, in an interview published in the July 17 issue of Time magazine, Schori was asked: "What will be your focus as head of the U.S. church?" She replied saying: "Our focus needs to be on feeding people who go to bed hungry, on providing primary education to girls and boys, on healing people with AIDS, on addressing tuberculosis and malaria, on sustainable development. That ought to be the primary focus."


The sort of priorities outlined by Shori were strongly criticized by Charlotte Allen, Catholicism editor for Beliefnet, in an opinion article published July 9 by the Los Angeles Times. The fragmentation of Anglicanism, she explained, is not just due to doctrinal disputes. "It also is about the meltdown of liberal Christianity," she said.

Liberal Christianity was hailed as the future of the Christian Church, but Allen observed, all the churches and movements within churches that have "blurred doctrine and softened moral precepts are demographically declining and, in the case of the Episcopal Church, disintegrating."

"When a church doesn't take itself seriously, neither do its members" argued Allen. As recently as 1960 churches such as the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Lutherans accounted for 40% of all American Protestants. Today the number has plummeted to around 12%.

Allen cited data from the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, showing that in 1965 there were 3.4 million Episcopalians; now, there are 2.3 million.

Her comments echoed the thesis of the book, "Exodus: Why Americans are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity," (Sentinel) published last year. According to author Dave Shiflett, Americans are leaving liberal denominations for churches that preach strict moral norms and uphold traditional beliefs.

Liberal theologians and bishops get plenty of media coverage, observes Shiflett. But the average churchgoer wants to attend a church where they can get something not obtainable elsewhere, which doesn't include trendy opinions on current topics. "They want the Good News, not the minister's political views or intellectual coaching."

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Shiflett explained that data from the Glenmary Research Center on church membership showed that conservative congregations are growing fastest. This includes the Southern Baptist Convention, up 5% in the decade 1990-2000; and Pentecostal groups such as the Assemblies of God, and the Church of God, up 18.5% and 40% respectively, in the same period.

As a general observation, churches that adhere to traditional teaching, offer transcendent truth and demand a high commitment from their members are those that enjoy growth. Following the latest liberal trends, on the other hand, leads to decline. Something for all Christians to consider.


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