THE decision of the global Anglican Communion to threaten the Episcopal Church, its American affiliate, with expulsion is about much more than the headline issue of homosexuality. Yes, the impending divorce has been precipitated by the decision of the Episcopal Church to consecrate a gay bishop and to allow individual congregations to decide whether or not to allow gay marriages. But as so often in religious history, the deeper issue is one of church governance. In effect, the Episcopalians left the Church of England more than two centuries ago.
Numerically, the 2.3 million Episcopalians [sic: this is inflated rhetoric!!!] do not loom large among 77 million Anglicans. Symbolically, however, given the global importance of the United States, the departure of the Americans will leave the archbishop exposed as a quasi-colonial, quasi-papal figurehead heading a church made up, anachronistically, of Britain and her mostly African and Asian former colonies. This will be an awkward state of affairs, and portends further fissures along the same logic that underlies the impending departure of the Americans.
There is, finally, a quintessentially 21st-century implication to this quite likely split. A solid majority of American Episcopalians [i.e., those liberals who have been elected to vote at General Convention–NOT all the members] supports their church’s stance on homosexuality and gay marriage. A minority disagrees, and some of these members have even sought to pull out their congregations from the Episcopal Church and affiliate with one of the Anglican churches in Africa that have been most vehemently opposed to the Episcopalians’ decisions on homosexuality.
The flip side of such threats is that, along the same lines, any British or Canadian or Australian congregations that wished to disaffiliate from their local forms of Anglicanism might well affiliate with the Episcopal Church. In fact, a few have already signaled their readiness, though in the hope of preserving Anglican unity the Episcopal Church has not encouraged them.
I pass over, for the moment, the many legal complications involved in such rearrangements, the surrendering of church property that is entailed and so forth. The broader point is that communications technology makes new forms of church organization possible, and geographically distant congregations can easily join together. Rather than voting with your feet, you may now vote with your mouse, perhaps the most amicable form of religious divorce.
A generation from now, when we look back on the breakup of the Anglican Communion and on the status of homosexuals within the churches of the world, what may we expect to see? An old proverb holds that “God writes straight with crooked lines,” and at this juncture, the Author of Liberty, as a venerable American hymn names him, seems to have taken pen in hand.
Jack Miles is a senior fellow for religious affairs with the Pacific Council on International Policy and a scholar in residence with the Getty Research Institute.