Church of England Faces Biggest Exodus Since the Reformation

By David W. Virtue
www.virtueonline.org
July 22, 2010

Embattled Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals in the Church of England, smarting from the recent Synod decision to consecrate women bishops, are licking their wounds and planning their exodus from the Mother Church.

Even though the Church of England prides itself on its inclusiveness and holding conflicting views together under one big tent, those policies failed when General Synod met in York recently and decided to ordain women to the episcopacy. A Rubicon was crossed.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York’s failure to cobble together a measure that would make special provision for those members opposed to women bishops only weakened Dr. Rowan Williams’ overall authority which is now see an all time low in the Anglican Communion.

Even though the resolution now goes back to the dioceses for consideration over the next 18 months, no one seriously believes it will be reversed. If the resolution is supported by a majority of the diocesan synods, it will be returned to the General Synod for ratification in 2012. The first women bishops could be ordained as early as 2014.

The gamble that some sort of consideration would be shown and that intervention by Drs. Rowan Williams and John Sentamu would swing the tide towards some compromise, failed. Williams’ considerable skill at holding things together failed. Flying bishops and a Third Province for Anglo-Catholics are off the table for good.

Synod’s decision to pass the draft legislation on the ordination of women bishops, virtually unamended, can only be viewed as the final straw for conservative Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals who oppose women’s ordination.

For them, it is the end of the road.

Forward in Faith, the largest Anglo-Catholic group in the Church of England is expecting an exodus of thousands of Anglicans to Catholicism. Forward in Faith director Stephen Parkinson – a group that has about 10,000 members, including more than 1,000 clergy – said that a large number of Anglo-Catholics are considering conversion to the Roman Catholic Church.

“This draft measure does nothing for us at all,” said Parkinson. “We explained very carefully why we could not accept women bishops theologically.

“We explained what would enable us to stay in the Church of England, but the General Synod has decided to get rid of us by giving us a provision that does not meet our needs,” he continued.

“They are saying either put up or shut up and accept innovations, however unscriptural or heretical, or get out.”

Parkinson said he expects thousands of members of Forward in Faith to consider accepting Pope Benedict XVI’s offer of a personal ordinariate, issued last November in the apostolic constitution “Anglicanorum coetibus,” in which a group of Anglicans can be received into the Catholic Church while retaining their distinctive patrimony and liturgical practices.

“Many, I expect, will be exploring the provisions of Pope Benedict’s apostolic constitution. We have got 10,000 members, so clearly we are talking about thousands,” he added.

Parkinson said Anglican traditionalists have a “couple of years” to think about what to do.

The Church of England first voted to ordain women as priests in 1992, a move that led to about 500 clergy defecting to the Catholic Church. Since 1994, when the changes came into force, more than 3,000 women have been ordained as Anglican priests.

It is not just Anglo-Catholics who feel dis-enfranchised. Church of England Evangelicals who are the driving force for growth in the British Isles through such vibrant ministries as ALPHA and Christianity Explored are weighing their options as well.

The largest group, REFORM lead by the Rev. Rod Thomas signaled a new Reform “Society” with its own Bishops. In his latest newsletter following the women bishops debate at General Synod, the Reform chairman sent the clearest signal yet that the movement is actively considering consecrating its own bishops. Recognizing the future for conservative evangelicals is still “uncertain”. Thomas said the Reform Council will be “actively exploring” the possibility of creating a “Society” focused on mission, “with its own bishops providing support and encouragement”. He suggested “the House of Bishops might recognize it as a place where separate episcopal oversight could operate when the Women Bishops Measure comes in”.

Reflecting on the rejection of his own amendment to enable parishes to opt for a “complementary bishop” and the sinking by the House of Clergy of the Archbishops’ compromise proposal, Thomas wrote: “If the draft measure is eventually approved in something like its present form, the clearest warning bells will be ringing for us. It may be that we will be able to make use of arrangements under the Code of Practice but at the very least it seems likely that some of our best young men will be put off offering themselves for the ordained ministry in the Church of England. If that happens – if the tap is turned off – then new incumbents for our churches will be harder and harder to come by and the future of our churches will be called into question.”

He offered a twofold response.

“Firstly, we must encourage people to keep offering themselves for the ordained ministry for as long as it is possible. Hopefully they will be able to have a lifetime of service in the Church of England. But if not, they will be no worse off when they make a move than if they had never entered. This will particularly be the case if we are able to use the time now available to us to forge closer links between our churches.

“Secondly, we must forge closer links with one another. As the future looks increasingly uncertain, we need to bring the issues to our congregations now and then get PCC backing to the idea of linking up with other like-minded churches in a close fellowship. If more difficult times lie ahead, we need to support one another. One way of doing this may be to create a ‘Society’ within the Church of England, focused on mission, with its own bishops providing support and encouragement.

“It could even be that if such a Society were to come into being, the House of Bishops might recognize it as a place where separate Episcopal oversight could operate when the Women Bishops Measure comes in. We will be actively exploring this possibility in the months ahead.” Serious issues, however, hang over the church in the eventuality of a formal schism.

Property

Because the Church of England is the Established Church, there is no question of any departing congregation holding on to its church buildings – the place of worship, or the churchyard, or the parsonage house. These all “belong” to the parish in question – the geographical area recognized by law in a system that came into being in the Middle Ages. Any priest or congregation leaving the CofE must leave the property. The State will enforce the law.

Pensions

Any pension rights already accrued by a priest are protected by law. The Church cannot take these away under any circumstances. A priest who leaves after 20 years’ service keeps those rights until he finally retires and he can then claim his pension.

Internal Dissent

The most likely scenario is that Evangelicals will continue to hold the property, but seek episcopal oversight elsewhere. (See above). In time, the Church of England will replace incumbents as they move the parish, retire or die. The Church of England wins in the end.

Alternative networks/provinces

It might look good to have the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) sweep into rescue evangelicals as some Anglo- Catholics are not interested in accepting Rome’s offer. This is also doomed to failure if they are unable to have access to the significant practical resources of the Church of England – property, endowments, etc. The other truth is that English people don’t look for another church – they just stop going to church when there is a problem.

Likely scenario in 20 years’ time

The Church of England will be very largely a homogeneous liberal body, like the Church of Sweden. It will have about 250,000 active members. The hierarchy will still be intact, but at the local level there will be many closed churches, and many more struggling to remain open. There will be no significant growth points, once Evangelicals and Catholics are gone. Former Anglo-Catholics will by now have been fully absorbed into the Roman Catholic Church with little trace remaining. There will be a number of large Evangelical churches around the country, but no longer in communion with the Church of England – congregational churches in all but name, with occasional visits from overseas prelates, in the tiny rump of the Anglican Communion that will have survived by 2030 – all those provinces which currently ordain women will have gone the same way as the Church of England.

The Church of England will have lost its identity. Church properties will be sold off just to pay the bills with disestablishment a real possibility. Prince Charles, now King, will be the “Defender of Faiths.” He has already said he wants to be crowned King in a multi-faith coronation.

At that point, Global South leaders who represent more than 80% of the Anglican Communion might well ask themselves if the historical attachment to Canterbury is worth the paper it is printed on.

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