Saturday, June 16, 2012

COD Ponders ACNA: Inconceivable!

“Inconceivable!” the Sicilian would keep shouting, as The Man in Black kept gaining on him.

“That word,” Inigo Montoye finally said, after The Man in Black survived every scenario where it was “inconceivable” that he could, “it does not mean what I think you think it means.”

This classic exchange from The Princess Bride came to COD as he explored the interconnected set of tubes that is The Internet.

There’s been some low level buzz in the Episcoblogospheretronmatrixweb in the past couple of weeks on the situation in the Anglican Church in North America, the uncle that doesn’t get along with your father the Episcopal Church and is responsible for a detritus of ill will in your family system.

My colleague Mark Harris has posted some interesting reflections here.  My former nemesis now well-wisher (as, in the words of Moe Syzslak, that I wish him no specific harm) Scott Gunn, posted some thoughts on ACNA’s “membership” claims here.

Crusty Old Dean had himself a good chortle as he sorted through Brother Mark and Currently Neutral Towards Scott’s posts.  Methinks, COD said between chortles, both of these chaps need to back up a bit.

Let’s start at the very beginning: before we even begin to think of what ACNA’s future might be, or what it’s membership might be, let’s face one central fact:

ACNA may be worth the A, but not the  C - NA .  While recognizably Anglican, is not a Church, and it is not North American – ecclesiologically speaking, that is.

Crusty Old Dean says this with no malice; COD is all snark and very little malice, actually.  I certainly have no ill will towards any folks in ACNA, and wish them well, hope they are happy, and wish there had not been so much acrimony leading to their formation, and thought that with more charity and good will things didn’t have to be so difficult.  It’s a free country, after all, and I don’t begrudge anyone the right and wish to worship as they please.   Crusty Old Dean, after all, once had a handshake agreement with a non-Episcopal Church Anglican body for a path leading towards mutual recognition of one another.  So long as people renounce bigotry, hatred, and caricature of the other, COD is willing to live and let live.  COD would love to form a pan-Anglican federation focused on truly partnering on matters where we have agreement, and walk with our brothers and sisters in a globalized world, and while he is at it he would also buy the world a Coke.

COD also realizes what’s good for the goose is good for the gander; sometimes he wonders if it’s fair game to ask if The Episcopal Church is “the”, whether it’s actually “Episcopal”, and what its understanding of church is.  But that’s another post for another time.  Frankly, he would prefer PECUSA as an official name, but that ecclesial horse has left the polity barn.

So in saying ACNA is not a church, it’s not personal, it’s business -- ecclesiological business, that is.  COD’s central claim still stands: ACNA is not a church.

It is, at best, an umbrella organization, perhaps like the AFL-CIO, or Comic-Con, or the Stargate franchise.  A quick perusal of ACNA’s governing documents shows that it permits entire denominations, or individual dioceses, or networks, to join. Some ACNA members have close relations with other Anglican provinces, born from divisions of the past decade; others separated over a century ago over issues which require the Oxford Dictionary of Christianity to explain, matters like baptismal regeneration, and previously functioned for decades with little or no connection to the broader Anglican Communion. 

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

There’s the Convocation of Anglican in North America, formerly an extension ministry of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, who consecrated its missionary bishops, now independent and self-governing – but also part of ACNA.   While listed as a member of ACNA, CANA also lists its leadership as being its Board of Directors, its Convocation Council, and its episcopacy.  It also lists a “sponsoring province,” the Province of Nigeria, a Provincial Primatial Archbishop (try saying that after a glass of sherry at 11 am on a Sunday morning with nothing but the sacrament in your belly), and a North American Archbishop.  How is a self-governing church with ties to another province of the Anglican Communion, and two different archbishops,  integrally a member of a “church” like ACNA?  Which begs a questions:  can ACNA be a province when one its members has its own Provincial Primatial Archbishop?

And then there’s the Reformed Episcopal Church, formed in 1873 with the defection of George Cummins, assistant bishop of the diocese of Kentucky, who objected to the encroaching popery of the Oxford Movement, which mixed with the contempt for baptismal regeneration held by the only bishop he consecrated, Charles Edward Cheney.  The REC, while a member of ACNA, still has its own Presiding Bishop, its own diocesan structure with diocesan bishops, its own missionary bishops, sponsors its own military chaplains, and continues to be governed by a General Council (similar to General Convention), has its own authorized Prayer Book, and has entered into ecumenical agreements with other churches.  The REC also is an international church, with international missionary dioceses.  So a church that’s over 140 years old, with its own Presiding Bishop, its own governing body, and its own authorized liturgies, recognized by the federal government as an endorsing body for federal chaplains, is also a part of ACNA? 

It also includes individual dioceses as members, like the Anglican Diocese of Great Lakes, which was originally affiliated with the diocese of Bolivia of the Southern Cone, then became part of CANA, and now is apparently a diocese of ACNA; and the dioceses formerly known as TEC dioceses San Joaquin, Quincy, Forth Worth, and Pittsburgh.

It also includes an affinity based network which has regrouped itself into a diocese:  The Episcopal Synod of America, founded in 1989 as an organization bringing together conservative Anglo-Catholics, later linked up with like minded folks who had formed Forward in Faith in the UK, to become Forward in Faith North America (FiFNA).  Formerly a network associated with ACNA, apparently even this became too much of an ecclesiological anomaly, so now this network of parishes has been rebranded as the Missionary Diocese of All Saints.  It consists of parishes scattered all over the country.

So why is ACNA not a church?

It is not a church because ACNA’s self-understanding flies in the face not only of the majority consensus of Anglican Christianity, but of catholic Christianity.

For one thing, in ACNA, the primary unit of mission is the congregation. (ACNA Constitution, Article IV.1).  This is in direct contrast to an Anglican and catholic understanding, where the primary unit is the diocese (clergy hold canonical residence in a diocese, not a congregation, for instance) and a province is made up of dioceses.

For another, ACNA has overlapping episcopal jurisdictions: the notion of congregations in one place united under one bishop is simply not even considered.  Several ACNA dioceses are national; some member organizations, in fact, are also international ecclesial entitites.

So even bracketing the question as to whether a group which is this disparate can hold together, from an affinity based Anglo-Catholic network to an evangelical low church Anglican body over a century old, we must acknowledge that, despite its name, the “CNA” does not hold up in “ACNA.”  COD will give them the “A” – ACNA has bishops in succession deriving from Anglican sources, albeit at times some more tenable than others; has held to the threefold order of ministry; and has a variety of authorized liturgical rites which certainly are recognizable Anglican.

However, it is not a “church” in the broader catholic sense because it understands the fundamental unit to be the congregation, makes no attempt at having one bishop in one place, and allows for dioceses to be grouped by affinity rather than geography. Richard Hooker Wilmer, responding to a proposal put forward in the 1880s, once argued that to create separate dioceses solely for African Americans  – so that a predominantly African American church in New York City would be grouped in the same diocese as a predominantly African American Episcopal Church in, say, Charleston – would mean that the Episcopal Church has given up on being a catholic church.  By this same reasoning, ACNA has given up on being a catholic church by jettisoning this understanding, albeit in a different context.

And it is not North American because several of its members claim to have overseas dioceses and to be international in scale.

ACNA –  it does not mean what I think they think it means.

You can’t spell inconceivable with a C, an N, and an A.


  1. By your reckoning then, it sounds like ACNA is actually more like a federation or communion of Anglican churches instead of a single unified church. Calling ACNA a church is like calling the Lutheran World Federation a church. Am I understanding this correctly?

  2. I didn't go there, ecumenicallife, because the LWF is moving towards a fuller ecclesial understanding -- the Lutheran World Federation: A Communion of Churches.

  3. I'm not sure I agree with you granting them the first "A." It seems there are multiple understandings of Anglicanism at work. Yours is rooted in bishops, threefold order of ministry, and liturgy. We can leave aside whether these are or are not sufficient criteria for Anglicanism, which, anyway, has always been really hard to describe. (That's part of its genius!)

    The other understanding of Anglican, though, is an official-type understanding, that is, in communion with the see of Canterbury, part of the Instruments of Unity/Communion/whatever-they-are-called. That ACNA is clearly not, though it obviously wants to be. We can debate, too, whether this is enough of a definition of Anglicanism. The GAFCON types reject it—they are creating a "post colonial" (their word) Anglican Communion independent of Canterbury. TEC/PECUSA types are hanging on to this definition for dear life.

    So perhaps there's reason to interrogate just what Anglicanism is, in the same way that you've interrogated "church." If we did so, we might have a better sense of the differences between ACNA and TEC/PECUSA. On the other hand, lots of people have tried defining Anglicanism before and I'm not sure we have the energy to keep on doing so.


  4. Jesse, COD was trying to be generous in granting them the "A," in part reflecting the diversity of groups which make up ACNA, in part going with an utterly minimalist definition in this post. Some would argue that they are in communion with Canterbury, and are part of the instruments of unity, by recognition by other provinces -- and that defining Anglicanism solely by virtue of who the Archbishop of Canterbury says he's in communion with is an anachronistic relic. (Not that I necessarily buy that argument, but it's one they make). But your overall point is well taken, and one I agree with entirely: what makes something Anglican is something we are all in the process of discerning.


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