THE ACCELERATING RIFT over homosexuality in the nearly 80 million member global Anglican Communion has finally reached directly into the Washington, D.C. area.
A conservative Episcopal priest in suburban Fairfax, Virginia, has been elected a bishop by the 18 million member Anglican church of Nigeria. The Rev. Martyn Minns of the 1,700 member Truro Church in Fairfax City will preside over the handful of churches for Nigerian expatriates in the United States. But more may ultimately be involved.
Also last month, Truro Church informed Virginia Bishop Peter Lee that it is entering a 40 day time of "discernment" over its relations with the U.S. denomination. Other large Episcopal churches in Virginia besides Truro, including the historic 2,000 member Falls Church, are likewise considering their ties to U.S. Episcopalianism.
"We will be seeking God's will about whether continued affiliation with the Episcopal Church is compatible with Scripture and with our affiliation with the global Anglican Communion," Senior Associate Rector Frederick Wright announced to the Falls Church congregation. "As Anglicans, we would not expect to become an 'independent' congregation," he explained, but would affiliate with "another Anglican body."
More than 20 other Virginia congregations may belong to what Rev. Wright called a "coalition of churches" seeking discernment. Both Truro and the Falls Church date to the mid-1700s--George Washington joined in the creation of both. The Falls Church, for which the surrounding city was later named, also retains its sanctuary, which was built in the 1760s. The Declaration of Independence was read from its steps. During the Civil War, Union soldiers desecrated the sanctuary, using it as a stable.
Truro Church lost its earlier sanctuaries to the Civil War and fire. But its current office space housed Union General William Stoughton until that he was abruptly awakened and captured by the Confederate partisan John Mosby, who also made off with a gaggle of Union horses. ("I can replace the general, but I cannot replace those horses," Abraham Lincoln is said to have remarked.)
WHY ARE THESE venerable old Episcopal congregations pondering a departure from their denomination after 200 years? And why is the Anglican Church of Nigeria in the picture?
Three years ago the U.S. Episcopal Church elected its first openly homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson. Forty percent of the denomination's bishops voted against Robinson. But Virginia Bishop Peter Lee supported him and has likened the acceptance of homosexuality in the church to the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Conservative dioceses and congregations appealed to the global Anglican Communion, which is headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in England and includes Global South bishops. Unlike the declining U.S. church, which has lost 1 million members over the last 40 years, these Third World churches are surging. Anglicans in Nigeria alone outnumber U.S. Episcopalians by nearly 10 to 1.
The global Anglican Communion had asked the U.S. church to abstain from electing more homosexual bishops. But the Episcopal General Convention, meeting last month in Columbus, Ohio, elected a new presiding bishop who is firmly committed to homosexual clergy and church rites for same-sex unions. Conservative Episcopalians realized that compromise had become impossible. Many of them now hope that the Archbishop of Canterbury will eventually acknowledge a new Anglican church in North America that would exist alongside--or perhaps even supercede--the old Episcopal Church.
Churches like Truro and the Falls Church, along with other conservative congregations in Virginia, are robustly evangelical--and growing. They do not wish to remain indefinitely in an increasingly liberal U.S. Episcopal Church.
Surely George Washington, George Mason, and other prominent Northern Virginia Anglicans never conceived of Episcopal debates over homosexuality when they founded their churches. The Episcopal Church even managed to avoid schism over slavery and during the Civil War. Anglicanism in Virginia has survived since Jamestown in 1607.
But conservative Episcopalians have chaffed for decades under liberal church leaders who disregarded historic Christian beliefs about sexual ethics, the Bible, and even the identity of Jesus Christ. To continue an orthodox Anglican presence in Virginia, many conservatives want to de-align from the declining liberal religion in the United States and re-align with growing Christianity in the Global South.
The end result may be that much of Virginia Episcopalianism will end up looking to Nigeria, rather than Richmond, for leadership. The slave-owning Episcopal gentry of 18th century Virginia would be shocked. But the irony is an enjoyable one.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.