To Whom Shall They Go?

As Anglicanism fractures, with whom is Rome to conduct dialogue?

The significance of the outcome of the Fourth Global Anglican Future Convention (GAFCON IV) held last April in Kigali, Rwanda, is coming into ever sharper relief. That an overwhelming portion of Anglicanism, especially in the “Global South,” has been pushed to the point that it no longer recognizes its communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, his institutions, works, and pomps, is no minor matter. The “Kigali Commitment,” [see here] in which finally a cross-section of Anglicans declare there are lines of faith and morals one cannot cross without rupturing “communion” is telling.

The Rwanda rupture came about as a result of last winter’s debates in the Church of England about blessing “same-sex couples.” In some sense, the straw that broke the Communion’s back was arguably metal fatigue that has been accumulating since the 1970s: the admission of “priestesses” to the Anglican priesthood and episcopate, followed by homosexually active clergy to both orders, while Canterbury issued temporizing statements and the “progressive” church kept pushing the envelope.

One cannot have ministry whose very existence and moral sanction is a factor of geography, not doctrine. (The Disunited Methodist Church in the United States is learning similar lessons). In some sense, Kigali at last repudiated the philosophical doctrine of double truth that has plagued Anglicanism for decades and, arguably, throughout its life: that somehow the law of non-contradiction does not apply, or can be safely ignored, on questions of ecclesiastical polity.

The question is quo vadis? Abandoning the historical “center” of Anglican unity that was Canterbury (however evanescent that “center” and “unity” were) leaves the question: what will be the center of Anglican unity? Will anything replace Canterbury? Will Anglicanism produce an even looser conglomeration than the Orthodox, a kind of “Anglican autocephaly?”

As a Catholic theologian, I always remain flummoxed that—despite the evident weakness that their lacks of centers of unity make apparent—Anglicans and Orthodox still resist seeing in Peter what they need and lack. The invitation of Ut unum sint (especially nos. 94-97) about mutual discussion of the role of the Petrine Ministry still in force, and the persistence in ever more centrifugal leadership polity, suggests to me more obstinate human persistence in man-made structures than serious theological objections.

Meanwhile, on the practical level, this fracture within Anglicanism raises the question of with whom Rome is to conduct its Anglican/Catholic Dialogue. In reaction to Kigali, Lambeth put out a statement [here] long on procedure and process but silent about the doctrinal cause for the split. The statement strikes me as Canterbury insisting on its residual institutional prerogatives, even if a large majority of Anglicans don’t see it as speaking for them.

I am reminded of the situation across the street from where I live. Falls Church, Virginia, is a suburb of Washington. It was named for the “Falls Church,” an Episcopal congregation dating from 1732 which claimed among its parishioners George Washington.

Falls Church Episcopal was also rent by division: Kigali played out in Falls Church in 2006. Seventeen years ago the historic parish divided over the ordination in New Hampshire of a homosexually active bishop by the U.S. Episcopal Church. The vast majority of the parish rejected the moral innovation, while a small minority supported it. What followed was more than a decade of civil litigation over who got the historic property. The minority drove out the majority because, while the parishioners could pick up and go, the parish buildings were claimed by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. They prevailed in court.

The vast majority of parishioners moved about a mile down the road and just finished erecting a new and large edifice on Route 50. The minority that retained Falls Church Episcopal (and its assets) continues to flaunt its theological proclivities, e.g., having Bishop Gene Robinson—the casus belli of the original division—as a guest celebrant in October 2022. The current pastor demonstrates his commitment to politics over doctrine, for example, by noting on his website biography that he is chair of the “Clergy Advocacy Board” of Planned Parenthood.

The outcome of the Falls Church schism (which was played out in numerous other Episcopal parishes that have since separated from their American Episcopal dioceses and joined communion with African Anglicans) very well may preview how Canterbury could try to play its institutional privileges in still representing “Anglicanism” worldwide—even if most self-identifying “Anglicans” deny their “representative.”

Meanwhile, Rome is in something of a pickle. Protocol suggests it continue to “dialogue” with Canterbury, the historic center of Anglicanism. But why focus one’s attention on a party that now, arguably, speaks for a minority of Anglicans, especially a minority whose practices and increasingly theology are more at odds with official Catholic teaching than their erstwhile Kigali confrères? Does it not make more sense to engage more actively with those with whom we are doctrinally more simpático? Aware of Pope Francis’s allergy to “proselytism,” might a different Vatican recognize the kairos for unity represented by the Kigali Commitment and the Anglican Ordinariate, i.e., inviting adherents of the former to assess whether—with liturgical protection for their rites (which, to a large extent, came from Catholicism)—there is far more reason to return to Rome than to remain adrift? Or is there some unspoken antipathy to such approaches, not unlike the sell-out dismissal (mostly by ecumenists) of Uniatism as a solution not for our day?

Those questions, of course, also force Rome to do some “mess” cleanup. The doings in Germany and the Flemish lands will hardly attract Anglicans who chose to jettison much of the same closer to home. An infusion of committed Anglicans who cherish their rite are likely to share more with Catholic traditionalists unaccompanied to the peripheries than with liturgical dance types boogying a new church into being. One can only wonder how much of a warm welcome they’d receive from Englishman Arthur Roche, Prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. In light of their 50-year experience with synodal doubletalk, they might be more critical of the current process and some of the assumptions surrounding it. In other words, whatever Rome does—engaging with or remaining aloof from the Anglican fracture—may reveal much more about it than about the Anglicans.

The name of this journal alludes to an earlier era when some Anglicans, honestly assessing the claims of the 19th century Church of England, decided the Thames really did flow into the Tiber. That era produced a St. John Henry Newman, who finally was canonized just four years ago. Amidst all current Catholic talk about where the Spirit might be blowing, is anybody in Rome engaging in discernment of what came out of Kigali? Because the Spirit may be quietly raising up a new John Henry.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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