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Mattingly: Hope and division during the Anglican wars

Published: Thursday, July 24, 2014 9:33 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, July 24, 2014 9:45 p.m. CDT

Anglicans seem to be hopeful about their flocks in the United States, even if the warring factions in their Communion keep moving further and further apart.

That has been a common theme in recent upbeat sermons preached by leaders in the progressive and orthodox Anglican bodies now competing in the marketplace of American religion.

In one sermon, Father Cameron Partridge became the first openly transgender priest to preach at Washington National Cathedral. The June 22 liturgy was part of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride month.

“To dream that one day, this Episcopal Church family, in which I grew up, might join other traditions, and inspire still others, by embracing our gifts and leadership at all levels of its life. I am so grateful and proud to be in a church that is now living into this charge,” said Partridge, who was born a woman, but now identifies as a trans man.

“As we behold one another in these days of celebration, may ... we give thanks for the unfolding mystery of our humanity and may we revel in our participation in God’s ongoing project of revelation.”

“Revelation” was the word for the day, said Partridge, a Harvard Divinity School faculty member and the Episcopal chaplain at Boston University. Modern churches must embrace the “project of revelation” that shapes an evolving faith, he said.

Church statistics reveal the pain. At the start of the 1960s, the Episcopal Church had 3.4 million members, and that number today has slipped below 2 million. In the past decade, average Sunday morning attendance has declined nearly 25 percent.

Longstanding tensions worsened in 1989 when Newark Bishop John Shelby Spong ordained a non-celibate homosexual priest. Then in 1998, the global Lambeth Conference of bishops – led by growing African and Asian churches – passed a resolution defending traditional doctrines on sex, against strong opposition from Americans and others Western bishops.

In 2009, “many of us had lost – or were in the process of losing – buildings and friends, resources and relationships that were precious to us,” said Archbishop Robert Duncan Duncan, who was formerly the bishop of Pittsburgh and will now return to that role in this new Anglican body. “Others just knew that where they were in their Christian journey was not yet where they needed to be and were prepared to risk what they had, trusting God for something better, though not yet realized.”

The Anglican Church in North America is small, but today claims 983 parishes – compared with 700 in 2009 – and roughly 110,000 members. Legal battles with the Episcopal Church continue over properties held by many parishes. At its outset, leaders ambitiously pledged to start 1,000 new congregations in the group’s first five years, but have settled for about half that number.

“Well, 488 is not 1,000, but it sure is an awesome harvest,” said Duncan. “Almost immediately, we changed the subject in the church. We threw away the rear-view mirror.”

Several times the archbishop repeated a slogan many would claim in these long Anglican wars: “We sowed in tears. We reap in joy.”

• Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.

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