An Anglican Schism: Headed for US?

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The Falls Church

Disputed churches like the Falls Church in Fairfax, Virginia, are where the action will be

A group of conservative bishops meeting in Jerusalem have raised anew the possibility of a schism in the worldwide Anglican church, largely over the contentious issue of gay priests. But a nearly simultaneous court ruling in Virginia has increased the chances that the battle over Anglican unity could come to a head in the United States. Says conservative Canon Kendall Harmon with the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina: "[The U.S.] has become a hot zone, and it's going to become much hotter."

The Global Anglican Future conference (GAFcon), the group of conservative Anglican bishops and believers that ended its weeklong meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, released a statement that stops short of outright schism with the Anglican Communion. However, it seems to set up an alternative fellowship of conservative Anglicans within the Communion, made up of its own group of key archbishops, or primates. It also states an unwillingness to accept the Archbishop of Canterbury's power to determine who is or isn't Anglican.

GAFcon also announced its intention to formalize an ongoing effort to set up a conservative Anglican province in North America to compete with the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A, as well as the Canadian Anglican church. That would violate the one-territory, one-church agreements that were undertaken by the Communion and are Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams' very clear preference. These may force Williams into a direct conflict with GAFcon. More immediately, they give impetus to legal battles as seceding congregations try to take their church buildings with them when they split off.

As it happens, at the same time that GAFcon was meeting in Jerusalem, a Virginia District court made a decision that should give the conservative group heart. Last Friday Judge Randy Bellows of the Fairfax Circuit Court ruled that a Civil War–era statute that allows congregations, rather than their denominations, to hold on to church property in case of a split violates neither the federal nor state constitutions' provisions on separation of church and state. That means that — pending appeal — 11 Virginia Episcopal congregations that are now the latest outposts of the conservative Anglican Church of Nigeria will be able to take their buildings and other holdings with them. It is the largest church property case in the history of the Episcopal Church, and includes Falls Church and Truro, two of the denomination's most historic churches. It is a blow to the Episcopal Church and its Archdiocese of Virginia, which had brought suit against the conservatives.

The court's decision is not final: the judge has yet to determine the exact dispensation of assets, and the Episcopalians will almost certainly appeal. What's more, other states with secession-minded parishes have different property laws. But the decision's constitutional language is bound to encourage other congregations considering similar breaks with the church.

For now, GAFcon seems to be trying to provoke a split rather than announcing one itself. On Monday, Rowan Williams responded to the Jerusalem declaration by saying he thought "the tenets of orthodoxy" spelled out in the document will be acceptable and shared by the vast majority of Anglicans. He did, however, note that GAFcon's proposals for reorganizing its churches and "intervention" in existing dioceses were problematic. It now likely that the U.S., which brought the conservative-liberal tension to a boil with its consecration of openly gay bishop V. Gene Robinson in 2003, could end up being the setting for a GAFcon provocation. Certainly, after this past weekend, the temperature of the U.S. battle will only increase along with the international stakes.