Christopher C. Brittain is Dean of Divinity and Margaret E. Fleck Chair in Anglican Studies at Trinity College, University of Toronto. Andrew McKinnon is Senior Lecturer of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen. In their book, The Anglican Communion at a Crossroads: The Crises of a Global Church, Brittain and McKinnon assess the controversies and challenges facing global Anglicanism in the twenty-first century.
Friendly and mild-mannered, Gene Robinson doesn’t seem like a rabble-rouser. And yet, when he was elected Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire in the summer of 2003, the ensuing controversy was fierce enough to prompt a realignment of the continental Anglican Church. Because Robinson was openly gay and in a relationship with a man, and because no Anglican Bishop had ever been both of those things at the same time before, a significant faction of theological conservatives decided to leave the Episcopal Church in the United States (TEC), formally establishing the rival Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) in 2009. Though Robinson retired from his post in 2013, the aftershocks of his election continue to rattle the Anglican Communion.
In The Anglican Communion at a Crossroads: The Crises of a Global Church, theologian Christopher C. Brittain and sociologist Andrew McKinnon undertake an interdisciplinary examination of Anglican dynamics in the years since the Robinson controversy. Historically rooted in the Church of England, Anglicans now comprise a sprawling global community with provinces on six continents. (The term Episcopalian has traditionally referred to Anglicans within the United States and since 2009 only to a subset of these.) Citing the vast scope and diversity of the body, Brittain and McKinnon are primarily interested in the ties that somehow manage to bind—even when stretched by controversies (and the ongoing debates over LGBTQ ordination and same-sex marriage have been more controversial than most).
Indeed, the authors note that in recent years homosexuality has emerged as a “presenting symbol” within global Anglicanism. It is an issue that speaks to fundamental commitments within the tradition and so deepens divides between while fostering realignments among three primary factions—Anglo-Catholics, evangelicals, and liberals. If the first “emphasize the church’s traditions,” the second “prioritize scripture and the Reformation,” and the third “emphasize reason and adaptation to modern society.” To subscribe to any one of these is not to discount the value of the others so much as to privilege a particular source of authority when making judgments and arbitrating disputes. Not since the ordination of women have the three faced a comparable challenge, and this time the divisions are even more pronounced.
This is in part because sexual matters have historical-cultural implications that often run deeper—or at least wider—than doctrine. In the United States, official recognition of LGBTQ sexualities within the church has arrived alongside the broader recognition of LGBTQ sexualities within the culture at large. Since 2000, public opinion has shifted dramatically in favor of same-sex marriage, for instance, and the courts have honored that shift via a series of increasingly consequential rulings. So whatever arguments may be applied to thetheologicalquestion today, the cultural context imposes itself upon the ecclesiastical proceedings. For those living outside of the United States and so beyond the limits of that social evolution, the implications are sharper still.