The future of the 77 million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion was complicated further last night (16 December 2006) with the announcement that two large evangelical congregations in the US have voted to break away from the Episcopal Church, primarily because of its decision three years ago to consecrate a gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
The Truro Church and the Falls Church voted instead to place themselves instead under the authority of the Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola ‚Äì who has called for the Episcopal Church to be ostracised by the rest of the Communion.
Akinola has also leant support to a new law in Nigeria which criminalises homosexual behaviour which civil rights activists have described as ‚Äúdegrading and inhuman‚Äù.
The parishes of Truro and Falls in Virginia were founded in the British colonial era and have been well-known wealthy and conservative congregations for many years. They were once part of the Church of England.
Critics will say that their decision to opt for Nigerian oversight represents the latest twist in a tale of eccentricity, rather than the first sign of a break-up of the Episcopal Church ‚Äì though it is a propaganda coup for anti-gay activists, and makes the job of Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams more difficult in trying to hold Anglicanism together.
Speaking to the BBC this morning, missionary Bishop Martyn Minns said that the split was not about homosexuality alone, but about a whole range of issues of Christian doctrine, including the central role of Scripture, where he and others felt the Episcopal Church was falling short.
But he then went on to distance himself from Archbishop Akinola‚Äôs use of ‚Äúbiblical language‚Äù in denouncing gay priests as constituting a ‚Äúsatanic‚Äù division of the church, saying that this was not a term he would use himself.
Bishop Minns was consecrated in Abuja, Nigeria, on 30 August, as a new bishop of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), and will assume oversight of the two rebel congregations.
Episcopal representatives began to respond to the development last night by pointing out that it is a minority of hardliners, not they, who are acting to split the church. They will urge the Archbishop of Canterbury to firmly reject such moves.
A small number of other congregations in the United States have already left the national Episcopal Church. Those seeking to preserve Anglicanism‚Äôs traditional breadth say that conservatives are using money and politics to force their views on the majority.
The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has warned the two parishes that they do not own their church property and that the buildings, worth millions of dollars, need to be returned to the Church. Bishop Minns dismissed such claims as ‚Äúsilly‚Äù in his BBC interview, but then went on to say that they were part of a ‚Äúconversation‚Äù about the separation.
The Falls church voted 90% in favour of leaving the Episcopal Church immediately to join the breakaway Convocation of Anglicans in North America. They also voted resoundingly (96%) to hold on to the property they currently use. Truro church voted 92.1% for severance and 94.3% to keep the property they use.