The American civil war began with the secession of South Carolina from the United States. They left so as to defend their "right" not to have a "liberal" agenda imposed on them by campaigning progressives from the north. Interfering do-gooders weren't going to force proudly independent southerners to accept that slavery was wicked.
Parallels with the escalating crisis within American Anglicanism are now being made. The diocese of Pittsburgh, led by Bishop Bob Duncan, has just voted to quit the Episcopal church, and other conservative dioceses in the south might follow suit. They are sick to death of liberals telling them that gay is the new black. They want independence to protect their homophobia. And so they have reinvented the idea of the confederacy.
Whatever else can be said about this analysis - and conservatives do their nut about it - this is the script through which liberal US Christians understand the theological culture wars over homosexuality. To them the argument over gay bishops is manifestly a civil-rights issue that requires strong leadership and moral determination: General Grant and Abraham Lincoln. That is why US progressives are so frustrated with Rowan Williams, for the only thing he has in common with Lincoln is the beard.
In 1858 Lincoln famously quoted from Matthew 12:25 to insist that "a house divided against itself cannot stand". For Lincoln, all talk of compromise was useless: the idea that each state determines its own attitude to slavery was morally indefensible and politically unsustainable. The nightmare for Williams is that if Lincoln's basic philosophy is correct then Anglicanism is in deep trouble - and so too is the Church of England, which is, almost by design, a house divided against itself. The fact that 46 members of the church's general synod, its parliament, have this week written to Bishop Duncan expressing their support for his secessionism, bodes very ill.
Effectively, the C of E is a peace treaty between Puritans and Catholics forged in response to the religious culture wars of the 16th and 17th centuries that drenched Europe in blood. As a reaction, compromise and a deep dislike of ideology became the defining genius of the English church - and, through that, the English national character. The C of E was a peculiar settlement that kept most Christians, despite their huge theological differences, around the same communion table. The moral of the American civil war - at least for progressives - is that what is right requires strength of purpose to force through the cause of justice. In contrast, the moral of the English civil war is that unqualified belief in one's own rightness can lead to violent and destructive chaos.
Thus far the Archbishop of Canterbury has maintained the traditional Anglican via media with impeccable impartiality, trying to hold things together with a generous policy of being kinder to his enemies than his friends. But the truth is, the only people who now believe that Anglicanism can survive the current crisis in one piece are those holed up in Lambeth Palace. Both conservatives and liberals agree that a house divided cannot stand. The battle lines are drawn.
Conservative theologians once defended slavery by refusing to accept the Bible as radically inclusive. Similarly, today's conservative theologians are twisting the Bible into bad news for homosexuals rather than good news for all. It's the very opposite of the gospel message of God's generous and inclusive love.
The head of the US church, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, has threatened the neo-confederate leadership with disciplinary action. Some US liberals hope she is leading the church to a new Gettysburg, a decisive victory over prejudice. Yet they may also recall that Gettysburg was one of the bloodiest days in US history. The fight for right is seldom cost-free. And this fight will be no exception. Glory, glory. Alleluia.
(c) Giles Fraser is vicar of Putney and a lecturer in philosophy. He is currently on placement at All Saints in Pasadena, California, USA.
With acknowledgments to The Guardian newspaper, where this first appeared as a Face to faith column.
See also: Savitri Hensman's analysis of the Episcopal Church struggle for Ekklesia and LGCM: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/rewriting_history