Having been an Anglican briefly, before becoming Catholic, I watch the breakup of the Anglican Communion unfold with sadness both before and after my reception into the Catholic Church. That breakup continues to this day, though arguably, the key moments in the process are now behind us, and the trajectory is set into its end game.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Anglican Communion, it was the main body of Anglicanism for the entire world, mirroring in many ways the Catholic Church, with the Archbishop of Canterbury (in the U.K.) serving as a pope-like figure. Anglican unity, for at least a century, was measured by a national church’s relationship of communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, much in the same way Catholic unity is measured the bishops relationship of communion with the Pope.
Here is how the breakup of the Anglican Communion happened. While the seeds of schism had already been planted, perhaps years to decades before the main events, the process began to unfold in the 1970s. I’ll use The Episcopal Church U.S.A. (ECUSA), now more informally referred to as The Episcopal Church (TEC) as ground zero for where it all began, as TEC in the United States seems to have led the charge into the breakup.
On July 17, 1974, TEC ordained the first female priestesses in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There were eleven in all. This happened in a highly irregular ceremony that was celebrated two-years before the general council of TEC had the chance to debate it, and was considered a provocation. While TEC House of Bishops (one of its bicameral governing bodies) initially opposed the ordinations, by the time the general council was held in 1976, the ordinations were approved, and TEC gave formal approval for the ongoing ordination of women to the priesthood, as well as the eventual consecration of women to TEC’s episcopate. With that, a litany of one schism after another would slowly unfold over the next 30 years.
The first major schism was almost immediate, and came within about a year after the 1976 general council of TEC. On September 14-16 of 1977, a international group of about 2,000 Anglican clergy (deacons, priests and bishops) met in the city of St. Louis, Missouri, for what is known today as the Congress of St. Louis. The Congress was aimed at condemning the sacramental changes to holy orders that had happened in the United States with TEC, and also the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC). The Congress produced a document called the Affirmation of St. Louis, which basically stated that both TEC and the ACC were in schism with historic Anglicanism, and therefore no longer legitimate Anglican bodies. What resulted was the creation of new Anglican churches, that were informally called the Continuing Anglican Communion, or the Anglican Continuum. The most notable churches of the Anglican Continuum are the Anglican Church in America (ACA) and Anglican Catholic Church of Canada (ACCC), along with a handful of other break-off Anglican jurisdictions around the world, in an umbrella organization called the Traditional Anglican Church (TAC). This new Church (Communion or Continuum) is governed by a “Primate” who serves in a similar capacity that the Archbishop of Canterbury once did.
The ACC and TEC responded to the exodus of their most conservative members by going further into progressive (liberal or modernist) revisions. A new Book of Common Prayer was issued in TEC in 1978, and the ACC followed with their own Book of Alternative Services in 1985. These books serve as liturgical standards in Anglican churches, comparable to Catholic missals and breviaries. Both the ACC and TEC books included entirely new liturgies, with modern and inclusive language, as well as new prayers and rubrics. These solidified in worship what had already happened in doctrine and sacrament — the creation of a new kind of Christianity. The Anglican Church of Australia, as well as the original Church of England, would likewise follow North America into its progressive-modernist trajectory over the following decades.
The second major schism happend about three decades later. These were the holdouts of Anglicans who remained in the original TEC and ACC, in the hopes of regaining control of the general councils and steering these North American Anglican churches back toward a more orthodox course. In other words, they refused to leave the TEC and ACC in the hope that the ordination of women, along with liturgical modernity, was just passing fads. Hindsight being 20/20, I’m not sure what they were expecting to happen. Were they hoping they could end the ordination of women over time, and just let those already ordained be grandfathered (grandmothered) in? Or were they hoping to eventually “un-ordain” (defrock or laicize) them? Who knows? I informally entered TEC during this time, and as a former Evangelical, I didn’t really understand what was going on in the beginning. My TEC priest assured me the problems of the wider TEC would not reach our Episcopal diocese, and certainly not our Episcopal parish, but it wasn’t long before I realized that much of this was just wishful thinking on his part. The second schism was brewing just beneath the surface, and once I figured that out, I completed my journey into the Catholic Church in the Spring of 2000. I didn’t want to raise my future children in a church that was breaking apart. My family was very young at the time, and I came to realize that we would need some form of religious stability in the formative years of childrearing. The Catholic Church offered a form of that, at the time, and so off we went to become Catholic. (No regrets, by the way.)
The second major Anglican schism began in 2003-2004, with TEC’s election and ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson, an openly homosexual man who left his wife and children to live with his gay lover in 1988. The two men would later be “married” in 2008. The election and ordination of an openly gay priest to the bishopric opened a new chapter in TEC and the Anglican Communion, which would eventually result in the official recognition and approval of homosexuality across a great portion of Anglicanism in the West. What followed the ordination of Gene Robinson was a flurry of statements among Anglican bishops, primarily in Africa, disassociating themselves from TEC in the United States. The African bishops begged the Archbishop of Canterbury to do something, and show some kind of strong posture that would signal to the American province that this sort of thing would not be tolerated in the Anglican Communion. The Archbishop, clearly disturbed by all this, entered into endless streams of “dialogue” with the parties involved, resulting in nothing of substance being produced.
The first Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) was organized in 2008 in Jerusalem, Israel. It was in response to what was happening in the United States with TEC. This preceded the 10-year Lambeth Conference, that same year and just a month later, which the Archbishop of Canterbury had been organizing since 1867. The existence of a “separate conference,” preceding the traditional forum, signified the beginning of the second major schism in Anglicanism. GAFCON called for the creation of new Anglican jurisdictions that no longer needed the Archbishop of Canterbury as a sign of visible communion. One of these jurisdictions was the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which served as an alternative to the liberal ACC and TEC. These Anglican jurisdictions need not be as traditional as the Anglican Continuum formed in the late 1970s (see above), and women’s ordination to the diaconate and priesthood (but not the bishopric) may still be allowed on a diocese-by-diocese basis, with most dioceses abstaining, but the acceptance and promotion of homosexuality would be opposed by all. The result was the creation of a third worldwide Anglican Church, following the Anglican Communion and Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), that would serve as an in-between body, more conservative than the Anglican Communion, but not as conservative as the Traditional Anglican Church (TAC) or Anglican Continuum. What exists in Anglicanism now is a three-fold level of major branches, none of them formally in communion with the other…
- Anglican Communion (Liberal and Modernist)
- GAFCON (Generally Conservative or Moderate)
- Traditional Anglican Church or Anglican Continuum (Conservative and Traditional)
While a few Anglicans hope for eventual reunification of the Anglican branches, most Anglicans are sober about it. They know that such reunification is now impossible, and so the future of Anglicanism is just a war of attrition. Currently, the Anglican Communion is still the largest branch, but that is slowly changing as the number of Anglicans within that communion slowly decline. GAFCON appears to be the organization growing the fastest. The TAC (or Continuum) has been plagued by issues of unity since its founding, and appeared to stagnate for a while. The creation of Ordinariates for English Patrimony (or Anglican Patrimony) within the Catholic Church, seemed to almost be a death blow to the TAC, as many Traditional Anglicans converted to Catholicism between 2011 to present, after Pope Benedict XVI promulgated the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, allowing Anglicans to convert to the Catholic Church and retain their former liturgical and pastoral traditions. However, in the years after the exodus of a large number of Traditional Anglicans to Rome, it appears the TAC has stabilized and found most of the unity it struggled for in the early years of its formation. Traditional Anglicans bear the most resemblance to Catholics and, aside from communion with the pope, they are indistinguishable from Catholics within the Ordinariates for English/Anglican Patrimony.
So how does this relate to the Catholic Church today? Sadly, as a former Anglican, I’m getting a very strong sense of deja vu. I would say that barring the intervention of God himself, and a strong as well as holy pope, the Catholic Church is about to duplicate the trajectory of Anglicanism, splitting not into just two, but possibly three branches. We may even end up with “two popes” (with at least one being an antipope of course) presiding over each branch. The coming three branches will likely mirror those within Anglicanism…
- Liberal Branch (definately spearheaded by the German bishops, and may or may not have a pope),
- Moderate Branch (likely a conglomeration of moderate to conservative jurisdictions, which will most certainly have a pope),
- Traditional Branch (likely spearheaded by the SSPX, and will most certainly have a pope).
It remains to be seen if the pope for the Moderate Branch and the Traditional Branch will be the same person. If it is, that would be the best-case scenario, with the strongest likelihood of healing and resurgence of Catholicism within our lifetime. The Liberal Branch will not likely require a pope, and will settle for some form of democratic governance instead.
The German bishops will most certainly be the catalyst to initiate the breakup of the Catholic Church, as we are watching them already do with their Synodal Path. At the moment, the German Synodal Path consist of a whole lot of talk and not much action. However, the purpose of the Synodal Path is to allow German bishops to talk themselves into action. So the action is coming, in the not-too-distant future. Pope Francis has made a few strategic moves with canon law, to create automatic excommunications for any bishop(s) who dare to ordain women, but we have yet to see how those provisions will play out in application. Theoretically, when the Synodal Path concludes, it will likely do so with the ordination of women and the blessing of same-sex unions. Theoretically, that should result in automatic excommunications for the bishops involved. However, that’s all in theory. We don’t know what will really happen yet, and presumably, it would take a strong pope to stand firm on canon law when (not “if” but “when”) that happens. Francis has not proved to be a strong pope thus far, so we have no reason to believe he will be strong when the inevitable happens. How this will play out remains to be seen.
Automatic excommunications, immediately recognized by the Pope and Vatican, will produce the most favorable outcome, limiting the fracture of the Church into two (rather than three) factions, and marginalizing the German bishops as much as possible, so as to hinder the spread of their influence and schism. However, if Rome delays, due to the indecision of a weak Pope (like Francis has been), the influence of Germany’s Catholic bishops will spread rapidly, not just into other German countries (Austria, Liechtenstein and Switzerland), but likely into Nordic and English countries as well. From there, we can expect the poison to spread rapidly into non-Germanic countries (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French) in rather short order. The potential for a global split is high under such a scenario, which is why Rome must act quickly as soon as the German bishops act. If the situation is allowed to continue for too long (more than a few years) the development of a third faction will emerge, just as it did in Anglicanism.
At this point, schism is inevitable. Threats of excommunication don’t seem to trouble the German bishops at all, and while they do express some regret, they seem more than willing to “go it alone” if they have to. I think it’s reasonable to expect a German-led Catholic schism within a matter of years. If Rome acts quickly and firmly in response, it will be limited to just that, and we will only have two churches in the world that identify as “Catholic.” The Germans will continue to spread their schismatic tendencies internationally, but their influence will be mitigated. If, however, Rome does not act quickly, the German schism will spread rapidly, and within a decade, it will likely result in three international churches that all identify as “Catholic.” Two of those (conservative and traditional) may be united under one future Pope, if that Pope is strong and conservative himself, but if not, there will likely be two “popes” in the future, each having his own “Catholic Church.” The German faction likely won’t need one, or even want one. The whole thing will resemble the Western Schism of the 14th to 15th centuries, and will likely have to be resolved with an ecumenical council. That, however, probably won’t happen for decades.