Multiple Religious Secessions in Virginia

I can well predict the reactions of many secular progressives to the latest news about religious secession in Virginia.

The efforts of Episcopal Church leaders to bring about reconciliation within the troubled denomination suffered their biggest blow yet, as eight parishes in Virginia voted this weekend to sever ties with the church.

While the actions involved only eight of 7,200 Episcopal congregations, they showed that traditionalists in the US and Africa are intent on raising the pressure within the Anglican Communion. These pressures will likely come to a head next February, when the 38 top Communion leaders meet in Africa. Some have said the disagreement are so basic that they cannot sit down with the new US leader, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

As the US branch of Anglicanism, the church has been a lightning rod within the global community over its 2003 consecration of a gay bishop, with traditionalists threatening schism unless the church’s convention repented its decision.

A small number of conservative US parishes had formed a network within the church – the Anglican Communion Network – to press for a return to traditional teachings. But this weekend’s actions amounted to a dramatic secession involving two of the largest and most historic congregations. (One of them can say, “George Washington worshiped here.”)

The Falls Church and Truro Church in the northern Virginia suburbs voted overwhelmingly to join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), a group connected to Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, the most prominent and outspoken leader of traditionalists.

The office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the Communion, issued a statement after the votes clarifying that CANA was “a ‘mission’ of the church of Nigeria. It is not a branch of the Anglican Communion … nor has the Archbishop of Canterbury indicated any support for its establishment.”

National churches within the Communion are autonomous, and rules prohibit one national church from interfering in the affairs of another. This tradition has been strained as US conservatives developed ever closer ties with church leaders in Africa and elsewhere. One congregation in Texas recently left the Dallas diocese and put itself informally under the bishop of Peru.

Earlier this month, the 10,000-member Diocese of San Joaquin in California took the first step toward changing its constitution to sever ties with the church.

After the June election of Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori, seven dioceses petitioned Canterbury for “alternative oversight.” Some oppose female leadership in the church; others say they cannot work with the new leader because she favors blessing same-sex unions and a role for gay bishops.

What many secular progressives (and regional bigots) may not realize is that many moderate Virginians have already seceded from the politically conservative Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) for similar reasons: an objection to the polarizing politics of their respective elites.

As the SBC moved toward religious fundamentalism during the 1980s and 1990s, many Southern Baptist congregations redirected their offerings to more moderate organizations such as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) and the Mainstream Baptist Network. After the SBC withdrew from the Baptist World Alliance (headquartered in Falls Church, VA) on the grounds that the BWA was “too liberal,” two of the most powerful of the dissident Southern Baptist state organizations, those in Virginia and Texas, applied to join the BWA.

In what would be a first for the Baptist World Alliance, state associations of Southern Baptists in Virginia and Texas–who at times assert their independence from the Southern Baptist Convention–have been recommended as full members in the Baptist World Alliance, the organization that the SBC left last year in an ideological dispute.

British Baptist Alistair Brown, who sits on the BWA membership committee, said in March that it is “the committee’s unanimous view that both be recommended” to the BWA General Council to become full member bodies of the worldwide group of Baptists.

The Baptist General Association of Virginia and the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which are already major financial contributors to the Baptist World Alliance, in January joined the North American Baptist Fellowship, one of BWA’s six regional groups.

Both state groups relate to the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and other nationwide missions organizations.

But if “the recommended membership is approved by the BWA’s General Council during its meeting in July, it would mean the two state conventions would become members on the same level as CBF, the American Baptist Churches, or any of the 200-plus other national and regional Baptist groups that make up BWA’s membership. They would be the first U.S. state conventions to join.

The moves by the two conventions come after the SBC voted last year to leave the global fellowship amid charges that it was too liberal, a charge denied by BWA leaders. “Both bodies express sadness at the withdrawal from membership from the BWA of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Brown told the assembled BWA leaders. “And they said that the withdrawal from the BWA had removed from them a means of fellowship with Baptists from around the world.”

And the same goes for the Episcopal Church, whose leaders have drifted too far left, while the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention have drifted too far right in relation to substantial numbers of their respective coreligionists. Both sets of elites are starting to feel the backlash.

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Filed under religion, U.S., Virginia

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