In what one seasoned religion reporter has dubbed “man bites dog, church edition,” a parish of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) has departed the denomination and joined the Episcopal Church.
Members of The Table Church of Indianapolis, Indiana voted 44-4 to depart from ACNA’s Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO) and join the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis. It is the first parish to do so from a denomination largely composed of congregations that either departed the Episcopal Church or were planted in cooperation with those who did so.
This is good news for all involved.
First, The Table congregation and clergy are free to minister in the context that they feel advances their mission. Anyone who has seen their clergy Twitter accounts across recent years knows that the Episcopal Church is the better fit for them. Clergy at The Table express affirmation at the writings of contested United Methodist Bishop and partnered lesbian Karen Oliveto and Defund the Police? An Abolition Curriculum author Melissa Florer Bixler. Social media posts regularly illustrate a preoccupation with “whiteness” and a proclivity to label opponents as “fascist” – and those examples are just in the past year.
Second, the broader ACNA is able to uncompromisingly proclaim orthodox Christian belief and to graciously transfer a congregation without acrimony or litigation. The Table was planted in 2015 and their conscience is to be respected, even as we arrive at different conclusions. I’m grateful in my own Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic for the peaceable transfer of Christ Church Accokeek that we received last year after amicable negotiation with the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.
Third, the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis, eager for “a sign of new life and growth,” in the words of Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, can welcome a congregation that affirms and partners in the direction that diocese is moving in. Baskerville-Burrows touts that the transferring clergy “are committed to being a safe place for LGBTQ people and to joining with us in our work to dismantle systemic racism and discrimination.”
(And for those ACNA members on what I’ve dubbed the “the C4SO gripe bandwagon,” I’ll argue that it speaks well for C4SO that these particular clergy clearly understood they could not with integrity remain within that diocese).
Indianapolis Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows’ letter to her diocese about The Table and it’s clergy can be viewed in full here. Note that Baskerville-Burrows consulted with “dioceses that were forced to reorganize after bishops and clergy left the Episcopal Church for ACNA” – a sign that even in a relatively cordial transfer, there was still a risk of tripwires among Episcopalians.
Will the movement of The Table into the Episcopal Church be the start of a trend?
For such a small slice of the American religious pie (approximately 126,000 members), the ACNA sits on a heavily trafficked parcel of ecclesial real estate. Our denomination is often a waystation for Christians traveling from – and moving on to – a variety of different destinations.
Some we meet “on the Canterbury trail” are encountering historic, liturgical Christianity for the first time and may eventually opt to swim the Tiber or even the Bosphorus on their way to Rome and Constantinople. Still others have departed from an Evangelical or even fundamentalist context and will move to progressive Christianity, or out of the faith altogether. It is likely that some of those worshiping at The Table in Indianapolis find themselves on one of these paths.
Readers may see parallels between The Table and the popular Evangelical conference speakers Jen and Brandon Hatmaker. They undertook a discussion on the affirmation of same-sex behavior that was brought into public view in 2016. The Hatmakers’ congregation, Austin New Church, ultimately transferred from the Free Methodist Church, an evangelical denomination, to the United Methodist Church.
Even though The Table’s move into the Episcopal Church is itself a first, it isn’t entirely unprecedented. Clergy ordained in the Anglican Mission in America (a founding jurisdiction of the ACNA that now exists separately) have moved into the few remaining orthodox Episcopal dioceses including Dallas and Central Florida. Similarly, St. Mary of Bethany Parish in Nashville, Tennessee voted to depart C4SO last year over disagreement around same-sex marriage, although a new affiliation has yet to be announced as the parish is “currently discerning a call.”
The Table Church really wasn’t the first to depart ACNA, and it won’t be the last to do so. What those of us within ACNA can do is contend for “the faith once delivered” and share those things that deepened our knowledge and love of the Lord.
As IRD President Mark Tooley wrote about Jen Hatmaker, Protestants in America (like those at The Table) can espouse any belief they choose. Their views on sexual and racial identity may align with elite opinion and against the continuous witness of the universal church.
“Protestant reformers and most of their descendants, with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, have agreed the church’s theology is inseparable from right behavior,” Tooley wrote. “And they have agreed there is a universal church, founded by Christ, united by a common continuous core teaching, which includes marriage as male-female, emblemized by Christ the bridegroom and the Church as His eternal bride. This teaching is rooted in creation and redemption, confirmed in eschatology.”
God and history, which is his instrument, will decide the right cause.