Reflection on "Divided We Stand: A History of the Continuing Anglican Movement" by Douglas Bess.

Updated: Feb 17

One afternoon as I was helping clear out the friary’s basement, I happened upon a copy of Douglas Bess’ book, Divided We Stand: A History of the Continuing Anglican Movement (2002, Tractarian Press). Before I was received into the Episcopal Church, I had very little knowledge of those Episcopalians who, in the 1970s and 1980s and in the face of many liturgical changes, formally broke from the Episcopal Church and formed their own separate Anglican communities. It was only after settling in San Francisco as a Franciscan brother in 2017 that I began any sort of research into the Continuing Anglican movement. 


Divided We Stand is a revealing look into the history and development of this movement in the United States and Canada. I must admit that before I started reading this book, I was expecting a one-sided, biased defense of traditional Anglicanism over an exaggerated caricature of the Episcopal Church. Instead, Douglas Bess writes a revealing, detailed, and (as far as I can see) fair(ish) assessment of the movers and shakers defining the first quarter-century of this fascinating movement in American history. 


Let me first state I have not been able to verify conclusively from outside sources the veracity of Bess’ claims made in this book. Like most information one finds on the Internet today, I take his statements and arguments with a grain of salt, especially since I was born several years after all of this happened and have very little direct knowledge of what Bess describes in his book. Bess does provide a generous series of footnotes in the appendix of his book for those wishing to conduct their own research.  I am not familiar with many books detailing the Continuing Anglican movement in quite as much detail as Bess attempts in his book. If there are more books out there about this movement, I would be interested in someday reading them and comparing them to the events detailed by Bess. 


In order to understand how the seeds of discontent grew among some members in the Episcopal Church following World War II, Bess provides us with a brief history lesson. The Baby Boom, Civil Rights Movement, gay liberation, liberation theology, Second-wave feminism, and the sexual revolution changed the way Americans viewed traditional institutions like the Episcopal Church. Bess spends a few chapters detailing how the perceived “liberal” direction of the Episcopal Church angered conservatives and traditionalists. For example, some conservatives questioned the degree of involvement the Episcopal Church had with the National Council of Churches (NCC). Some of these folks felt the NCC, in trying to ensure equal rights and economic opportunity for all people was too sympathetic to perceived communist regimes and collectivist movements. Regardless if that was the case, this reaction came at a time when communism and any form of collective, government action seemed antithetical to the individualistic, capitalist, “American” way of life. 


At the same time, Bess also contends there were also several missteps taken by the Episcopal Church, like the General Convention Special Program (GCSP) which was designed to provide money to kickstart projects helping minority groups. While some projects were helpful, a few attracted negative attention. On one occasion, Bess contends the GCSP provided money to a group in Detroit that had been implicated in organizing riots in that city. Another controversial organization receiving money from the GSCP claimed at one time to encourage a revolt against the governments in the southwestern United States.


Finally, the sad saga of Bishop James Pike of the Diocese of California solidified for many conservatives and traditionalists the inability of the institutional Episcopal Church to deal with one of their own who so publicly, in their minds, departed from the orthodox faith. 


Although Bess spends a few chapters detailing this growing discontent among some within the Episcopal Church, it was two particular landmark decisions by the Church that became the unifying rallying cry of what would become the Continuing Anglican movement. 


The first of these major changes occurred in 1976 when the General Convention approved the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate. Most, if not all, of the Continuing Anglican Churches today maintain a male-only diaconate, priesthood, and episcopate. For many Continuing Anglicans (like our Roman Catholic and Orthodox sisters and brothers) the priesthood and episcopate cannot be conferred on women due in part to arguments stemming from church tradition and particular scriptural interpretation. Although I am not going to repeat these tired arguments (for or against) one can find enough material to spend years reading why women can or cannot be priests. The fact is, Continuing Anglicans do not believe women can validly confer the sacraments, and therefore, in order to preserve the sacraments and their graces, women are not permitted to be priests or bishops. When the Episcopal Church permitted this practice, those who opposed the ordination of women began to question the validity of their own institution’s ability to confer valid sacraments.


Secondly, Continuing Anglicans in the United States rejected the changes made to the 1928 American Book of Common Prayer (BCP) and have retained its use. While you can find some arguments online detailing why some traditional Episcopalians rejected the revised BCP, Bess does not delve into the arguments in his book which I find rather strange. Given the near unanimity one finds among Continuing Anglicans in their rejection of the 1979 BCP, one would expect some portion of Bess’ book to contain some detail on this particular matter.


Today, most Continuing Anglicans subscribe to the 1977 Affirmation of St. Louis, a statement signed by nearly 2,000 concerned churchmen signaling their opposition to the changes made by the Episcopal Church. The Affirmation states that the intention of the signers to “continue in the Catholic Faith, Apostolic Order, Orthodox Worship, and Evangelical Witness of the traditional Anglican Church, doing all things necessary for the continuance of the same.” The Affirmation envisioned a single body, then called the Anglican Church in North America, which would contain all continuing churchmen. Note: This is not the same organization as the present-day Anglican Church in North America whose creation was partly a result of Bishop Gene Robinson's episcopal consecration. The Affirmation of St. Louis stands as the highpoint of the early Continuing movement. It also marks the last time many the Continuing Churches were unified in their opposition to the Episcopal Church.


Soon, they began turning against one another. 


Since 1977, the Continuing Anglican movement has been marred by schism, division, and multiplication of groups claiming that they are continuing the faith of the Episcopal Church. 


The failure of the Continuing Anglican movement to work together towards a single, viable alternative to the perceived heterodoxy of the Episcopal Church is most apparent in the sheer number of groups claiming to be Continuing Anglicans. Any reader of Bess’ book will, like me, find themselves constantly referring to the back of the book where an appendix contains 42 frequently used acronyms of churches and institutions. One must make a concerted effort to keep the names of bishops and churches organized so as not to become dizzy. Bess makes no apologies for what he sees as the reason for all these divisions and splits, writing: 


“In retrospect...it becomes apparent that many of the arguments either for or against greater unity within the Movement were ultimately of only secondary importance. Although the facts may disturb many Continuing churchmen, and may provide ammunition for critics of the Movement within the Anglican mainstream, there seems to be little doubt that the greater hindrance to a more unified Continuing Anglican witness...was the perpetual cycle of conflicts between certain individual leaders within the Movement, shared among the episcopate, the clergy, and some influential wealthy laity. Although these conflicts were no doubt influenced by issues of doctrine, worship, and ecclesiastical order, they seem to have been taken over by personal drives towards the aggrandizement or maintenance of power.” (p. 225)


More often than not, many of these bishops behaved as little princes, ruling their congregations as if they held the keys to a purer form of Anglicanism. For many of them, it seemed as if they were more interested in establishing their own fiefdoms than building up the Kingdom of God. They ended up becoming the very thing they rebelled against.


Today, Continuing Anglicans are few in number. Around here in San Francisco, there are only a handful of Continuing Anglican congregations. In the Northeast and Midwest, there are considerably more parishes. From my location in the Mission District, only one Continuing church can be successfully navigated to by public transport. All others can only be reached by car (or by an extremely long walk). Calculating how many parishioners belong to the Continuing Anglican movement is also difficult. Four of the largest Continuing Anglican bodies – the Anglican Province of America (APA), the Anglican Catholic Church (ACC), the Anglican Church in American (ACA), and the Diocese of the Holy Cross (DHC)--have, according to a quick Wikipedia search, probably have around 30,000 members. Although many mainstream religious denominations aren’t doing particularly well in the United States these days, one wonders how long the Continuing Anglican movement will survive in the 21st Century. 


However, 15 years after Bess’ book was published, in 2017 the primates from the APA, the ACC, the ACA, and the DCH signed the Atlanta Concordant, pledging to seek “full, institutional, and organic union with each other.” This is an important milestone, bringing together some of the largest Continuing Anglican bodies under one banner of cooperation and support. Hopefully, it is a sign that the endless personality quarrels defining the early years of the Continuing Anglican movement are drawing to an end. If these groups can put aside their differences in order to build up the Church of God, then perhaps all of us can strive for that greater unity that propels us to move past our differences with our neighbors and towards greater communion and love. 


Since finishing Bess’ book, I’ve had time to reflect on my own journey and what my relationship is to the Continuing Anglican movement. In the past, I must admit, I have been tempted to join it. Every time I see some abuse or disregard for orthodoxy and tradition in the Episcopal Church, I get those feelings of retreating to some denomination where I can feel safe and secure in my own church. At the same time, I know a place like that is mostly fiction. There is no perfect church, just as there are no perfect people. Churches, like people, must undergo some degree of change. An unchanging church is a dead church, just as an unchanging person is a dead person. 


At the end of the day, is the Episcopal Church perfect? No, of course not. Not even close. Yet, unlike some other Christian bodies, the Episcopal Church has never claimed it is free of error. Although it maintains a part of God’s holy, catholic church, it is not the entirety of it. It has no room to be proud given its own history and compliance in some of the worst sins of American history. It always makes room for growth and development. Some churches, on the other hand, have no room to change or develop. Some churches insist that change would be bad or a departure from the true faith. Which is worse, a church that will not change or a church that lacks the ability to change? At the same time, if a church surrenders to the surrounding culture and has no spiritual foundation on which to stand, what is the point of its existence? What separates it from a Kiwanis Club with slightly more liturgy? 


I believe the religious life offers a prophetic model for the wider Church. If us grumpy, old Franciscan brothers can learn how to live, pray, and work together under the same house, then why can’t the wider church? I hope that one day, Continuing Anglicans, Episcopalians, and our brothers and sisters of other various Christian bodies can reconcile our differences and worship together with one voice and one spirit in Christ Jesus Our Lord. 

Brother James Nathaniel can be reached at jamesnathanielssf@gmail.com

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