A few days ago, church leaders representing the majority of Anglicans worldwide broke communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury over the Church of England’s recent decision to bless same-sex unions.
This situation has put many of my English friends in a difficult position. Many others are or have been in similar circumstances—whether Methodist or Presbyterian or other affiliations.
I was born into, grew up in, and was ordained by the Episcopal Church. But years ago, I (along with our congregation in Washington, DC) wrestled through the decision to stay or leave. Much more troubling than our denomination’s embrace of the contemporary sexual ethic was their clear retreat from historic Christian orthodoxy. In the hardest, most expensive decision we’ve ever made, we withdrew and joined many others in forming the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).
For any pastor who understands Christ’s prayer for our unity in John 17, a decision like this is absolutely awful. In my tradition, nearly every week we pray as a church body for unity in words such as these: “Give us grace to take to heart the grave danger we are in through our many divisions. Deliver your church from all enmity and prejudice and everything that hinders us from godly union.”
Before we left, I—along with many others—devoted huge amounts of energy for at least 25 years to try to bring renewal and a return to historic Anglican doctrine and practice. Along the way, we experienced both marginalization and a variety of painful accusations within our larger church body. It became harder to maintain any sense of unity and harder to justify to our own biblically wise parish why we remained in the denomination. We faced many questions.
If you’re weighing whether to stay in or split from your denomination, here are some things to consider.
As we approached our own decision, we had several pressing questions the Lord eventually answered in his providence.
First, does biblical truth matter more than unity? After three intensive years of prayerful focus, we saw without a doubt that faithfulness to Jesus and his Word was paramount. And this brought us into closer unity with our brothers who were also seeking to follow God’s Word.
Second, what would leaving mean to our own church family? Would it divide us? By God’s grace, it didn’t.
Third, were we willing to risk the loss of our historic church home, including a 300-year-old chapel built by George Washington and a newly completed, gorgeous, fully-paid-for sanctuary? Ultimately, after seven years of legal battles, the Virginian Supreme Court gave all our property and all our money to the Episcopal denomination. We had to give up the parsonage too, so my family lost our home.
Fourth, was I willing to be dishonorably “defrocked” and possibly lose 30 years of retirement savings? Yes, I was defrocked—and no, thankfully I didn’t lose my retirement funds.
Fifth, were we willing to weather what we knew would be a long storm of persistent accusations, misrepresentation, and condemnation in the local press? Yes, but this turned out to be worse than anything we’d imagined.
Today, 17 years after our decision to leave, our church finally has a home again—a spectacular home. Our congregation has weathered the storm of denominational separation—plus COVID and the political polarization that has rocked our nation—and is as strong as it has ever been. In addition, our membership in the ACNA is enabling us to build a Reformed, Anglican church family across the country. We face challenges, but there are so many encouragements and blessings. Together, we’re a family.
At least two truths enabled us to take the path of separation we chose.
First, obedience is more important than success. The creation order of complementary genders, Christ’s righteous moral demands that we either marry or remain chaste, faithfulness to apostolic biblical authority—these were nonnegotiable. Jesus said if we suffer loss or face insult or slander because of a commitment to his righteous demands, we’ll be blessed (Matt. 5:11).
Obedience is more importance than success.
Second, the warnings are serious about remaining in yoked fellowship with those who have rejected a holy lifestyle, who refuse to live as Jesus did, who “pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality” (Jude 4, NIV). These repeated admonitions eventually caused us to ask the same basic question as Amos: “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3, KJV).
We knew there can be disagreement about many things among biblical believers, but it was clear the direction in which our denomination was walking was completely opposite to the commands in the Bible. So the question became “Can two walk together if they are headed in opposite directions?” There’s only one answer.
Our situation was somewhat akin to that of a team of coworkers employed by a large corporation. Over time, the company not only departed from its original purpose but, even more troubling, embraced major objectives and practices you knew were immoral and unacceptable. Staying would be more than just embarrassing. It would be a matter of your integrity.
When that happens in a church, it’s so much worse, because we know the church represents God to the world.
Having made our choice, there were three other piercing, personal questions we had to face.
First, could we take such a step knowing we ourselves are so often guilty of missing the mark and failing Christ? As the Book of Common Prayer says, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” We know we can’t be completely faithful. Who were we to think we were the “righteous” ones in this disagreement?
Second, would we become self-righteous in our effort to be obedient?
Third, could we maintain trust in God and a peaceful spirit? Could we refuse to grumble should God choose to let us lose all our church property and resources?
Could we refuse to grumble should God choose to let us lose all our church property and resources?
As the leader of our church family, I was able to find peace with God and within myself in the face of such questions when I observed the way Christ spoke to his disciples at the end of his earthly life. He knew their imperfections and weaknesses. He knew they’d fail him at times. But he reassured them he wouldn’t leave them. He knew their hearts’ desire was to be faithful and to love him, even though they feared they wouldn’t live up to his commands.
When the time of great disappointment did come, and we had to leave everything behind and begin as a church all over again, Jesus’s words as he washed Peter’s feet were powerfully comforting to all of us: “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand” (John 13:7).
If you were to approach any of our church members who walked through those years of uncertainty and unknowing, I believe he or she would say the whole experience made us stronger as a church and helped us to trust in Christ more than ever before. And while we can’t know all that was in the mind of God, we understand that his purpose and plans are always better than we can know.
Faithful leaders in the Church of England can rest in that truth too.