With a promise to leave the "war" in the past, the Rev. Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh on Wednesday became the first archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America, established after a break with the US Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada over the issue of ordaining gays as priests.
The formation of a new Anglican body – the largest-ever breakaway from the Episcopal Church – has torn at congregations across the US and split the Anglican world. The Anglican Church in North America claims 100,000 members, while the Episcopal Church, the US province of the global Anglican Communion, has at least 2.1 million members.
"We've had years of struggle and conflict with other Christian brothers and sisters, but those years are past," said Archbishop Duncan, in a separate statement from the inaugural assembly in Bedford, Texas. "We've come together and recognize there's a crying need across this continent … to be met with the transforming love of Jesus Christ." He set a goal of adding 1,000 new churches in the next five years.
Seven hundred churches now
The Anglican Church in North America currently is made up of 700 dissident Anglican churches, ranging from tiny Southern congregations that meet at Holiday Inns to larger congregations like St. Vincent's in Bedford.
"The challenge before them is obviously two-fold," says the Rev. Bill Sachs, an Episcopal priest and author of the forthcoming book, "Homosexuality and the Crisis of Anglicanism." "How do you meld all of these groups that have prized their particular identity? And the larger challenge is how do you transform a spirit of protest into a positive message that might even attract newcomers?"
Denominational realignment has dogged the Episcopal Church since it broke from the Church of England after the Revolutionary War. But never has such a large chunk of the church broken off in protest. Its intent is to form a polyglot communion with like-minded dioceses spanning from Rwanda to Argentina.
The ordination in 2003 of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, became the flash point in a long struggle between liberals and conservatives inside the Episcopalian church over biblical precepts. Episcopalians are still fighting legal battles in states from California to Virginia about whether the diocese or local church congregations own the actual church buildings. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Bishop Robinson's name and gave the wrong year for his ordination.]
A softened message
But on Wednesday, the new church emerged formally with a message of unity and openness.
"This is not about the past, it's not about that war, that's all done," Duncan said in a speech before his installation as archbishop Wednesday evening. "The miracle of this moment is that the Lord has brought us together to do the mission, not to paper over our differences." Later in his speech he said, "We want to welcome back the wounded."
The Anglican Church in North America aims for recognition as the newest province of the 80-million-strong global Anglican Communion, the church created by King Henry VIII as he broke away from Rome's theological and political grip. The Episcopal Church is the US province of the global Anglican body – and has declined to comment on the new church.
One test for Archbishop Duncan will be to attract other Anglican offshoots, including the Orthodox Church in America, to the new body. The two denominations share the belief that the Episcopal Church failed to uphold biblical authority on issues such as the divinity of Jesus and biblical morality. But there are differences, too, such as over whether women should be ordained.