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‘Fierce conversations’

22 January 2016

Jesse Zink considers a frank dialogue of American students

© americanspirit/dreamstime.com

What the Pilgrim Fathers’ ship might have a looked like: a replica of the Mayflower, off Massachusetts; from Tim Dowley’s Atlas of the European Reformations (Lion Hudson, £15 (£13.50); 978-0-7459-6853-7): it offers more than 60 maps, graphics, and timelines

What the Pilgrim Fathers’ ship might have a looked like: a replica of the Mayflower, off Massachusetts; from Tim Dowley’s Atlas of the European Reform...

A House Divided? Ways forward for North American Anglicans
Isaac Arten and William Glass, editors
Wipf & Stock £11


THE Anglican/Episcopal House of Studies (AEHS) at Duke Divinity School in the United States may be unique in the landscape of North American Anglicanism: a programme in which members of the Episcopal Church in the US, the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), and other Anglican jurisdictions share a common life as they train for ministry.

In the 2013-14 academic year, and at the instigation of Jo Wells, founder of AEHS and now chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, students held a series of “fierce conversations”. Small groups of students engaged in thoughtful dialogue that discussed differences clearly and with candour.

This book comprises the talks that invited guests to those conversations gave to help frame divisions in North American Anglicanism and offer perspectives on ways forward. The book also includes a few brief student responses.

The talks were split between members of the Episcopal Church and other Anglican Churches in the United States. As is so depressingly common in inter-Anglican conversations, the voices are almost entirely male. The only female voices are two student respondents. Despite this weakness, the talks present an array of perspectives on Christian unity. A familiar set of questions recur: When is it right to break off relationship with another Christian? How is it best to respond when one’s Church heads in a new direction?

It is not apparently by design, but all the talks include personal reflection, explaining how divisions in recent decades have affected the speaker. Terrell Glenn, a cradle Episcopalian who is now an ACNA bishop, recalls that “the single most painful experience” of his entire ministry was not when he left the Episcopal Church, but when the Anglican Mission in America, the Rwandan-sponsored movement that he joined, dissolved in intense acrimony. “What was most remarkable”, he writes, “was that this pain came through relationships with people with whom I had no theological disagreement.”

It is a helpful reminder — and there are others in this book — that church conflict is often underlain by far more pressing issues than theology. In his contribution, the Episcopalian Bishop Dorsey McConnell quotes a black Pentecostal friend, who tells him: “when a spirit of division enters the Body of Christ, it just keeps dividing. And dividing. And dividing. Until somebody says no.”

The students, many of whom joined their Churches after these splits occurred, and who are training for ministry at a time when division appears to be taken for granted, are to be commended for choosing, in their place and mode of study, to say no to the spirit of division. The theme that repeatedly emerges from this book is the importance of sitting, eating, praying, talking, laughing, and crying with those who are different from us and with whom we disagree. At AEHS, students seek to do precisely that. We should thank God for them.


The Revd Dr Jesse Zink is the director of the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide, and is the author of Backpacking through the Anglican Communion: A search for unity (Morehouse Publishing, 2014).

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