How does the Anglican Church in North America relate to the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion?
To answer that we need to go back a few years. Since its founding in 1783 The Episcopal Church had been the primary expression of Anglicanism in the US. Before the Revolution they had been simply the Church of England in the colonies, under the authority of the Bishop of London. After the Revolution they took the more benign name Protestant Episcopal Church from their bishop-based form of church government, thereby avoiding any reference to England, for obvious reasons. At that point these were the only two “Anglican” churches in existence–The Church of England and the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States.
With the worldwide expansion of the British Empire, Anglicanism also spread across the globe. Where the English went they took with the the C of E. However, as these churches took root and flourished in new soil they were granted autonomy under local bishops, creating eventually 38 national and regional churches, wedding the generic name Anglican along with their local name, as in The Anglican Church of Kenya. While being independent these churches remained united in the core convictions and practices of their Anglican heritage, primarily their use of the Book of Common prayer, locally adapted, and their affinity and affection for Canterbury.
In 1930 the word “Anglican Communion” was used for the first time to describe this growing fellowship of churches worldwide. The primary instrument of unity was the gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world every ten years at Lambeth Palace at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury for fellowship, worship and collaboration. Unlike Rome, the Anglican Communion has never had (or wanted) a central authority structure beyond the bonds of affection and fellowship in the historic faith and worship of the Prayer Book tradition.
Since the 1970s a number of churches within the worldwide Anglican Communion have been drifting from Biblical authority and historical Christian doctrine. Largely because of the high degree of autonomy afforded within the Communion this movement was accommodated until 2003 when, rejecting the pleas of Canterbury and the majority of bishops of the Communion, the Episcopal Church in the USA made a definitive break with 2000 years of Christian tradition in the areas of human sexuality, ordination and marriage.
After 2003 many bishops and leaders of the 38 Anglican provinces felt they could no longer be in communion with those churches which were in clear violation of Scripture, especially the Episcopal church in the US, whom they had begged not to take the fatal step which all knew would tear the fabric of Anglican unity. Likewise many Episcopalian church members felt they could no longer remain part of the Episcopal Church whose leadership had departed from Biblical authority. Yet they wanted to continue worshiping in the Anglican tradition. In response to this crisis a number of African Anglican bishops provided temporary leadership and care while new Anglican churches were formed in the US and Canada. These have now been consolidated within the new Anglican Church in North America.
The ACNA has received recognition and hearty welcome from the majority of the Anglican churches of the Communion worldwide and although Canterbury has not officially recognized the ACNA our Archbishop, Foley Beach, has been welcomed to Canterbury in recent gatherings of the other national leaders. The leaders of the Anglican Communion are still trying to smooth over the breach in fellowship but without repentance and return to Biblical standards by the more progressive member churches, the Communion will exist in name only.
These are times of rapid change. It is not yet clear where even Canterbury will emerge in these debates. As a state church under the authority of parliament, the Church of England may be forced either to embrace and bless the new definitions of marriage or disestablish itself from the “Crown”. Currently Canterbury seems to be encouraging gradual accommodation to the progressive agenda. This is further alienating the vibrant churches of England’s former colonies, especially in Africa, which show no sign of compromising. The center of Anglican Church in the future may no longer be the place of its birth, but rather some location that remains true to its founding principles.