Nearly 300 ACNA clergy and a Texas diocese call for male-only priesthood

(RNS) — At an Anglican theological conference in January, UK priest and political commentator The Rev. Calvin Robinson stirred up a long-simmering controversy when he called women’s ordination a “slippery slope” akin to a “Trojan horse” and to “cancer.”

“This is how the liberal infestation of the church began,” Robinson insisted. “The doors were left open for the Marxist ideologies to gain a foothold, gender theory, queer theory, critical race theory — it all began with feminism.”

Robinson’s provocative remarks, delivered in an Anglican Church in North America diocese that ordains women, led to his removal from the remainder of the event. Months later, nearly 300 ACNA clergy have signed an open letter opposing women’s ordination to the priesthood, a wedge issue that has divided ACNA members since its inception in 2009, and an entire diocese has published a resolution calling for a moratorium on ordaining women.

On May 26, “The Augustine Appeal” appeared on the North American Anglican, a socially and theologically conservative publication. Authored by three ACNA priests and published weeks before ACNA elects its new leader, or Archbishop, the letter states that the “unresolved issue of women’s ordination to the priesthood imperils the mission of our Province.” It also expresses hope that the College of Bishops will find “a creative solution to restore orthodoxy” and institute a male-only priesthood. As of Friday (June 7), the appeal had been signed by 296 ACNA clergy.

A few days after the appeal was posted, a new resolution was published on the same Anglican site, this time by an elected group representing the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth (ACNA). The diocese asserts that when it joined ACNA in 2009, it did so only provisionally, given the ordination of women in parts of the denomination. Now, it wants to be in “full communion,” — but to make that possible, it says ACNA must come to a consensus on women’s ordination.

“(W)e call upon the college of bishops, under the leadership of the next archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America, to agree to a moratorium on the practice of the ordination of women in order to facilitate full communion throughout the province as we come to a common mind on this issue,” the resolution says. The authors of the resolution and a spokesperson for ACNA declined to speak to RNS for this story.  

Since ACNA’s 2009 split from The Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada over the latter two’s acceptance of LGBTQ+ clergy and marriage for same-sex couples, the denomination, also referred to as a Province, has allowed each diocese to decide the issue of women’s ordination. The church’s bylaws bar the Province from restricting dioceses’ authority to decide whether to ordain women priests and deacons. ACNA doesn’t allow women to become bishops.

The Rev. Calvin Robinson speaks at the Oxford Union Society in Oxford, England, in Feb. 2023. (Video screen grab)

Following Robinson’s ejection from the event, some ACNA priests voiced concerns over what they saw as organizers’ silencing of the truth. Among them were two priests, the Rev. Jay Thomas and the Rev. Blake Johnson, who later joined with the Rev. Ben Jefferies to author the Augustine Appeal. All three authors are graduates of Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin, a theologically conservative Anglican seminary that identifies as Anglo-Catholic. Jefferies and Thomas are also regular contributors at the North American Anglican. Ten priests who signed the letter, including the three authors, declined to speak to RNS for this story.

The appeal affirms the “inherent dignity and equality of women,” but asserts that any view of ministry that ignores sexual differences “opposes God’s created order.” According to Conor Hanson, a former ACNA lay catechist and data analyst who did a statistical analysis of the Augustine Appeal signers, all but one of the clergy who signed appear to be men, and while most signatures are unsurprisingly from dioceses that don’t ordain women as priests, there are signatures from 27 of the 29 dioceses. Those signing the letter seem to represent a cross-section of ACNA — priests who entered by way of The Episcopal Church, the Reformed Episcopal Church (a theologically conservative sub-jurisdiction of ACNA that split from TEC in 1873), evangelical churches and other backgrounds.

The Diocese of Fort Worth resolution echoes the Augustine Appeals’ argument that women’s ordination is a first-order issue that “imperils” the denomination. The Diocese argues that women’s ordination can affect the validity of the Eucharist, and the grace bestowed via the sacrament.

The Rev. Hannah King, a priest in residence at an Anglican church in North Carolina, told RNS she wasn’t surprised by the Augustine Appeal but added that the denomination’s ability to hold together difference on women’s ordination is one of ACNA’s greatest strengths.

“I grew up Southern Baptist, so I wasn’t raised in a tradition where women were ordained,” said King. “I respect the conscience of people who disagree on that matter, and I liked the idea of it not being something that needs to break fellowship.” She hopes to see more people embrace the denomination’s ability to honor differences of conviction on what she views as secondary matters.

The Anglican Church in North America logo. Courtesy image

The Anglican Church in North America logo. (Courtesy image)

But while the diversity of opinion on this topic in ACNA is longstanding, some ACNA clergy and lay members say the effort to prevent women’s ordination is escalating, and there’s a new willingness for bishops to sidestep church bylaws.

In an FAQ published after the open letter, the authors of the Augustine Appeal write that “a constitutional amendment is not the only way to attend to this issue.” However, the authors declined to specify how they hope the bishops will end women’s ordination, leaving it up to the College of Bishops. The authors do indicate, however, that they view women’s ordination as a matter of scriptural integrity that supersedes church bylaws.

“We interpret the legal stipulations of our provincial constitution to be non-constraining of our Bishops in their stewardship and teaching of the Catholic Faith,” they write in the letter.

ACNA’s constitution can only by amended by a two-thirds vote of the Provincial Assembly, which is made of clergy and lay representatives. The number of representatives is in part allocated based on dioceses’ average Sunday attendance — and according to Hanson’s data, the dioceses that don’t ordain women priests currently do not have enough representatives to secure two-thirds of the votes.

“The signers of the Augustine Appeal do not have votes, within their respective dioceses, to change the Constitution on this point. Therefore, they’re not making a canonical argument,” the Rev. Aaron Harrison, an ACNA priest and church planter in the diocese C4SO, told RNS. “They are appealing to the personal authority of each bishop. The question is, is this how Anglicanism views bishops’ authority?” The answer, according to Harrison, is no — bishops in ACNA are elected, not appointed, and have a representative function.

In 2017, ACNA’s College of Bishops unanimously agreed to continue recognizing individual dioceses’ authority to ordain women priests. The Vancouver Statement followed a five-year task force study on women’s ordination, but while some ACNA members view the statement as definitive, others argue that Bishops’ statements aren’t binding, and women’s ordination is still a live issue.

“I’m always surprised when the clergy people who are in a structure that essentially has a hierarchy with a bishop holding authority, disregard the statement that bishops made in 2017 or say it’s insufficient,” Marissa Burt, an ACNA layperson and clergy spouse in the Seattle area, told RNS.

This debate is erupting at a time when women’s ordination is growing in some corners of the Anglican World — Anglican churches in Africa currently boast six women bishops. All Anglican churches in Africa are members of the Anglican Communion, the global body of churches with roots in the Church of England, and many African provinces also belong to GAFCON, a conservative movement within the communion that includes ACNA.

“It’s a settled issue that this is an option for Orthodox, Anglican churches in the fellowship that we’re a part of,” King said in reference to the widespread practice of ordaining female priests in GAFCON, which has characterized women’s ordination as a “secondary issue” that is not a matter of salvation.

Some ACNA members have also noted that the push to end women’s ordination also comes amid a time of reckoning for sexual abuse and abuse of power among ACNA clergy, something not lost on Hanson.

“I think there needs to be more of a red alert focus on abuse and power in the ACNA,” Hanson told RNS. “I’m honestly not surprised, but still disappointed, that with all the conversations in the larger church in the United States about abuse and power, they want to focus on women’s ordination.”

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