Within the Anglican world of the last several years, the "primary infection" has certainly been conflict over sexuality and sexual behavior, and the consequences have been severe, it not devastating. There is honest question whether Anglicanism as a recognizable current within the Christian river can actually survive very much longer.
But within the segment of the Anglican world known as the Episcopal Church, there is a secondary infection that has emerged suddenly--only in the last several weeks--and is growing virulently. Even though the sexuality debate was the vehicle that delivered it to the scene, it has no organic connection to sexuality or the range of theological positions with respect to sexuality. It could easily have been another issue ("lay presidency" at the Eucharist, for example, or communion of the unbaptized), but just happened to be sex.
What I'm talking about is the tension--indeed, the dilemma--that some are experiencing between their identity as Anglicans and their identity as Episcopalians. Not too very long ago, this would have been an inconceivable dichotomy. It was axiomatic that if you are a member of the Episcopal Church (USA), you are also automatically an Anglican, and if you live in the U.S. and wish to practice Christian religion as an Anglican, the place to do so is in the Episcopal Church. Except perhaps in the first session or two of an Inquirers' Class, it all went without saying.
So what has changed? Two things, mainly: First, the various breakaway chunks (too large to be called "splinter groups")--AMiA, CANA, et al; now perhaps congealing as the ACNA--have quite understandably appropriated themselves the moniker "Anglican" while broadcasting their perception that the Episcopal Church has terminally squandered its Anglican inheritance. So we hear things like, "My parish is Anglican, not Episcopal." This can be said both truthfully and innocently, of course, like a resident of Philadelphia saying, "I live in the United States, not in New York." But it can also carry with it an implication of mutual exclusivity and put-down, like I've heard some say, "I'm a Christian, not a Catholic." So when lay Episcopalians who are not well-informed about their own ecclesial identity hear or read such a remark, they might plausibly infer, "If that non-Episcopalian says she's an Anglican, then I must not be an Anglican." This is nonsense, of course, but it is understandable nonsense.
Second, the rhetoric of the primary infection (sexuality conflict) abets the spread of the secondary infection. It has exposed where people's core sense of ecclesial identity lies. It has revealed that, among those who once casually accepted the premise that "to be an Episcopalian is to be an Anglican, and vice versa", some understood the primary category to be Episcopalian, with Anglican as a nice add-on, while others understood the primary category to be Anglican, with Episcopalian as the necessary add-on if one lives in the United States. Of course, most who hold what would be described as conservative views on sexuality are among those who are most concerned about the strained relations within the Communion, and those who hold liberal views tend to be less concerned. But it's not all that simple. There are some whose convictions on the sexuality debate are agnostic or even "progressive," but who feel their Anglican-ness so strongly that they are led to dissent from the decisions of General Convention. Similarly, there are those whose views on sexual morality lie decidedly on the traditional side of center, but who feel their Episcopalian-ness so strongly that they are not bothered by the potential for broken relations with the Anglican Communion. It doesn't necessarily break cleanly along predictable "party lines."
I know (all too well, as does anyone in parish ministry), the practical truth of the saying, "Perception is reality." But some perceptions are plain false, not rooted in fact, and while they need to be dealt with gently and compassionately, in the end they need to be challenged. The truth is, there is no dilemma. There is no "Episcopal or Anglican" disjunction. There is only the "Episcopal and Anglican" conjunction.
Let's look at the Preamble to the Constitution of the Episcopal Church. It speaks volumes:
The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, otherwise known as The Episcopal Church (which name is hereby recognized as also designating the Church), is a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, a Fellowship within the One, Holy,Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted Dioceses, Provinces, and regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer. This Constitution, adopted in General Convention in Philadelphia in October, 1789, as amended in subsequent General Conventions, sets forth the basic Articles for the government of this Church, and of its overseas missionary jurisdictions.
A preamble, of course, is the governing rubric for the entire document; it is the interpretive key that unlocks the meaning of all the follows. So here we have it, plain as day: The core identity of the Episcopal Church is as a "constituent members of the Anglican Communion ... in communion with the See of Canterbury." Anglican identity is not (as they say in Louisiana) lagniappe, an optional extra. It's central, essential. And Anglican identity means being "in communion with the See of Canterbury." So those who assert the unbounded autonomy of the Episcopal Church are mistaken. According to our own constitution (I speak as an Episcopalian), the moment we cease to be in full communion with Canterbury, we have ceased to be who we are. We cannot cast off our Anglican identity without simultaneously casting off our Episcopal identity. In this light, then, the actions of recent General Conventions have put us on a collision course with ourselves. We are like a snake swallowing its own tail; it will lead only to our own demise. We are on the verge of violating our own constitution.
But wait ... there's more. The Preface to the Book of Common Prayer, which is our governing liturgical formulary, says this about our relationship to the Church of England:
It seems unnecessary to enumerate all the different alterations and amendments [between the English and American Prayer Books]. They will appear, and it is to be hoped, the reasons of them also, upon a comparison of this with the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. In which it will also appear that this Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship; or further than local circumstances require. (emphasis added)
One of the repeated themes of the "Windsor Process" (which is now culminating in an Anglican Covenant) is that communion (koinonia) is the natural limit on provincial autonomy. Some have suggested that this is an unwarranted imposition on TEC from outside, not respecting our polity, not honoring our autonomy. Yet, a careful examination of our own foundational documents leads to the inescapable conclusion that the process is in fact calling us back to who we are, inviting us to remember our identity. The Episcopal Church is a body slipping rapidly into dementia, if not amnesia. It is a secondary infection, to be sure, but its effects have the potential to endure long after the sexuality mess is sorted out. The Anglican Communion is offering us an antidote. The new point of contention is between those who want to receive that antidote gratefully and those who want to persist in a perception that is not grounded in reality.