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photo: Ed Stetzer of Lifeway Research (credit: ACNA)

This past week saw delegates from the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) gather in North Carolina for their second assembly after the group was inaugurated in 2009. While delegates heard from religious liberty advocate Baroness Caroline Cox and Anglican Archbishops from Africa, Asia and South America, the unmistakable emphasis was on the development of the local congregation.

Election of a new bishop (Steve Wood, rector of St. Andrew’s Mt. Pleasant, SC) and recognition of new dioceses in the Carolinas and Texas were also on the agenda, but most of the keynote addresses were on how to grow churches and plant new ones.

The U.S.-based Episcopal Church that many of ACNA’s members split from was largely unmentioned, but the divergent direction of the two churches was apparent. The Episcopal Church became increasingly centralized in the past 100 years, with more and more authority placed in the office of the Presiding Bishop and the denomination’s General Convention. Subsidiarity – placing responsibility with the lowest unit capable of carrying out a function – often fell by the wayside.

ACNA seems to have realized this, instead keeping the church at the provincial (national) level relatively streamlined.

“What you celebrate, you become,” claimed Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist missiologist and a keynote speaker for the assembly.  Stetzer, who heads the SBC’s Lifeway Research arm, advised how to get out of the way of local efforts: build a culture of multiplication (churches and ministries), avoid the dependency that comes from lavishing money upon start-up churches (it doesn’t improve the odds of success, he reports), open more lanes to potential church leaders (lay and bi-vocational pastors) and give permission to people to do non-traditional things, such as have voluntary clergy.

“I don’t know of a group that has been shaken like you have been shaken,” Stetzer shared, referencing the difficulty that many clergy and parishes experienced in departing their former church. The Nashville church planter suggested that God could use those experiences to further his will.

As if to validate Stetzer’s keynote, I shared a table at lunch with a priest from Suburban Houston who described how his church had unexpectedly formed a worshiping community. Serving communion to a parishioner at a nearby retirement home became a ministry to 25 residents there, the seeds of a new congregation. While my own parish in Virginia is the result of a more conventional church planting effort, it still would not have been possible under the top-down rule making of the Episcopal Diocese where permission to start a congregation was required. These examples seemed in line with what Stetzer prescribed when he told the church convention to “give permission” upfront for missional activities, rather than have a structure in which local churches had to ask for it.

If the ACNA and its Lutheran and Presbyterian peers (the newly-formed North American Lutheran Church and the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians) continue in promoting the local church as the center of ministry, rather than self-perpetuating bureaucracies, then they will have placed themselves on a significantly different trajectory than the mainline bodies they emerged from.