Saturday, July 12, 2008

Whither GAFCON and the Anglican Communion?

There has been much media attention in recent days to the state of the world-wide Anglican communion, when a large gathering of more than a thousand Anglicans took place in Jerusalem. The Global Anglican Futures Conference (or GAFCON for short) was convened just two months before the Lambeth global conference of Anglican bishops, about to commence in Canterbury. GAFCON issued a declaration of identity and purpose which challenges the Anglican status quo.

Despite the media’s focus on the issue of the ordination of practicing gay clergy and bishops (in the USA and Canada) the GAFCON movement states that its main focus is on two key challenges a) to continue to reach unevangelised peoples with the gospel, planting churches among them and b) to ‘restore authentic Christianity to compromised churches.’ The second challenge arises from a conviction that secularism and pluralism have enfeebled and weakened the church in the most developed nations.

The Anglican movement is diocesan in structure. The Communion is an association of dioceses (defined geographical regions), each of which is led by a bishop. The movement is essentially not hierarchical above the diocesan level. Although there are ‘primates’, who are senior bishops associated with a grouping of dioceses, the whole movement relies for its unity, not on conformity with top-down commands, but on sustaining a theological and pastoral consensus between diocesan bishops and their communities. The key instruments of this consensus have for centuries been the Bible, the English Book of Common Prayer, the ‘Thirty Nine Articles’ and the Ordinal, which contain the job descriptions for bishops, priests and deacons. The Lambeth meeting of bishops once every ten years at Canterbury England, hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, is another important mechanism for keeping the whole thing together.

In recent decades Anglican the will to remain in unity has become increasingly strained. Whilst the Christian church in general – including the Anglican movement – has been expanding rapidly in the developing world, there has been a spiritual free-fall in the West. This has meant that English-speaking Christians have become a minority of the world-wide Anglican communion. There are a greater number of active Anglicans in Nigeria than in the whole of the English-speaking world put together. There has also been a growing awareness among the Anglicans of the developing world – the majority – that Anglicans in the economically developed nations have lost their way. More than this, Christians in the developing world believe that there is an urgent need for the West to be re-evangelised. They are not alone in having this concern. I share here three experiences.

I remember in 1985 visiting the cathedral of St John the Divine in New York, where shrines had been erected around the sanctuary dedicated to various religions, such as Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. It was extremely distressing to see that this magnificent building, built and dedicated for the worship of the Triune God, had been turned into a temple for a multiplicity of gods and goddesses in this way.

In 1985 I spent a year living in Leiden, Holland, where one of the most magnificent churches, the Pieterskirk, had been handed over to the city for a token sum, simply because there were no more worshippers and the church could no longer maintain the building. This is a historic church: indeed it was from there that the pilgrims departed to the New World. The Pieterskirk is now used as a marketplace, an art gallery, and an event space for various community events. As I stood in that empty building, I could almost hear the angels weeping.

On New Year’s Eve at the end of 1978 I attended Cologne Cathedral for Sunday morning worship. There had been a heavy snow fall the night before, and I made my way across the Rhine to the cathedral for the service. Inside that imposing building, which could seat thousands, was a tiny congregation – perhaps a dozen people. I seemed to be the only person under 60 years of age. As I was listening to the sermon – which happened to be about the need for more young people in the church – one of the ushers came up to me and, seeing me praying, thought I had sought out the cathedral as a place to sleep. He roughly ordered me to leave the building. Saddened, I got up and walked out into the sunny snow-white morning, with people all around me cheerfully shovelling snow. The contrast between the dying church, lamenting the loss of its generations while quietly expelling them, and the vital friendly atmosphere out on the streets had a deep impact upon me.

The reality that the Western churches have lost their way –not only the Anglicans – is simply that: a reality. This is not the same for world-wide Christianity, which is as dynamic as ever. Spiritual decline is above all a disease of the Western churches. For the Anglican communion this has caused particular difficulties, as the wealthier, older minority by and large have less confidence and spiritual vitality than the majority of Anglicans in the developing world. The West, and specifically the English church, no longer has the spiritual vitality, the credibility or the proven fruitfulness to provide leadership to the rest of the Anglican world.

Historically, the Anglican movement grew out of the Church of England. By convention the Archbishop of Canterbury has continued to host the global gathering of Anglican bishops. Tensions developed when the Episcopalian church in Canada and the USA (the north American Anglicans) went out on a limb and acted against Lambeth resolutions to began ordaining practicing gay clergy and bishops, and even solemnizing gay unions. For many Anglican Leaders, Anglican movement’s slow response to the theological divergence of the north Americans has been deeply disappointing. They regret the fact that Canterbury continues to invite the north Americans to Lambeth, despite their renegade actions.

Whilst the issues of gay bishops and blessing gay unions has been a trigger point, the theological concerns are much deeper than the issue of sexuality. Many north American Anglicans had for their own part become disillusioned with their Dioceses and their bishops, and have separated themselves from the Episcopalian church. Congregations all across north America have sought Episcopal oversight from African bishops, and are establishing an emerging alternative Anglican community in the US and Canada.

GAFCON represents a conservative response by the global Anglican church to these changed and changing circumstances. There is a belief, expressed in the GAFCON resolution, that ‘we are a global Communion with a colonial structure’, referring to the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury remains host to the Lambeth meetings, despite the growing spiritual self-marginalisation of Anglican churches in economically developed nations. This is increasingly seen as an anomaly, as leadership from a position of manifest weakness.
The GAFCON declaration invited Anglicans throughout the world to affirm their theological roots, and to join together in giving a clear witness to Christ throughout the world. It rejects what it calls the ‘false gospel’ of the spiritually struggling West, specifically focussing on two issues, i) the loss of confidence that Christ is the only way to God amidst growing spiritual pluralism, and ii) shifting moral boundaries for expressing human sexuality.

The most significant structural change established by GAFCON is a new Primates’ Council which essentially is a new oversight body for Anglicans who wish to identify with this movement.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s response to these developments has been brief. No doubt he is waiting for the Anglican bishops to engage these issues at Lambeth. He was unhappy at the implication that those outside the GAFCON movement are promoting a different gospel. He was concerned about the emerging complexities of competing jurisdictions. He rejected the idea of a self-appointed council of Primates, which he felt could not achieve legitimacy. He felt that the GAFCON people should be focussing on renewing the existing structures, not setting up an alternative. He was unhappy about the label of ‘colonialism’, suggesting that the way forward was to forge a community of equals, not a ‘reversal’ of power, effectively marginalizing the Western churches in the communion.

There seems to be more than a whiff of denial in Rowan Williams’ responses. When he writes that the ‘absolute imperative of evangelism’ and the ‘uniqueness of Christ as Lord and God’ are ‘not in dispute’ in the ‘common life of the Communion’, what does he make of the statement on his own turf, just a month earlier by the newly appointed English Bishop for Urban Life and Faith, Stephen Lowe, rejecting a call from Bishop Nazir-Ali to share the gospel with Muslims? Bishop Lowe had stated that ‘This demand for the evangelisation of people of other faiths contributes nothing to our communities.’ Such double-speak seems incomprehensible. The imperative for evangelism IS in dispute in the Church of England, among the Archbishop of Canterbury’s fellow bishops.

I can understand how it would deeply pain and offend fellow Christians for it to be implied that their witness was false, and they were promoting a false gospel. Rejecting people of sincere Christian faith simply because they do not belong to one’s own brand of Christianity is repugnant. As Bishop NT Wright put it ‘GAFCON leaders can’t have intended to imply … that they are really the only ones who believe all this.’ One can see how Rowan Williams could have found the GAFCON rhetoric disturbing. But what is also disturbing is his apparent lack of acknowledgment that confidence in the uniqueness of Christ, and the imperative of evangelism ARE waning in the West, and that this is an issue of genuine concern to Anglicans throughout the world. Bishop Spong's public retreat from doctrines he swore to uphold in his consecration is not an isolated phenomenon.

Whilst Williams is understandably troubled about how church discipline can be achieved in the emerging environment of competing jurisdictions, he does not acknowledge that it is the failure of church discipline in relation to the US and Canadian churches’ innovations – flying in the face of the Lambeth bishops’ agreed position – that has helped lead the Anglican communion into its current difficulties.

Rowan Williams’ call to the GAFCON Anglicans is to ‘wait for us’ – in other words to allow due process to proceed, and to work for renewal from within existing structures. The question however is whether the waiting has already been too long, and whether the Archbishop of Canterbury and other Western bishops will willing to pay the price to rescue the existing structures.

For the time being at least, it does not seem that these global developments will impact in any significant way upon the Diocese of Melbourne. Much depends upon our Episcopal leadership in the future. One of the real risks for us is that conservatively minded Anglicans will focus their energies in the GAFCON network, and withdraw from active participation in Diocesan and national Anglican structures. This could help bring on the very problem which GAFCON is trying to address.

Certainly, if we were faced with the extreme theological and pastoral issues of the American Episcopalians, many Anglican leaders and congregations in Australia would be seeking alternative episcopal oversight. However we are nowhere near that situation at the present time, and I hope and pray we will never come to that point.

In the mean time, let us pray both for unity and passion for the gospel to flourish in God’s church. I remain committed to the theological foundations of the Anglican tradition, but watchful as to the road we will find ourselves travelling on. Above all, I agree with Archbishop Keith Rayner, former Diocesan Bishop of Melbourne, that it is necessary to be a Christian first, and an Anglican second. Ultimately it is our faith and union with Christ which keeps us together, not institutional structures or traditional denominational identity. These are good and worthy of preserving as long as they can serve godly purposes.

Let us also pray for the Anglican bishops, gathering in Lambeth, and also for those who are not in attendance, that the Spirit of Christ will move them in wisdom and courage to care for and build up God’s church.