In London recently there was a meeting of archbishops from some parts of the Anglican communion. They call themselves ‘GAFCON” which is an acrostic for ‘Global Anglican Future Conference.’ This group is mostly from Africa, but also has members from some United States Dioceses, some South American Dioceses and notably for me the Diocese of Sydney, Australia.
This group believes that because of a softening of attitudes to gay Christians and clergy, the Church of England and the Episcopal Church of the USA have become unfaithful to the gospel. In (to my view) a terrible misuse of the idea of a ‘confessing Church’, used most recently by the Confessing Church in Germany against the Nazis, the GAFCON group has called itself a ‘Confessing Church’.
As a result of this group’s thinking that the rest of the Church is now apostate they feel free to set up alternative structures like the GAFCON conference which will be held at the same time as the Lambeth Conference in 2018. As well this group feels free to begin new congregations in dioceses that already have Anglican Bishops and churches.
This new situation just raises so many questions. Let me begin.
First, if the Anglican Church in the ‘West’ were not in decline (and this applies to the Diocese of Sydney as well!) then I think that the problem of GAFCON would be less worrisome. The accusation that they make, which is true, I think, is that the Church in the west is still acting like it is a Christendom Church, and not like a Church that needs to initiate its members and initiate its clergy into how to initiate its members. Previously a person needed to be able to ‘read the common prayers’ in order to be ordained. Now they need to have a Theological Degree and need to be able to run a parish. But they do not need to know how to make disciples. Because of the ‘background radiation’ of Christendom, most members of congregations or potential members of congregations think that they do not need to be initiated either. Until this changes, then the accusation that the Church is unfaithful must stick. Bishop Nick Baines of West Yorkshire and the Dales says in his blog “The Church of England is investing a huge amount of time and energy into re-shaping its agenda…in order to get us back…to our core vocation: to make and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ; to grow disciples who pray into ministers who evangelise; to shape churches that give themselves away in serving their communities.“ That is a good sign, when bishops start talking like that. I hope more bishops swap the warm feelings of ecclesiastical ‘one night stands’ (confirmation) for the hard work of being the chief evangelists of their dioceses.
But we are also faced with increasing globalisation with increasing fracturing of the world at the same time, and increasing rates of change. This is a difficult situation to deal with. In a less globalised world, people in place A did not know what people in Place B did, so they could each develop their own ways in ignorance. Which might have been a good thing. But today, everyone can know what everyone else is doing. As Bishop Peter Jensen said about the difficulties of the church in Africa ‘When the Church of England sneezes, everyone gets a cold.’ This is an unfortunate metaphor, because he could have said ‘When the Church of England finally wakes up to the implications of the Gospel for Gay people, the whole world is woken up too!’ But he didn’t. The Church in Africa must deal with Islam in a way that most of the rest of us don’t. It must be difficult for them to make the case for gay people in countries lie Uganda where not only is there the question of Islam to face, but a government that is becoming increasingly hard line in legislation about gay people.
As a kind of aside, I think that on the whole there is too much concentration about sexuality in the Church. We must protect vulnerable people from sexual predators, of course, but that is not an issue about sexuality as such, but an issue of power. We could talk much more about financial irresponsibility than sexual irresponsibility, but we don’t.
At the same time, the imposing of one set of practices via a central authority is breaking down. Dioceses in the USA can appoint a gay bishop living with their partner. Dioceses in Africa can tolerate polygamy. How are we going to cope with such diversity.
For my money I am a follower of the ideas of Stephen Fowl about this. He says two things. First, that it is genuine friendship through eating together (not politics and forcing through an agenda). One should not have an idea about another until they have eaten with them a lot. Second, Fowl says that what changes views is the witness of what the Spirit is doing, not a discussion of theology. When, in Acts 10, Peter is accused of eating with uncircumcised people, he describes how the Spirit is already present with them. That is why circumcision is not necessary for salvation. But the hard part is discerning the Spirit. Can we discern the work of the Spirit in an African Polygamist Father of many children and wives? Can we discern the work of the Spirit on our gay brothers and sisters? Here we have to look for love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. When we see the work of the Spirit in those who are different from us, then we are on the way to a proper discernment. This is what the previous Archbishop of Canterbury tried to do. This is not, I think, what the GAFCON primates are trying to do. Who is faithful? [Here is a link to an article on Stephen Fowl’s work. http://www.iksynod.org/Resources/WhatDoesThisMean/Welcoming%20the%20Gentiles%20Acts%2015.pdf