THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 163
It’s getting personal
Since the Gafcon announcement last Sunday there has been a spate of articles in the press and even short reports on the television - it seems that after years of wearisome argument the move by Gafcon has been recognised as a truly important turning point. The visit by two Gafcon members to a central London Church last Tuesday to recruit and encourage the evangelical community of the Church of England has received some media notice - although of course it will take months if not years for the impact of Gafcon’s action to be fully felt.
Some commentators have seen the Gafcon news as simply a continuation of the dispute between the various parties. But some have penetrated deeper and realised that here we are seeing something that has never happened before and which is very disturbing. It is almost like a disease whereby a part of the body turns on itself and tries to destroy itself. One of those cases where the immune system goes wrong and attacks the rest of the body as if it were an enemy. The conservative evangelical community has turned on the rest of the Anglican Communion and decided that it is evil or diseased - something to be destroyed or at the very least rendered powerless and ineffective in contaminating the pure gospel of the evangelicals. How else can one read the Statement and Declaration from Jerusalem?
Attention has turned to the Archbishop of Canterbury (the ABC) who surely has one of the hottest of all hot seats. As I said in my last article (number 162), how he leads the response to Gafcon is very important - indeed, it is vital to how the whole affair develops worldwide. Of course many more churches than the Church of England are involved - but the ABC has this unique role - one that stretches back to the very beginnings of the Communion, and one that is only now being challenged by Gafcon.
All eyes have turned - following Gafcon - onto the ABC himself. What will his response be? How will he grapple with the enormous problems that are now placed in his path by Gafcon? An article entitled ‘It’s time you came out of the liberal closet, Archbishop’ in today’s Times by George Walden - which has prompted this article - has as its main theme the need for the ABC to now declare where he stands personally in the matters at issue, particularly as regards the acceptance of gay clergy. It assumes he believes in their acceptance and calls for him to now declare his beliefs.
In past articles I have suggested that the role that the ABC plays on the world stage of the Anglican Communion requires him - as he conceives his responsibility - to be utterly impartial. In order to be the person who holds within himself the tensions of the dispute it is vital to avoid taking sides - or even to express a personal opinion. In my view that stance of impartiality was seen by the ABC as his essential role in the dispute. He has fulfilled that role admirably. So much so that those who read his previous statements as being pro-gay felt betrayed because of his apparent lack of sympathy to the gay cause.
Well - as I said in my last article (162) - that time is now over. He is no longer required to be the piggy in the middle. While he will always stand for unity across the Anglican Communion, the time for discussions of the sort we have been having has now come to an abrupt end. Gafcon have said, in effect, no more discussions. They have decided to act - and to act in a way that is both illegal in Anglican polity and is disruptive - aimed at negating the influence of the liberal church community in not only the Anglican Communion generally but also in the Church of England particularly.
As an immediate need for further discussion aimed at reconciliation or a modus operandi is at an end, the role of the ABC now changes. He is now required to exercise his authority - not only as one of the Instruments of Unity, but also as an influential voice in the other top level meetings. He has to not only advise on what has happened - he is also required to act in his role as ABC. He has to make some positive statements, and take resolute action to avoid the situation worsening or even slipping into chaos. It must be remembered that in addition to being the first among equals among all the Primates, he (with the Archbishop of York) is also head of the church in England. The English church needs direction as regards how to think - and act - in relation to Gafcon.
No doubt the Lambeth Conference will provide a powerful platform for the lead that is now needed. The English Church needs to see the visible unity and the acceptance of diversity that is our rich heritage as Anglicans. People need to see the positive expression of tolerance of alternative views, in contrast to the Gafcon one-size-fits-all version of the faith. They need to grasp that divisiveness and discord are never God’s instruments. Lambeth should be a powerful statement for not going the Gafcon way.
As the appropriateness of a neutral stance has now passed it is natural to look for the ABC to give a lead in a way that he could not do before. That is, for him to declare how he views the main points at issue - gay clergy, biblical authority etc - and for him to enunciate the boundaries that the rebels - Gafcon - may not cross without penalty. Exactly what those penalties may be are for him and his legal and other advisors to decide. They can be personal as well as legal. He could, for example, personally withdraw his recognition from those participating in Gafcon - and this would then in effect make them a church outside the church rather than one inside the church! Not being a lawyer I have no idea what the possibilities are - but this sort of decisive action is what is now needed. The detailed response to Gafcon - though it may only have full expression after Lambeth - must come from him, otherwise the ABC will not only seem weak and ineffectual.
Naturally the whole situation has to be viewed in its setting: the imminent Lambeth Conference. What an ideal opportunity to test the thinking and feeling of the attendees! Decisions before Lambeth as regards women bishops will also have to be made - although some way of deferring that decision may be used. Either way we can expect a very interesting few months ahead as Synod, Lambeth and the Gafcon issue are faced and dealt with. Huge issues hinge on their decisions.
If the Gafcon rebellion is not treated with the seriousness it deserves and if the boundaries between what is permissible and what is not permissible are not drawn and defended forcefully, then what we shall see will be similar to the slow escape of water through the concrete wall of a huge dam, which steadily increases until there is a complete breach in the dam, with chaos caused down in the valley because of the ensuing flood.
The way I read the previous statements by the ABC on the present dispute is that, irrespective of his personal views on the matters in contention, he was against any church in the communion going against what was laid down as proper by the other Churches when they acted as a united body. He considered that the American Church should not have gone against the expressed opinion of the other churches, and he considered that the invasion of one church (e.g. an African church) into the territory of another was equally against Anglican agreed custom. Now he is faced with a faction that has asserted that it has thrown over the rules and intends to place churches anywhere in the world where it considers the liberal gospel is preached. He must see that as the most serious infringement yet.
The only good thing about the present situation is the clarity with which Gafcon has expressed its desires and intentions. From their Statement and Declaration it is obvious that they consider themselves not only at variance with other Churches in the communion - but actually to be on a God-given mission to eradicate the error they think they see in those churches. To do that they have said that they will split and divide congregations and they will have absolutely no regard for existing Anglican rules and laws. They have thrown over the traces and are now like a headstrong horse out of control.
In one sense that makes things a little easier for the non-Gafcon churches. At least they can see the danger more clearly and be warned of the tactics that will be used. But questions arise: how far are their own ranks divided - how many will desert to Gafcon in the ensuing months and years? How do they fend off the attack? If congregations want to put themselves under Gafcon, what will that mean for the Church of England? Does a church have to leave the Church of England to support Gafcon?
The imminent danger is that the non-Gafcon churches will treat the whole affair as a minor matter. This is a major crisis for the Anglican Communion - and that includes the Church of England. Reportedly, last Tuesday the representatives of Gafcon met with people from six hundred conservative evangelical churches at All Souls, London.
Six hundred churches is not the whole of the Church of England! Yet they are a significant part. If they decide to choose Gafcon as their authority then they will find themselves at odds with the present Church Authorities. But if they stay and cause trouble in all the diocesan and other meetings - banging the drum for Gafcon, and stirring up discord among the other members - then the trouble that is going to cause will not be insignificant.
We must expect Gafcon churches to now be on the warpath to enforce their view of things in the church. But they now have an organisation and a plan, issued in Jerusalem. In other words they are organising for a battle royal in a divisive way throughout all the church councils.
How can Gafcon be insulated away from damaging the healthy bulk of Anglican Churches in England? Expression of views is of course acceptable. We no longer burn people at the stake! But action to divert money, people and assets of various sorts away from the Church of England is surely not acceptable?
In the next few months the leadership of the Church of England must rally the ordinary church members to stay true to the principles of the English Church. We all need to hear afresh the reasoning behind the refusal to go along the Gafcon way. Now that some have thrown over the English Church way and adopted a new way - the Gafcon way - great clarity of thought and expression are needed to help the everyone to see the real issues.
One ongoing need, as has been suggested before, is for better education in using the bible and the nature of its authority, dismissing literalism and selective verse-quoting. This is needed right across the church. Rightly handling the Word of God is a biblical requirement as well as commonsense and should lead to a better understanding as an alternative to the conservative evangelical view of the bible. The bible gives us fundamental truths but is not a rule book. It is a guide to Christian living that only makes spiritual sense as the Holy Spirit leads us to understand what we read.
As suggested by the Times, it’s getting personal - but then, eventually, leadership always does.
3rd July 2008