As many readers will be aware, next week sees the much-awaited Primates’ Meeting/Gathering called by Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. The crisis that the Anglican Communion is in has not gone away (who would have thought?!) and the time has perhaps come for a clear decision on the path forward.
As one might expect, the net has been awash with various prognostications (yes, alliteration can’t be avoided) as to what will happen and as the day has approached I’ve had more and more people ask me what’s going to happen. Well, grab a cup of something and sit down because I’m going to give it my best shot.
As I can best see, there have been essentially 2 major dynamics at work in the lead-up to this coming week which can be broadly characterised as the “save the family” party and the “restore Biblical order” party. Now even as I write that I realise that I am potentially characterising one side as not being Biblical – that’s not my intention in the labels but I’m not going to pretend that by the time you get to the end of this piece I won’t have made my best effort to persuade you that the “family” party really don’t get what the Bible has to say about this whole thing.
But, for now, let’s just spend a bit of time thinking about this “family” approach. The line basically goes like this, “we have much that unites us; a common identity forged from a common history. This is an expression of Christian unity and we would be very foolish to let it go”. Here, for example, Mark Harris – a well-known Episcopal Priest and former member of the TEC’s Executive writes at his blog:
So, why is anything that happens at the Primates Meeting around this important?
Well, dear friends, it is important because in spite of all the hard feelings and anathemas being hurled at various churches, in spite of colonial history, there are residual feelings of real companionship in the Gospel and real hopes for engagement in common mission. We have been a community of considerable depth and mutual respect.In all the wringing of hands and lamenting of this or that deep hurt this fact is likely to get lost.
Now I generally tend to agree with little of what Mark writes but this is still helpful as an expression of much of the liberals’ language. Note carefully that there is an appeal to a shared Gospel and common mission which brings about “companionship” and “community”. What we have in common is more than what will potentially divide us. But almost immediately conservatives will observe that the appeal to a shared Gospel is a futile one. Were Mark and I to sit in a room together and discuss what we actually understand by those words “gospel” and “mission” we would find little or no agreement on the topic. Mark, and others like him, have little time for the wrath of God, the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ on the Cross, the authority God in His church exercised through the inspired Scripture (and we would even differ on what that word “inspired” meant) and a whole host of lesser but not unrelated matters. And there lies the fundamental issue actually at stake here. We may have a common heritage and, to some extent, a common vocabulary, but that is where the partnership stops. If there are “feelings of real companionship” then there is good reason why they are residual. Like the last vapours of mist after the morning fog, any genuine sense of partnership is simply burned away when exposed to the harsh sun of reality. Liberals and their associated institutionalists appeal to this common mission but it’s hard to find the conservatives agreeing with them. And if there is no agreement on mission then it can hardly be called common. And if there is little or no commonality then on what basis is there really any unity anyway?
Now I mention “institutionalists” because this is the next logical step in the dynamic. If you can’t appeal to a common gospel then it is to something else that we must go and so it’s no mistake that so many of those involved in those discussions revert so often to the institution of the Anglican Communion, and particularly the historical and relational ties to Canterbury. It would be wrong to see this in purely pragmatic terms. For some involved this is a theological issue – there is a high view of church relationships and the need for a clear historical succession of the gospel. For those thinking this way, Canterbury provides that link. It is the root and stem of a plant that we must remain branches of. If we are cut off then we are no longer genuinely Anglican – and this not simply relationally but also theologically.
Of course the question that must be then asked is whether this is the genuine definition of Anglicanism or whether others are more consistent. But more of that later.
That the institutional partnership argument is going to be a big one can be seen in the website produced by the Anglican Communion Office itself for this Primates “Gathering” – “Primates 2016“. The whole thing screams Institution and Common Mission. Mark Harris would be delighted. It is an appeal to our commonality; a brilliantly put-together advert for what is (apparently) at stake were the Communion to crumble this coming week. We are told of
85 million people
1 Lord, Jesus Christ
But it only begs the question. Is there one Lord of the Anglican Communion with one united gospel and therefore common mission? The Primates 2016 blog and stories page are rapidly filling with optimistic stories of partnership across the Communion. The ingenious use of colours communicates a diversity but unity around the globe. The Anglican Communion Compass Rose now appears with the tagline “in over 165 countries”.
The historical argument is also clearly made, not least in the news from a few days ago that,
The Roman Catholic Church has loaned the head of the pastoral staff associated with Pope Gregory – who sent Augustine on his historic mission to England in the 6th century – to Canterbury where Anglican Primates will gather next week.
The carved ivory head of the crosier will be placed in the Crypt at Canterbury Cathedral, where the Primates will be meeting privately to reflect and pray about the future of the Anglican Communion.
Words fail me. If the institutionalists think the presence of what has even been called a “relic” will sway the gathering then really don’t understand what motivates GAFCON and others. Or maybe they think that they do.
There is even a pretty obvious attempt to lobby for continued meeting, even with those we disagree with profoundly, on the basis of Jesus’ supposed “uninhibited hospitality”. No mention, however, of the clarion call of the New Testament to deal properly with false teachers. That would spoil the carefully constructed institutional narrative. Even the about page skirts around the issue at hand and particularly the depths of tears that already exist in the fabric of the Communion.
To get a sense of how bad the situation actually is we therefore need to turn to conservatives and, in particular, GAFCON/FCA. Here the chairman of their Primates’ Council, Archbishop Wabukala of Kenya, sets out clearly what the issues are:
But at the centre of this hope is Jesus, so they also recognise that the church must guard the gospel which alone can bring lasting change to the hearts of men and women. If Jesus is Lord, then he must govern our relationships through his word and the bishops agreed that their Church should break its ties with the Episcopal Church of the Unites States (TEC) following that Church’s decision to change its canons and its liturgy to allow for ‘gender neutral marriage’. For the same reasons, the Anglican Church of Kenya also affirmed that it was no longer in relationship with TEC at our Provincial Synod earlier this year.
The clarity and courage of these brothers is an encouragement to me as we prepare for the meeting of Primates called by the Archbishop of Canterbury next month (www.gafcon.org/crossroads). With many others, I long to see our beloved Communion united and its divisions healed, but this must be in a way that truly honours Jesus as Lord and head of his body, the Church. It is easy to be like parents who by false kindness allow their children to follow destructive patterns of behaviour, but we are called to care for the household of God, to guard the gospel of grace and to preach the word ‘in season and out of season’ (2 Timothy 4:2).
The linked “Crossroads” piece sets out their approach even more clearly:
AT STAKE IS A BASIC CHURCH-DEFINING PRINCIPLE:
Will Christ rule our life and witness through His word, or will our life and witness be conformed to the global ambitions of a secular culture?
This was the reason GAFCON was formed in 2008: to renew a Communion in crisis, drifting from biblical truth. While the presenting issue was human sexuality, this was really just one symptom of a deeper challenge, the emergence of a false gospel which rejects the core Anglican commitment to the truth and authority of the Bible.
GAFCON works to make this fundamental issue of biblical truth clear to Anglicans everywhere so that, equipped by God’s word and empowered by His Spirit, we can live under the lordship of Christ and make him known as Lord and Saviour to a world in desperate need of Him.
The GAFCON Primates will attend the Canterbury meeting, but they are clear that their continued presence will depend upon action by the Archbishop of Canterbury and a majority of the Primates to ensure that participation in the Anglican Communion is governed by robust commitments to biblical teaching and morality.
In recent days the Primate of Uganda, Stanley Ntagali, has written similar words:
Together with the other GAFCON Primates, we have agreed to be part of a “gathering” of Primates in Canterbury to discuss the future of the Anglican Communion, keeping in mind Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:3, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
As GAFCON, we have a clear vision of the future of global Anglicanism and have been moving forward with that vision since Jerusalem in 2008. The Archbishop of Canterbury understands that the first topic of conversation in the “gathering” of Primates is the restoration of godly order in the Anglican Communion. This is the unfinished business from the non-implemented, but unanimously agreed, Communique from the 2007 Primates Meeting in Dar es Salaam.
If godly order is restored during the “gathering” of Primates, then I will be free to join any subsequent Primates Meeting that may be convened immediately thereafter in Canterbury. If such godly order is not restored, then I will uphold the Provincial Assembly’s resolution and withdraw from the meeting.
Archbishop Foley Beach of the ACNA, who is invited to the initial meetings, has also confirmed a common approach:
In 2007 the Primates met in Dar es Salaam and unanimously agreed on a course of action to restore the godly fellowship of the Communion by asking these two provinces to repent and return to the Biblical teaching and practice of the Anglican Communion. When they did not repent, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury acted against the consensus of the Primates and ignored the consequences which were imposed. This has made the breach even wider.
I have been asked many times why I am going. Firstly, as a group the GAFCON Primates all decided together that we would attend in good faith and see if there is a possibility of restoring order to the structures of the Anglican Communion.
See also Peter Jensen’s recent “Why GAFCON truly matters” as an excellent example of how we have arrived here and what GAFCON’s role is.
Statements like these should be read not simply as a clear setting forth of the GAFCON position but also as a last-minute rallying-call to some who might be wavering in their commitment to holding the line at the gathering/meeting. In the past weeks I’ve spoken to a number of people well-placed to be able to comment on the internal conversations amongst the GAFCON leaders. While there is a clear common commitment to Biblical orthodoxy, there is a fear that not everyone will hold the line as solidly. The uncertainty increases slightly when it comes to the overlapping but not identical Global South grouping.
And the concern is real, since some conservatives appear to be buying the institution line. For example, Anglican Pastor tells us why we should still care about Canterbury. Readers will differ on the 10 points put forward but, for my part, I’m unsure why Canterbury is necessary for any of them. Surely the more important component of Anglican identity is a theological heritage? In recent days Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden’s piece has also caused some disquiet,
The concept of the Anglican Communion makes no sense if it is not integrally linked with the Church of England. What confirms the Anglican identity of any church is its communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. No other suggested options for defining Anglican identity have attracted even majority support.
This might be a big surprise to the framers of GAFCON’s Jerusalem Declaration (which Sugden supported):
While acknowledging the nature of Canterbury as an historic see, we do not accept that Anglican identity is determined necessarily through recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Building on the above doctrinal foundation of Anglican identity, we hereby publish the Jerusalem Declaration as the basis of our fellowship.
And in that statement lies the clear boundaries that will define the next few days’ discussions. Despite all the rhetoric and the pretty websites, how important is the link to Canterbury? For TEC and the Canadians it is vital – it is their mark of authenticity. Without it they are nothing. In their own currency of validity any formal rebuke would be a disaster. It would mark then out as not being proper Anglicans.
For GAFCON, to walk away would not (by their own definition) be a disaster. In fact it would be seen as an act of Anglican integrity, prizing the “doctrinal foundation of Anglican identity” over and above the link the Canterbury.
The real question is what the moderates and others will do.
So what will happen? Having put all this together as an attempt to paint out the dynamics at play (and despite it’s length it’s still only a very brief sketch of things) what will actually happen next week? Of course the dream outcome would be that the GAFCON Primates come and present their case, at which point the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, turns to TEC/ACC and says “well? They have a clear case – what are you going to do?” In the face of their intransigence he then asks them to leave the table and repeats his welcome to Foley Beach. Biblical discipline is upheld and the gospel, not to mention the reputation of Jesus, is protected.
But of course that won’t happen. I’ve done my very best over the past month to talk to as many people in the know as I can and I think the very best outline of events I can give you is this:
- the GAFCON Primates will hold the line on discipline. I have this from a source very close to senior GAFCON leadership. I would be very surprised if more than a handful of GAFCON Primates don’t join in this very clear stand.
- the same source advises me that a number of the non-GAFCON Global South (GS) Primates will also be taking this same stand.
- Justin Welby will invite TEC and the ACC to consider their position, acting as mediator not enforcer. This is now my gut speaking. I can’t see Welby execute discipline himself. He is far too rooted into his “reconciliation” scheme to actually take the lead that he needs to. He also has the unity of the Church of England to consider. If it were known that he was the one who clearly told TEC/ACC that if nothing changed they were no longer welcome, nor at the upcoming Lambeth Conference, then he might very well face an open revolt just the other side of the Lambeth Palace walls.
- TEC/ACC would ask for more time. Perhaps a night to sleep on it, perhaps another appeal to “not being able to speak on behalf of the General Convention” (which was the way Griswold and then Schori avoided the issue before). They then might come back with a proposal that would be simply unacceptable to GAFCON. They will also effectively be calling Welby’s bluff to do something, daring him to be the one to enforce the will of the majority GAFCON group (and, no doubt, portraying that will as bullying).
- Welby tries to broker an agreement rather than taking the lead.
- GAFCON/GS partners walk. We never get to the Gathering – the meeting has failed because Welby has failed to lead at the moment where he should. I first made this prediction back in September when the meeting was originally announced.
My well-placed source tells me this will lead to “GAFCON growing” by the inclusion of a number of Global South provinces. The reality is that this gathering/meeting of Primates will not be what splits the Communion. We are already split beyond reconciliation since TEC/ACC simply will not repent of abandoning Jesus and His word. What the meeting will do is crystallise the deep divisions that already exist and demonstrate once more than there is no possibility of reconciliation with false teachers until those teachers clearly repent. It will also, tragically, weaken Welby’s position in the Church of England since on the one hand conservatives will increasingly look to GAFCON for leadership and liberals will seek greater revisionism now that they are freed of the ball and chain of conservative Communion relationships. If Welby’s attempts to broker peace at Lambeth were futile, then what hope holding the Church of England together?
Here in Australia the Primate Philip Freier will return to a national church about to have it’s own Lambeth moment at their March Bishops’ meeting. What happens next week cannot help but have an impact there and for much of the same reasons as the in the Church of England – but more of that in a later piece.
For now davidould.net sees not so much an impending train wreck but a moment of great clarification. Much prayer is needed all around, and not a little dose of Biblical courage and conviction.