Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Anglican Communion's Moment of Truth

One way to get a sense of what the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) is about and of what is wrong with the Anglican Communion is to read Archbishop Peter Akinola's opening address to the conference. Now taking place in Jerusalem, GAFCON is being attended by about one thousand Anglicans from all over the world, including about three hundred bishops representing some two-thirds of the eighty million member Anglican Communion. Archbishop Akinola puts his finger directly on a fact that many American and Canadian bishops seem determined to ignore: Anglicanism is slipping into theological incoherence and this is tearing away at the fabric of the Communion because the Communion no longer possesses a common faith. Akinola argues, convincingly, that the Archbishop of Canterbury seems to be in denial as well. If the Anglican Communion is simply an umbrella covering what are really radically different understandings of the Christian faith, can it really last much longer? Should it really last much longer?
As Akinola notes, the force which pushed the Communion into open chaos was the decision of the 2003 General Convention of the Episcopal Church to grant consent to the consecration to the episcopate of a divorced man living in a sexual relationship with another man and to authorize American dioceses to "experience and explore" rites for the blessing of same gender unions. These actions were taken despite pleas from all over the Communion and despite the resolution of the 1998 Lambeth Conference that the Church had no authority to do either of these things. The Anglican Church of Canada soon took similar actions.
Since 2003 attempts have been made to deal with the communion breaking actions of the American and Canadian provinces with these provinces insisting that they want to remain part of the Communion but not wanting it to mean very much. In October, 2003 there was an emergency meeting of the primates at Lambeth Palace which issued a communique which declared that no province has the unilateral authority to decide matters which affect the life of the whole Communion. In 2005 the primates met at Dromatine (Northern Ireland) for the purpose of hearing from the American and Canadian provinces a theological rationale for their actions. (Note that the Americans and the Canadians acted first and then thought about it theologically only after the fact.) The issue was taken up again at the primates' meeting in 2007 in Tanzania and the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops was asked to clarify its position. Now, five years on, it seems that neither the Episcopal Church nor the Anglican Church of Canada actually intend to take the discipline of the Communion seriously and to change their courses. They have, in effect, declared that they are members of the Anglican Commnuion but retain the freedom to believe and act as they see fit. This explains the enormous frustration of Anglican leaders such as Akinola who says that "we have found ourselves in a world in which Anglican leaders hold on to a form of religion but consistently deny its power." The deep division in the Communion can be seen in the fact that while many American and Canadian bishops see the matter at hand as simply involving sexual ethics, Akinola and the organizers of GAFCON see it as being much broader and deeper: "Our beloved Anglican Communion must be rescued from the manipulation of those who have denied the gospel and its power to transform and to save".
Anglicanism has come to a moment of truth. The real question that needs to be asked and answered is this: Is the Anglican Communion really a communion and does it really mean anything? On the American and Canadian accounts of things, the Anglican Communion is really a loose federation of denominations which share a common heritage and cooperate on occasional projects but it can not be said to be a communion in any meaningful sense. While Anglicanism has presented itself and thought of itself as a "branch of the catholic Church," on the American and Canadian accounts of things this can not be the case. The American and Canadian provinces are now but hollowed out shells of a church, largely devoid of theological substance and in steep numerical decline. Strangely, these two provinces seem miffed that the rest of the Communion's provinces do not want to follow their lead.
GAFCON really, as Akinola put it, a "rescue mission". The Communion needs to be rescued not from homosexuality but from something far worse, from becoming an empty ecclesiastical shell, a "communion" which can only maintain its unity by agreeing to check all substantial Christian belief at the door. Put another way, the only way to make the American and Canadian provinces happy is to admit that Anglicanism really means nothing at all. Some thirty years ago, Stephen Sykes, who taught theology at Cambridge and served as Bishop of Ely, warned us about all this in his small but important book The Integrity of Anglicanism. There Sykes noted "The integrity of the communion is in question, because it appears to be offering the propositions of the Christian gospel as topics for debate and discussion, rather than to be witnessing to the mighty act of God in Christ." The time for going on and on about how wonderful and beautiful Anglicanism is and how it has charted a "middle way" is now over. The choice now is between void and a Church in visible continuity with the catholic Church.

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