Monday, June 30, 2008

GAFCON: Conference Over, Movement Begun

The Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem has concluded and a Final Statement was issued on June 29 (the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul). The Conference is over but the Movement has begun.

Coming as it did so shortly before the Lambeth Conference in July, GAFCON (at which about two-thirds of the Anglican Communion was represented) caused a great deal of anxiety. In the time leading up to the Conference, the British press was almost relentlessly negative. GAFCON, it was predicted, would be a gathering of angry fundamentalists who would froth at the mouth about the progressive innovations of the Church of England. The key thing to note is that for the British press "fundamentalist" means "a person who takes orthodox Christianity seriously". Within this worldview, there are (thankfully) few fundamentalists in the English or American churches but (unfortunately) their numbers seem to be growing in the rest of the Anglican Communion.
The word most often heard from voices coming from within The Episcopal Church, the Church of England and the Anglican Church of Canada was schism. GAFCON would be a gathering of schismatics who would compromise the unity of the Anglican Communion. Thus, the three provinces which have done the most to undermine the unity of the Communion worried that GAFCON might undermine the unity of the Communion.
What did GAFCON achieve? While such events are more than statements, the GAFCON Final Statement clearly names what it as the center of the Anglican Communion's difficulties. We have discovered that truthful statements of this kind can not be taken for granted. The phrase from the Windsor Report which has been endlessly repeated is that the actions of the American and Canadian provinces have broken "the bonds of affection" which hold the Communion together. This phrase makes it seem that all that need now be done is for the two offending provinces to issue apologies and offer "we feel your pain" expressions and all will be well. What these two provinces have not grasped (or have not wanted to grasp) is the fact that unilateral action on matters affecting the whole Communion only undermines it. In short, The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada have transformed themselves from being provinces of a communion into being independent denominations (without, of course, admitting that they have in fact left the Communion).
The Final Statement says that what the American and Canadian provinces are promoting is a "false gospel," as gospel which has lost sight of the reality of human sin and the need for repentance. The new gospel of "inclusivity" (the inclusion of people into the Church without expectation of repentance and growth in holiness) is what one might expect from a church which has adapted to a secular culture but it is not the gospel as the Church has historically understood it. The division in the Communion is clearly more than a matter of the question of same gender unions; the division is over a lack of agreement about what the Gospel actually is.
The Final Statement also notes that the Instruments of Unity of the Anglican Communion have failed to exert any meaningful discipline. If the Communion, as currently constituted, can not maintain its integrity, if it can not insure that its own decisions are taken seriously, does this not mean that the Communion is already undone? And does this also not mean that all ecumenical discussions are finally worthless because in the final analysis every province (diocese? parish?) will finally make its own decisions? The Final Statement notes, with remorse, that the 2008 Lambeth Conference has been structured so that no resolution of the Communion's difficulties will be possible because they will be largely unaddressed.
GAFCON has launched a movement, a "Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans" the goal of which is to "reform, heal and revitalize the Anglican Communion and expand its mission to the world". This Fellowship is dedicated to the Anglican Communion's reform but it wisely refuses to make the preservation of the Communion the ultimate purpose. If the Communion is really merely a federation of churches and if it is unwilling or unable to correct a false gospel, why should it be preserved? Perhaps the most radical provision of the Statement is this: "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". This is not a rejection of the role of Canterbury but a qualified acceptance of it. Anglicans who find this difficult to accept need to ask themselves this question: How can we insist that communion with the Church's two greatest sees, Rome and Constantinople, is not necessary but communion with Canterbury is?
The Final Statement also calls for the creation of a Primates Council which will begin the work of coordinating the emerging network of Confessing Anglicans. Part of the work of this Council will be to establish a new Anglican province in North America, one that will include American and Canadian Anglicans now under the jurisdiction of other provinces and Anglicans who are not now part of the Anglican Communion.
Much will be made of GAFCON and it will be taken as a herald of many things. Perhaps the most important thing that it heralds is that the center of gravity of the Anglican Communion has decisively shifted from Europe and North America to Africa. For many this shift may be foundation of hope for the renewal and vitality of the Anglican Communion.
Michael Petty+


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