Bishop strikes back against GAFCON bullying

salisburyThere is a story in the Church Times this week which may continue to resonate for some time into the future. Those among my readers who read this paper will already be familiar with the story that I am about to set out. In summary, an anonymous briefing paper was sent out by the international conservative Anglican group known as GAFCON to its members. This brief named certain individuals in England who were following lifestyles in contravention of Lambeth 1.10, the 1998 Conference resolution concerned with homosexuality. The list that was published did not contain any new revelations or ‘outings’ but it was still a discourteous and grubby piece of muckraking. It sounded much like a group of bullies in the playground shouting at other children and drawing attention to known problems affecting their families. These individuals named in the briefing paper were known to be in same-sex relationships but who were still in active ministry. The GAFCON spokesman who published this information thought, no doubt, that combining all the names in a single document would somehow strengthen their position by pressurising the Church of England to take action against practising gays. More important, probably, was the way that naming ‘enemies of truth’ is a good way of increasing morale among its own membership. GAFCON can affirm its identity most clearly when it names and shames those people that are part of alien ‘them’. In spite of everything written about the positive things GAFCON stands for, the organisation seems far more to be understood for the way it creates in its members an energy to hate and condemn those it disapproves of.

The organisation we know as GAFCON emerged into the light of day in 2008 at a conference in Jerusalem. The gathering there was to give a voice to conservative Anglicans who felt that the main conference at Lambeth would not be able to articulate their concerns. The number of British participants was fairly few. The bulk of those present came from the Global South. One particular centre of GAFCON strength is to be found in Australia, especially the diocese of Sydney under its then ultra conservative Archbishop, Peter Jensen. As a theological network we can describe GAFCON as the international face of Reform, which in Britain is the most Calvinist expression of Anglican evangelicalism. The number of British congregations supporting Reform and thus GAFCON is relatively small. However, the ones who do are often extremely wealthy and influential within their own dioceses. Many of the leaders of these congregations have been trained at Oak Hill Theological College. This college is linked with the more powerful institution of Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. One thing that has not been clearly determined is whether the congregations themselves are fully behind all the conservative pronouncements of their leaders who are active in the national body of Reform. I recently had a conversation with someone who lives in Oxford. She made the comment that the laity of two large conservative congregations in that city were not always happy with the pronouncements of their leaders. A focus on Reformation theology and being totally orthodox in matters of theology, is not always something that is particularly attractive to the ordinary lay members. This particular style of conservative theology, in other words, does not get implanted in peoples’ minds as it would in a cult situation. Ordinary people can continue to think for themselves and preserve independent opinions in an otherwise highly authoritarian environment. In a place like Oxford this independence of thought is believed to be still very much alive and intact.

It is the position of this particular blog post that while the charismatic evangelicals represented by the Alpha course and Holy Trinity Brompton have considerable power within British Anglicanism, the same cannot be said for those Conservative Evangelicals in Reform who focus on Puritan and Calvinist orthodoxy. Charisma and the excitements of modern Christian music are far easier to sell than the dry certainties of reformation-style theology. But what the leaders of Reform and GAFCON in Britain lack in numbers, they make up through their effective organisational skills. They are particularly good at representing their views to a press which always finds it easier to report on church divisions than on unity. I would hazard a guess that the total number of Calvinist evangelicals who are theologically literate may add up to the low hundreds. Their claim to speak for the bulk of evangelicals in Britain is a highly contestable one. In the case of this GAFCON briefing paper released in the past weeks, we may see it as crude and unprofessional and likely to decrease respect for their position on the part of many thoughtful Christians. The wider official body of the Church of England, because it has the organisational restraints of a large body, can seldom respond quickly to the kind of provocation contained in this GAFCON paper. So it takes the personal intervention of the Bishop of Salisbury, Nicholas Holtam, to articulate what many people think about this cheap GAFCON attack on the Church of England. Bishop Nicholas has divided his response into four sections. In point one he observes that Jesus never attacked individuals he thought to be in error. This kind of naming of individuals in encourages a climate of fear and opens them up to abuse by others. His second point was to point out the inaccuracies of the statement. The original Lambeth 1.10 resolution called upon the church to minister pastorally and sensitively to all regardless of sexual orientation. By implication this rules out publishing list of supposedly offending individuals. His third point discusses the implications of loving our enemies. To love someone, even those who disagree with us is to look for the best motives in their actions rather than the worst. Finally, he notes that the Lambeth resolution openly acknowledged the fact that it was difficult for the Lambeth bishops to come to a common mind on this matter. It was recognised that much more work needed to be done to discern the mind of Christ in this area of the church’s life. As an aside, Bishop Nicholas pointed to the repeated ways in which members of GAFCON themselves have violated the spirit of the Lambeth resolution. No doubt he was referring to such actions as Anglican leaders in Africa pressing their governments to persecute the gay members of their societies through a change in the law.

Bishop Nicholas’s outspoken intervention against GAFCON is an important one in the ongoing saga of the church seeking truth in the face of bullying and power games. It is still more important in a world increasingly dominated by political and theological extremism. After the election of Donald Trump and the revitalisation of the extreme right in politics and religion, it is important for churches, wherever possible, to articulate a nuanced and moderate presentation of the mystery of God. Although this blog only makes the tiniest of contributions to this cause of moderation, rationality and human kindness, it is still a necessary undertaking. The Bishop’s leadership in pointing out the crudity and sheer bad manners in of the GAFCON position is an encouragement to all of us who reject any attempt to use the Bible as a tool with which to bully others. Moral debate is not solved by crude Bible quoting taken out of context without any attempt to understand the cultural and theological background of the texts. The attempt to control the weak by this kind of crude manipulation must always be resisted in favour of wisdom, truth and insight. We look to a new generation of leaders who understand the true meaning of leadership and that it is never an exercise in control and manipulation. Such leadership will always seek to guide and serve those who want to follow the way and the spirit of Christ.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

17 thoughts on “Bishop strikes back against GAFCON bullying

  1. For Jesus to have scapegoated individuals would have been the absolute negation of his own calling to become the scapegoated victim of all. So that our eyes would be opened and we no longer needed to create our group unity around persecutions, as you outline that GAFCON does. Jesus is the man who called Judas “Friend” (Matt 26.50).

  2. I agree that ” In a place like Oxford this independence of thought is believed to be still very much alive and intact”. That was my mistake. I accidentally found myself among GAFCON people in Oxford where their thoughts are indeed that ‘Ordinary people CANNOT think for themselves and preserve independent opinions’. By not playing the timidity game I found myself bawled out by one of their senior men. Theirs is a highly authoritarian environment where bullying is condoned, even by otherwise alright people. To keep silent while witnessing bullying is to condone it, which is why I applaud your post Stephen. I wish more people would speak up as you do.

  3. Google have changed the blogger dashboard. This means I have no way of following other people’s blogs. So, it could be goodbye, unless I can figure it out.

      1. I was getting very fed up. I’m not at my best thanks to a tooth abscess that won’t go away. Second lot of anti-biotics and running a temperature. And I’m accustomed to seeing the blogs I follow in front of me when I switch on. In fact, it seems I now have to seek it out at the bottom of a page with so many side bars that it won’t all fit on, and none of the down arrows are visible. I did eventually find a way to view it. I can’t say it’s easy! It depends how much patience I have! But thanks for your kind comment. If I have to faff about to read things, I probably won’t bother, but we’ll see.

      2. Agreed. Speak to Google if you have to. I hope you can sort this. Fighting pain is a mighty distraction, so I hope you can sort that out first.

  4. You’re both very kind. I found the stuff hiding away at the bottom where I couldn’t reach it because it’s behind one of those slogans that they leave lying around. I made the screen smaller in the end, and then I could see more of what was there. It’s a pain in the bum, and I don’t like the new layout. I’ve got the anti-biotics, but I’m running a temperature, which makes you feel poorly. But I’m ok really, and I’m cross about having to faff about. Google don’t reply when I email them about problems! So, ok so far. And thanks. mwah!

  5. Christine. As you know the Oxford person I referred to above who suggested that evangelical congregations were not a soft touch when their clergy try to play politics, you might ask them what they think! I am sorry that you were unable to think ‘unsound’ thoughts! It is depressing when the ability of intelligent people to use that intelligence is not tolerated. Athena get better soon. You are the only person who has supported the blog from the beginning!

    1. Thanks. A bit better today, but worried that the anti-biotics won’t work properly again. Making an appointment to have an extraction doesn’t appeal! I’m finding the various new posts, but it is much more of a performance. And the screen seems so cluttered!

      1. Anglican Diocese, Oxford and if the Bishop didn’t know he would have to have been deaf. This educational establishment has found some worthy friends in Oxford who seem to agree that the ‘Global South’ as a concept is worth advocating. Even those who live in such areas spoke against this divisive propaganda. It was interesting for me to watch these developments as people were called out of our prayer meeting to join a closed meeting. Interesting values don’t you think?

  6. Yes, Stephen. That person is aware of what happened to me. And there are people who are not a soft touch.

    I think one of the most denigrating things about that outfit is that they are taught as missionaries to not criticise the culture into which they come. I was trained at Oxford University’s School of Fine Art yet the Puppet in Charge (a man from a non-British culture) told me to leave because of one of my paintings. He then pointed to his desk on which were three dayglo toy ponies with fluffy manes and tails. He said, “this is good art”. Honestly, where do you start!

    1. I find this particularly depressing since I know someone who used to work in the Oxford Diocese. Take my word for it, he’s not like that! He’s been very supportive of me and gets a bit depressed because he’s not in a position to do anything. He thinks highly of his old stamping ground, and it’s depressing to think that even where there seems to be some beams of light, it seems, the darkness creeps in.

  7. EnglishAthena, I can take your word for it – as I often say, it is the system that is at fault. My experience of the people to which we refer, GAFCON are an aggressive and outspoken group who don’t mind using unusual tactics. As I said, the Bishop must know about them. What can be done by a Bishop in these circumstances is an entirely different matter.
    Oxford University does not endorse this educational establishment. The Doctorates used to be endorsed by the University of Wales, who rescinded their support. I tried to transfer to that University but the travelling and my illness together became too much for me to continue.

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