There 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.