In Nigeria, two days ago, a meeting of Anglican Primates associated with GAFCON was concluded. I hope that my readers will be familiar from my blogs and elsewhere with the nature of this grouping within the Anglican Communion. The first major gathering of the group that has become GAFCON took place in Jerusalem in 2008. This assembly of conservative Anglicans, bishops, clergy and laity, was a calculated act of defiance and opposition to the Lambeth Conference taking place at the same time in the UK. GAFCON believes that it has the task of renewing the Anglican Communion from a strict biblical perspective. Its leader is the Archbishop of Lagos and Primate of Nigeria, Nicholas Okoh. He is supported by certain Anglican provinces and dioceses mainly in Africa, Australia and Southeast Asia. The organisation is also linked to a conservative but schismatic Anglican grouping in the United States known as ACNA. This group has been behind numerous law suits against the official Episcopal Church. Although these parishes and dioceses identifying with ACNA have formally seceded from the main body of Episcopalians in the States, they have attempted to prise property and other assets from the main organisation. These attempts have been generally unsuccessful.
The GAFCON statement put out by these conservative Anglican primates articulated the well-rehearsed position that these GAFCON members alone represent a true faithful biblical Anglicanism. From their perspective, the Anglican Church in the northern hemisphere has betrayed biblical principles, especially over sexuality and marriage. This rhetoric about sex and marriage is, when you scratch below the surface, almost entirely to do with the growing Christian tolerance in the West of the possibility of gay relationships and even allowing them among the clergy. This focus on the ‘gay issue’ has been obsessively harked on about at every meeting of GAFCON since its beginning. Finding some way of reconciling the conservative position to a more liberal approach has been one of the most intractable issues for those in leadership within the Anglican Communion. It would be true to say that the Anglican Communion has been on the edge of division for well over ten years and the problem shows no sign of lessening. The GAFCON April communiqué has now raised the temperature considerably. The Primates gathered in Lagos have expressed the desire to appoint a bishop who would act as a missionary with a responsibility for oversight for congregations in the North who ‘are in need of biblically faithful episcopal leadership’. The Primates are particularly concerned over the the Scottish Episcopal Church which, on 8 June in GAFCON’s words, ‘is likely to formalise their rejection of Jesus’ teaching on marriage’. GAFCON would also like to extend this biblical episcopal supervision to other ‘faithful’ congregations in England. These are those who have no longer access to episcopal oversight because they have chosen to put themselves outside the structures of the Church of England. In addition, there are other clergy and congregations who identify with GAFCON but who while not having formally broken away from Anglican structures might offer some welcome. Such an episcopal figure would however have no legal or ecclesiastical status within the national church.
Anglicanism has always been fairly open to a wide-range of doctrinal opinions. The one thing that Anglicanism does not tolerate well is border crossing by groups or individuals who claim to represent a purer version of the Anglican Church. The lack of any legal jurisdiction for a GAFCON appointed missionary bishop would be a matter of some considerable embarrassment, not least for some conservative Christians themselves. It would hardly be tolerated by our national church and its leaders. In Anglican terms an Anglican bishop outside its structures is an ecclesiological impossibility. Were such a figure to be appointed from Africa, it is likely that a work visa would be denied. Our Archbishop Justin recently invited the Primate of the breakaway ACNA group in the States, Foley Beach, to a meeting of Anglican Primates. Welcoming a GAFCON appointed bishop into Britain would be to extend Anglican hospitality to breaking point. In short, any GAFCON episcopal appointee would be totally unwelcome in Britain.
Alongside the news emerging from the GAFCON meeting in Nigeria, there is another story from the States. A congregation known as Truro Anglican Church which split away from the Episcopal Church in Virginia to join ACNA has recently set up an ecumenical institute described as a school of peace and reconciliation. This attempt by a breakaway conservative congregation to study and work with the group which they abandoned, i.e. the Episcopal Church, is something remarkable. Truro Church has received the attention and praise of Justin Welby our Archbishop for this initiative. More predictably the ACNA bishop who oversees Truro Anglican is far from expressing the same enthusiasm. Bishop Guernsey and Archbishop Foley Beach have both written letters articulating their dismay. The legal agreement with the Episcopal diocese of Virginia is ‘not in harmony with the Bible’s instruction in dealing with false teachers. The reconciliation that is being sought is something counterfeit.’
it is hard not to see something extremely mean-spirited or even fanatical in both these events in the world of GAFCON/ACNA. Members of these allied organisations believe that they are recalling the whole of Anglicanism back to its biblical Reformation roots. Yet, as I have said many times in looking at these disputes, the real issue seems to have little to do with the interpretation of Scripture; it is about a visceral loathing of homosexuality and the way that it undermines the political narrative of right-wing thinking. The world view of GAFCON/ACNA breathes old-fashioned patriarchy and rampant homophobia. It also has little connection with the words and understandings of Jesus. Jesus, it is true, did have a strong concern to strengthen the marriage bond. The Bible, or here I should say the Gospels, speaks a great deal about marriage. The focus of Jesus was an attempt to strengthen the bond and make the casual attitude to divorce a thing of the past. In America, the incidence of divorce is now so commonplace that for decades not even Christians attempt to make a strong stand for the gospel standard of marriage faithfulness. Many bishops, priests and laity are caught up in second and subsequent marriages. Any attempt to exercise strong discipline in this area would severely weaken churches, including conservative ones. Because the gospel line cannot be held in this area, the choice is then made to shift the argument to pontificating on the issue of gays. By forbidding even the possibility of marriage for gay couples, conservative Christians shut off even the potential of long-term faithfulness for a gay couple. The intemperate language used against gays and their supporters indicate that the conservative wing of the Anglican Church is not even interested in a discussion which might bring a degree of flexibility to their response. Such an inability to look at the problem afresh with an open mind makes it difficult to see how some relationships within the Anglican communion can be repaired. If an individual or institution cannot tolerate a point of view, then dialogue becomes pointless and of little value. Perhaps we are reaching the point where Archbishops in this country have to act to act with firmness and declare that any bishop appointed by GAFCON/ACNA to work outside their authority and jurisdiction is not welcome. The very existence of such an individual flies in the face of all Anglican practice and tradition. Anyone appointed in this way will not be acceptable or receive any recognition by members of the official Anglican body in Britain.