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Reflections on GAFCON and the Jerusalem Declaration

8 July, 2008

GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference)

Like many other Anglican clergy, I have been asked my thoughts concerning the recent GAFCON meeting of over 1,000 Anglicans in Jerusalem this past June (22-29 June 2008). Tied closely with this meeting is the Jerusalem Declaration (see GAFCON Jerusalem Declaration) issued from GAFCON and a meeting in London on 1 July at All Souls, Langham Place. What makes commenting about GAFCON, the Jerusalem Declaration and the meeting at All Souls problematic is, first and foremost, the avalanche of reported comments in various media, Internet postings and word of mouth expressions. Nevertheless, here are my thoughts and reactions.

This is timely
It is vital to appreciate (regardless of what position one takes in all this controversy) that GAFCON and the Jerusalem Declaration are not “over night” creations or responses. They are part of at least a ten-year narrative (I would argue it is even longer than this but that’s another story). See the time line at the Anglican Mainstream site (The Road Towards or Away from Lambeth 2008?) It is important to appreciate that the current Anglican agony over human sexuality and what authority the Bible has when it speaks (and what discernable message it does speak) began in 1997. Despite the official statements from the Primates at the 1998 Lambeth Conference (passing Resolution 1.10) and the repeated endorsements of this official position, some provinces (notably the USA and Canada) have defied the official position and diplomatic requests of the Primates. Of infamous significance was the consecration of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. Since then repeated efforts, meetings and dialogue have occurred. In the midst of these efforts (some genuine, some less than genuine and some outright disingenuous) no resolution has arisen. Over a decade has passed – in which precipitous actions took place by people in various ‘camps’ – and the mission and ministry of the Anglican Communion has been negatively affected.

This means that it is hard to understand Archbishop Williams’ claim that GAFCON displayed a lack of willingness “to wait” for one another. Conflict resolution does indeed take a long time; hasty actions create more problems; at the same time angrily insisting that those attending GAFCON are not waiting raises the questions, “What have we been doing for the past 10 years? And for what actually are we supposed to be waiting?”

GAFCON is about time: in the sense that no longer could Anglicans in many parts of the world continue to endure the confusion, the perceived obfuscation and ecclesiastical battles (especially those in the US and Canada). While assurances and promises came from Canterbury and elsewhere, nothing substantial, significant or timely developed. Instead, “waiting, dialogue and family conversation” were elevated to positions of virtue at the expense of clarity, accountability and truth. The time, the hour, and the moment arrived; some suitable action was required. Patently, what action took place is not universally acceptable; but rarely in conflicts do all parties walk away entirely satisfied. What matters is that eventually (and surely 10 years can hardly be called hasty) something is attempted. And while what is immediately applicable for Anglicans in North America is not presently necessary here in England, surely we in England can understand the necessity for Anglicans in the US and Canada to receive assistance.

This is more than a matter of sex
Human sexuality may be the presenting issue, but the Jerusalem Declaration rightly identifies the primary issue as “a spiritual movement to preserve and promote the truth and power of the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ as we Anglicans have received it.” Various elements in our media focus on human sexuality for this makes for good sound-bite presentations. But to focus only on human sexuality is to miss the larger issues. Above, behind and beneath the crisis is an even greater crisis concerning who the one true God is – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Is he uniquely and supremely knowable in the person, death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ? Does this God (and no other) speak authoritatively, universally and discernibly in the Bible? Is his gospel – which concerns the Lord Jesus Christ, crucified, risen and ascended, as God’s appointed king and coming judge but, until his return, saviour – the single, universal and comprehensive hope for all humans, through out all history?

This is Anglican
GAFCON and the Jerusalem Declaration came from Anglicans and express essential Anglican theological commitments. There is the commitment to Anglican essentials as well as a commitment to Anglican distinctives. It is an Anglican effort to respond to the particulars of an Anglican crisis.

This is why GAFCON and the Jerusalem Declaration are at pains to insist there is no attempt to “break away” from the Anglican Communion. What is evident, ironically, is that the much-prized Instruments of Unity that many in the Anglican world insist are still viable are ineffective and irrelevant. This is precisely, I would argue, because they are predicated on secondary dynamics rather than primary Anglican gospel dynamics. Of course there have to be structural and procedural components – and what plays out locally following GAFCON will inevitably struggle over structure and procedures. At the same time, GAFCON is an attempt by Anglicans to see things through an inherently gospel shaped Anglican lens.

But while it is Anglican it is Global Anglican. The centre of gravity is no longer Canterbury. Understandably, this gravitational change is disconcerting. But the change is (to switch metaphors) reflective of the overwhelming fact that the vast majority of Anglicans live in the non-West, non-European, areas of the world.

It is important to read the GAFCON reports and the Jerusalem declaration and then read what some of the more vocal critics say. Some of what critics raise is important and insightful. At the same time it is disappointing to read some who insist that the leaders of GAFCON and others are trying to “impose” their take on things.

Yet if the Jerusalem Declaration states what is “orthodox” Anglicanism how can it be anything other than Anglican? There isn’t a bully-boy imposition here; rather it is an Anglican call for Anglicans to stand for Anglican theology. Of course one might ask, “Why do we Anglicans need to re-declare our orthodox Anglican convictions?” It is because Anglicans qua Anglicans are denying these central orthodox convictions.

The Jerusalem Declaration isn’t t a Sydney puritan conspiracy furthered by “militant fundamentalists” from south London or Pittsburgh or a political move by African primates who have some underlying issues of power. It is an Anglican expression to Anglicans to be Anglicans.

This is going to be messy
Personally, I am deeply saddened and disappointed by some of the rhetoric employed recently. To be sure, over the past 10 years all parties in this Anglican crisis used intemperate and harmful rhetoric. I fear this is characteristic of our brokenness, pride and sinfulness. Nevertheless, the blatant lack of civility in our discourse is striking.

I am sad that arguments by otherwise articulate leaders fall into using ad hominem arguments and unseemly “spin”. For the bishop of Southwark to use expressions like “militant fundamentalist evangelical Anglicans” (see Anglicanism\’s Militant Tendency Must Be Resisted) or for the bishop of Durham (whose scholarly work I appreciate and respect enormously) to say the Archbishop of Sydney and others are essentially shrewd bullies is, frankly, reducing discourse to name calling. See Fulcrum: Further Thoughts on GAFCON

To be sure no one “side” in this present crisis is infallible or “super” Anglican. But I guess all this reveals how messy and painful things are and will be in the foreseeable future. People will get hurt and relationships will inevitably break. Would that it could be otherwise but real life rarely escapes conflict and pain – unless people go the way of denial and delusion, and we Anglicans have had more than our fair share of both. The messiness of what is likely to happen really scares me and, in the middle of the night, keeps me awake wondering what the future holds. At the same time, our ultimate confidence and assurance comes not from large gatherings, documents or denominational centres of gravity but from the good, gracious, sovereign God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He alone will bring order, reformation and hope out of this Anglican crisis of false teaching, indiscipline and sinful silliness. He will build his church. He alone rules and he alone will have the glory.

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