GAFCON 2018 is over. Evangelical Anglicans from all over the world have gathered in Jerusalem, expressed their many concerns about worldly influences in the church and declared that the old structures of the Anglican Communion have failed and need to be reformed.
It is difficult to measure the extent to which Churches currently in Communion with Canterbury have been drawn into this movement. They claim to represent the majority of Anglicans in the world.
They have created their own global Council of Primates as a governing body and have an Executive Council involving Australian bishops, they have renounced the four Instruments of Communion upon which the Anglican Communion has been built for the past forty years – The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates Meeting. None of these has any legally binding power over the autonomous Anglican Dioceses and Provinces but accepting all four has been a mark of being in Communion with Canterbury and thus authentically Anglican. It seems to me that the GAFCON churches have separated themselves from the Anglican Communion and become a church in their own right. I have no problem with that. We already have many different expressions of the Church – of people expressing authentic Christianity in very different ways than the way I choose to do that.
It is hard for me to see this other than through Australian eyes, where the Dioceses of Sydney and perhaps Armidale and a scattering of clergy and parishes throughout the other dioceses of the Anglican Church of Australia have formed a raucous voice for change in the Anglican Church. They claim to be concerned about unity, yet they are behaving in ways that seem to be provoking a schism. They claim to represent the orthodox Anglican faith, yet they speak in new ways about what it means to be Anglican.
The Diocese of Sydney, for example, wants to dominate the National agenda at General Synod and then rejects the symbols of our common witness by refusing to allow parishes to use the latest iteration of A Prayer Book for Australia. What is that about?
And they have been pushing the barrow of Lay Presidency at the Holy Communion against the tide of tradition and the will of the Anglican Church of Australia. Maybe they just want to participate in their own little bit of Episcopal rebellion.
They claim an affinity with the churches and traditions of the European Reformation and describe themselves as Confessional Anglicans – but are either of these two things consistent with Anglican history and what it means to be Anglican?
Confessional or Creedal?
One of the features of many of the churches of the Protestant Reformation in Europe was that they aligned themselves with one Confession or another – Westminster, Augsburg … – and paid particular attention to all the elements of a true faith. These confessions spoke of the nature and centrality of the Bible and a whole range of developed theologies about Jesus as Son of God and how the Atonement works. Every jot a tittle of these Confessions was important and to deviate from any proposition was to be in error. It is this approach to the faith seems most evident among the GAFCON churches. A great deal of attention is paid to the places in the church that are in error – whether that be concerned about doctrine or practice, but most obviously divided on the issues of human sexuality.
I am not a devout student of History but in my understanding of the Anglican Communion, it has been Creedal rather than Confessional. The Anglican Church has affirmed the three historic Ecumenical Creeds of the Church – The Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed and St Athanasius’ Creed. Rather than dealing with doctrinal minutiae, these creeds rightly focus on the central issues of our faith and most emphatically on the idea of the Trinity. Beyond these three creeds, Anglicans allow for a diversity of opinion and practice – and has been known generally for that freedom and what if has called the Via Media of the Middle Way. While the GAFCON churches generally like to affirm the Articles of Religion in a Confessional way, most Anglicans see it as an historical declaration that laid the foundation for its own Reformation of the Catholic Faith.
A Church of the Reformation or a Reformed Catholic Church?
There was a clear and different history for the Church in England compared to the emerging Protestant Churches of Europe. Both movements began with a desire to reform the Roman Catholic Church. The European movement seemed much more concerned with doctrinal error. Great Swiss, French and Scottish theological traditions developed creating a variegated tapestry of protestant traditions – Reformed, Calvinist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian, not to mention the earlier dissenters represented by the Anabaptists and others.
The English movement was largely about ecclesial and political autonomy from Rome. Yes, some aspects of Roman doctrine and practice changed, but essentially the Church of England followed the same orders for ministry, the same ecclesiastical structures, and very similar liturgical practices. It was a reformed Catholic Church. Now I understand why my early Anglican friends insisted that the Anglican Church was not a Protestant Church.
The GAFCON Churches say they want to reform the Anglican Communion from within rather than dissociating themselves from the existing Communion by creating a new one. Yet it seems to me that they are already creating a parallel entity that is separate. They have created their own Global Council of Primates. They have created their own Global Gathering of Confessing Bishops centred on Jerusalem. They have their own executive Council to govern the church and to determine the theological framework of the church and its membership. The only thing they have yet to do – perhaps it is on the slate for GAFCON 2028 – is to establish an Archbishop of Jerusalem as head of the Reformed and Confessing Anglican Church.
GAFCON-affiliated Bishops have already presided over the consecration of Bishops for churches that are not in Communion with Canterbury. They have sent out a Missionary Bishop to establish the Anglican Province of Europe. The Anglican Church of North America has established a new church alongside the Episcopal Church of the USA. They have done the same in Brazil and elsewhere. I suspect that the Diocese of Sydney is laying the foundations for such a move here by sending their missionary sons from Moore Theological College to plant new and faithful churches in dioceses over which +Sydney has no jurisdiction.
The GAFCON Churches had abandoned the Instruments of Communion because the LEadership of the Anglican Communion has been compromised – yet they want to control the Invite List to the next Lambeth Conference, ensuring that none of the Bishops and Primates of Anglican Churches they disagree with – especially about human sexuality – are invited. They have stepped outside the boundaries of the Anglican Communion and then, looking back at those left behind, have said that those remaining are the ones outside the boundaries of the Anglican Communion. But the boundaries have not moved.
For all intents and purposes, GAFCON has created a new church – they just can’t admit it yet and no doubt the stumbling block is managing the divorce that will involve a property settlement of global proportions.