Observations about GAFCON

The Guardian has an editorial that says that if Anglican unity is to be maintained, it must for a cause worth staying together for. Stephen Bates says that those taking part in the conference in Jerusalem are united only by the one thing they all hate.

The Guardian editorial says:

Traditionally, the Anglican communion has been a big tent of mutual tolerance and respect. Its bishops have always enjoyed independent authority within their own dioceses. Its conferences, which take place only once every 10 years, are places for discussion and prayer not sessions of a parliament. They are embodiments of a culture of clerical agreement not one in which a quasi-papal authority is enforced.

Yet the pressures for decision rather than reflection are now gathering on all sides. In Jerusalem on Sunday, addressing a conference in which Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester is also participating, Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria called on the church to “banish the errors plaguing our communion”, not to “acquiesce to destructive modern cultural and political dictates” and to rescue the communion from “apostates”. If significant sections of the communion cannot now even bring themselves to sit in the same room with the rest because of disagreements – a Lambeth boycott movement is gathering pace – then one has to ask if the ties that once bound are now meaningful. In that case, what is the point of keeping the communion together any longer?

The issue on which all of this currently hinges is the status of openly gay people. Over the past half century, civil society in many parts of the world, including ours, has broken free from the long tradition of hostility and discrimination against gay people – and both society and individual lives are immeasurably the better for it. Now, inevitably and rightly, the same process is taking place in the churches, with pressure for the election of openly gay clergy and bishops and the blessing of same-sex unions. In the past, the church has managed such issues by covering them up. But on this issue in these times, that is no longer possible.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has battled to hold both his church and the wider communion together in the face of these pressures. That is one of his jobs – and it has not been a dishonourable effort. Yet it seems clear that it has only delayed an inevitable – and ultimately necessary – confrontation over this issue. Dr Williams has not, contrary to the views of Archbishop Akinola, led the church into this. But, now that it is coming, he has a profound responsibility to lead the church out of it, happily and without fear. The question facing Anglicans – and facing other religious groups too – is whether theirs is a faith that is loving enough to treat gay people as equals. If the communion cannot hold together in the face of this question, then so be it. Unity matters as long as the cause is a good one. If the cause is not good, then maybe nor is the unity.

Stephen Bates writes that homosexuality is a useful unifer among those who can agree on little else:

Theirs is an insurgency united in what they don’t like – homosexuality – and elevating it to a litmus test of orthodoxy in a way that other divisive theological issues – divorce, say, or women’s ordination – have not been. The thing is that many conservatives know women – some have even married them – and not a few of the righteous have been divorced as well. They don’t know gay people, and what they think they know of them is viscerally distasteful.

Had things stopped there, it might be no more than a muttered grievance; but what is happening is a power struggle in which the conservatives of the US church – and, to a lesser extent, English evangelicals – have summoned up the developing world to seize the church from the forces of liberalism and relativism. If the battle over gays is lost, they say, everything is lost. The visit of many African bishops to the conference has been facilitated by US money.

African moral outrage is necessary, not only because they have the burgeoning congregations, and no necessity of consulting their flocks through bloody-minded synods, but also because the conservatives fear their message is lost on western congregations. They are puzzled that their fervour is met with indifference, even though, in the words of the principal of Wycliffe Hall, the Oxford theological college, 95% of the population is in danger of damnation.

Homosexuality is a useful unifier for conservative flocks. The little-noticed irony is that those meeting in Jerusalem agree on very little else: some American conservatives are more high church than the Pope, whereas the conservative archbishop of Sydney says he could never see himself attending mass.

Despite the huffing, they maintain they don’t want to leave Anglicanism: in the old evangelical phrase, it’s a convenient boat to fish from. But many other Anglicans would like to see them go.

Read the Guardian editorial: Clerical Errors.

See Stephen Bates: Vicious hot air currents.

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