Andrew Symes at the ACNA Assembly
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The Anglican Church in North America exists as a kairos response to a crisis in a mainline denomination. The leadership of the official Anglican denomination in the USA and Canada became more and more liberal. Bishops regularly pronounced that Jesus is one of many possible Saviours , that the Bible contains some of the word of God, that Christian mission is to help fulfil the Millenium Development Goals of the United Nations. It became commonplace to have multifaith services where occult pagan practices would be celebrated in Cathedrals as part of Holy Communion Services, as “the Spirit” can apparently be discerned in all faiths and none. “Inclusion” became the new watchword: all alternative spiritualities and sexual diversities were welcomed (except, increasingly, orthodox historic Christianity). New liturgies were officially commended for the blessing of same sex unions, and of course divorced and homosexual Bishops were consecrated.
Of course all this has taken some time, and has been reinforced over many years by more clergy coming into the system who have been fed the death-dealing poison of theology which says that believing the Bible as actually true is unsophisticated and fundamentalist. The first voices began to be raised in protest many years ago: some people saw the writing on the wall and left, either for other Protestant denominations or to Rome. There were those who wanted to remain Anglican and who began to form their own small breakaway Anglican groups, led at first by isolated disaffected Gospel-hearted Bishops, but then, radically, oversight was sought from overseas, in particular from Africa. But many faithful clergy and their congregations stayed in, hoping that the worldwide Anglican Communion could bring pressure to bear. Negotiations aimed at halting the fellowship-breaking actions of North American Anglicans did not bear fruit, and GAFCON was born. A year later, 2009, the ACNA came into being, a genuine coalition of orthodox Anglicans, representing different streams of Catholic, Reformed and Charismatic.
The 2014 ACNA assembly meets at the St Vincent College complex in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Wooded hills and green meadows surround the town; the weather is hot and humid with frequent afternoon showers. The atmosphere is one of real hope and optimism: ACNA has grown to nearly 500 congregations in 5 years. The theme of the Conference is “Thy Kingdom Come: Conversion, Compassion, Courage”. Preaching at the opening Eucharist, outgoing Archbishop Robert Duncan spoke on this from the Gospel reading of Matthew 10 on God’s agenda to supplant the Kingdoms of the world with his own rule which Jesus has inaugurated. This Kingdom, a visible alternative to a broken world, comes about as people turn from sin through repentance and faith in Christ, devote their lives to compassionate service, and have courage to confront evil.
The service itself was impressive but of course much more liturgical than would be found in most evangelical Anglican churches in England. 180 clergy were in the procession, followed by 50 Bishops who included many delegates from Africa, Asia and South America.
During lunch I had conversations with two clergymen in their 30s who were so grateful to be part of a denomination where they could be open and frank about their biblical faith. They see a unique place in the crowded North American church scene for bible based Anglicanism, which at its best has a depth from its history, its worldwide scope, its liturgy and worship traditional and contemporary, its commitment to local communities and to social involvement, its sound foundation in Reformation theology. Because so many ACNA churches have come from congregations who had to abandon their buildings as they left the Episcopal Church, there is an emphasis on evangelism, creative church planting and discipleship which will be in the DNA of the new movement.
During the afternoon sessions I heard two outstanding speakers. Eric Metaxas is well known for his best seller biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a subject which he only touched on at the end – instead he spoke of his own journey to faith which included spells at St Paul’s Anglican Church Darien under the ministry of Terry Fullham, and Redeemer Presbyterian in New York with Tim Keller. Metaxas explained the power of biography: just as truth is embodied in the life of Christ, so we often connect more with profound ideas and are motivated to action by stories about people. “Everything we do is watched by others”, he said; “if we exhibit courage or love it can be an inspiration”. Turning finally to Bonhoeffer, he said he hadn’t begun the work on the great German martyr trying to prove parallels with the current situation, but these emerged and became apparent as he wrote the book. Today in the West religious liberty, the right of the church to preach the Gospel freely, is under threat. The church in Germany in the 1930s faced the same threat, but they did not stand up against the encroachment of the state and it’s false ideologies. The church believed that it was best to appease the culture for the sake of mission, and in many contexts is in danger of doing the same today. Metaxas called this a travesty of Gospel ministry that is “ugly and ridiculous”. He warned that the church needs to have the courage to stand up now or its freedom will be lost.
After tea there were several seminars, and I attended the presentation by Christopher West, an expert on Pope John Paul II’s theology of marriage. West brilliantly explained how our desires and yearnings , which the Greeks personified as Eros, are impulses given by God designed to be fulfilled first in the marriage relationship but more ultimately in communion with Him. Instead the fall has corrupted this into either self centred sexual gratification (the “fast food diet” or attempted Stoic repression (the starvation diet). The bible begins and ends with marriage and has erotic love at the centre, “so God is telling us something”. Evangelism is inviting those addicted to fast food, or trying and failing to starve themselves, to the wedding feast of the Lamb. The authentic Gospel affirms and redirects our passions towards Union with Christ for all and fruitful faithful marriage for the majority. West didn’t need to mention same sex unions – his account of course excludes it but through presenting a cosmic vision of the meaning of marriage rather than by do’s and dont’s which are not properly explained. The talk was especially memorable for an impression of West’s other hero Bono singing “All I want is you” (his main hero is Pope JP!)
The day concluded with a tour de force from Gloria and Ben Quashi speaking about the faith fullness of God sustaining them as they lead a suffering but growing church in Northern Nigeria, and as they continue to take orphans into their home, a ministry which they have kept going for several years.
It has really been a great blessing to be here, to hear such outstanding speakers and to be part of a a new movement of Anglicans unshackled by affiliation to Establishment or to a denomination constantly trying to balance and make peace between totally different viewpoints. A lot to ponder for the orthodox in the Church of England.