The Anglican Communion and GAFCON: Interpreting the Peter Jensen interview
by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
Peter Jensen, the retired Archbishop of Sydney and the current general Secretary of GAFCON, has given an extensive interview to VirtueOnline in which he expressed frankly some of his views on the current state of the Anglican Communion, and the mission of the Christian church in contemporary culture. The Virtue piece also contains some excerpts from talks that Jensen gave to the recent CANA meeting in Pennsylvania. It is worth giving these comments some analysis, as they give voice to the thinking behind GAFCON, as well as bringing to light some of the problems in global Anglicanism that derive from very different perceptions and interpretations of events.
The interview begins with an apparent oxymoron: “It [the January Canterbury meeting] has proved to be a complete failure, but worth doing.” He later explains this: the GAFCON leadership have consistently said that their Primates attended the Canterbury meeting out of courtesy to the Archbishop of Canterbury, in good faith, and hoped that clear resolutions would be passed which could set the Communion back on a path of “godly order”. The resolution affirming the biblical doctrine of marriage, and the censure of the Episcopal Church made the meeting “worth doing”, but what happened subsequently meant that the resolution had no teeth and did not resolve the moral and theological division within the Communion.
First, from the GAFCON perspective, TEC representatives attended the ACC Lusaka gathering and took part in discussing “matters that pertained to polity and doctrine” in defiance of the Canterbury resolution. Or did they? According to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s statement which appeared subsequent to the Jensen interview, the ACC followed the Canterbury resolutions to the letter, because “No member of TEC stood for office at the ACC elections.” This shows a major disagreement over how the ‘consequences’ of the Canterbury meeting should be applied. While it could be argued that no rules were broken, Peter Jensen insists: “The triumphant note of the American delegates in being there, revealed that the so called consequences made no difference”[* see footnote].
In his blog, David Ould interprets the TEC participation as a form of legalism, of technically staying within the letter of an agreement while breaking its spirit:
The Communion longs for a global κοινωνια upon which it should be rightly grounded. But as long as those who are repeatedly tearing the fabric of that Communion continue to insist upon a framework of rights and rigid authorities rather than responding in seeking to properly mend the broken κοινωνια things will only get worse.
But secondly, while the Archbishop of Canterbury has affirmed that the majority of the Anglican Communion hold to a traditional understanding of marriage, he has not according to Jensen, clearly, publicly and unambiguously taught this biblical doctrine himself, and encouraged and affirmed those Anglicans who “stand in the orthodox position”. This view has been reinforced (subsequent to the Jensen interview) by Lambeth Palace’s tweeted denial of the Harare Sunday Mail report that Archbishop Welby told Robert Mugabe that gay sex was “morally wrong” in their private meeting, saying rather that “some people in the Anglican Communion” have this view.
Relationships between Lambeth and the GAFCON Provinces have also not been helped by the ‘Nairobi forgery’ affair, whereby three Kenyans attended ACC Lusaka and were welcomed as official delegates, whereas the Archbishop of Kenya stated that they had gone in defiance of his wishes and even made unauthorized use of his signature stamp to forge a letter supposedly giving his blessing to the delegation.
Archbishop Welby, in his reflection on the Lusaka meeting, referred to his sadness at the absence of Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda – apparently ignoring the significant absence of Egypt’s Archbishop Mouneer Anis, and implying that Canterbury and the ACC leadership fully accepted the rebel Kenyan delegation as an authentic representation from that Province. It is difficult to see how this will improve the strained relations within the Communion. Hence GAFCON’s move towards a policy whereby its members will no longer participate in Communion-wide gatherings in which TEC are welcomed as full members and ACNA are excluded.
Moving on to the subject of mission, Peter Jensen articulates clearly that prioritizing the ‘spiritual’ Gospel of salvation through Christ is not an alternative to concern for the physical and social conditions of the poor, but rather underpins it. Only a vision for humanity which takes seriously “God’s grace and transcendence” will have the “staying power” to effect genuine transformation. Behind this comment is the knowledge that Anglican Provinces committed to an orthodox biblical Gospel are at the heart of this Kingdom work among the most disadvantaged.
Because of this, according to Jensen, GAFCON is committed to working as a renewal movement through the Anglican Communion. A church which agrees on helping the poor and caring for the environment but which holds a wide diversity of views about the Bible and God is incoherent and will not have the shared values or spiritual strength to do what it agrees is important. So the emphasis should be on “the clarity of Scripture” which underlies the basics of the Christian faith, rather than prioritizing “reconciliation above all things” which has to relegate agreement on the essential message to secondary status.
On the subject of mission in the context of Western secularism, Jensen’s analysis was sobering: “we live in a time of great darkness” – he repeated this phrase several times in his address to the CANA conference. This is not the weary pessimism from experience of decline which faces so many English Dioceses. Rather it is realism from a man who in Sydney has been a central part of a successful programme of evangelism and church growth, but who sees clearly the pernicious effects of secularism and neo-paganism. The most obvious symptom of the darkness, deriving ultimately from church as well as society turning away from God and his word, is the sexual revolution: “we have sexual permissiveness like we have never seen”, whose practices are “deadly”, and putting the salvation of the soul at risk. Jensen says that the church in the West, by treating issues of sexuality and marriage as “a minor church quarrel”, risks “utter collapse and compromise”. He calls on the church to take a stand like Elijah, to take the unpopular route of calling people and society to repentance.
When should serious divisions within the church lead to a split in the denomination? Jensen warned against “quick divisions”. In some cases it has been and will continue to be necessary for faithful Anglicans to form new structures, such as happened with the formation of CANA and ultimately ACNA. But there remains great hope in a renewed Anglican Communion, where Bishops, clergy and laity from different cultures and traditions of worship style unite around the central truths of the Gospel – the things that are of “salvation importance”. The emerging model for this is GAFCON and its increasingly strong ties with the ‘Global South’ movement – “the new Anglicanism boiling up…based on the Word of God”.
Although GAFCON’s leadership consists of a group of Primates, most of whom are African, Peter Jensen has been serving as the main spokesman for the organization for Western audiences. If he is correct in his analysis as recorded by the helpful Virtue piece, what might this mean for orthodox Anglicans in the Church of England who are already committed to Gospel ministry? Here are three suggestions. Firstly, though the time to leave the C of E may not be now, the time to join and support GAFCON is now. Secondly, the church can get better at understanding, naming and facing the issues causing spiritual darkness in our nation, especially sexual immorality and gender confusion, as well as caring for the casualties of this revolution. Thirdly, we must continue to support the church in the majority world as it is engaged in whole-person mission, and disassociate ourselves from new forms of colonialism which seek to impose Western secularism on the poor of the global South.
[*] According to Rebecca Wilson, TEC Communications Officer, the TEC representatives at ACC Lusaka did vote on matters pertaining to doctrine and polity, claiming that the Canterbury resolutions had no authority to prevent it. See here. Archbishop Welby appears to deny that this happened. I have not seen independent confirmation either way.
See also: Back to Basics: Six blog posts on key issues facing the Anglican Communion, by Peter Jensen, GAFCON