Authentic Anglicanism: global with boundaries, or ‘inclusive’ and Western?

Jun 12, 2018 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

Fifteen years ago an event occurred which, in a memorable phrase, “tore the fabric” of the Anglican Communion. A man who had divorced his wife and was in a same sex relationship was elected Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire in the Province of the Episcopal Church, USA. Although the focus of the world’s media was on the Bishop, Gene Robinson, he himself was not the main problem.

There have always been church leaders who in their lifestyle and teaching have deviated from the clear standards of Scripture. Bishops all over the world have been guilty of gross corruption and greed, sexual abuse of children, outright heresy and racism – in fact it was only five years before Robinson’s consecration that Bishop Jack Spong, notorious for his publicly expressed disbelief in the historic Christian creeds, had dismissed African opposition to liberal sexual ethics as coming from a lack of education and sophistication.

Spong’s views were never endorsed by his church in an official change of doctrine and liturgy. But in 2003 the Anglican Churches in USA and Canada approved the blessing of same sex relationships. This was not just giving approval to a lifestyle which the Christian church down the ages had always seen as immoral, but because it was based on a revisionist, critical attitude to the bible and tradition, it enshrined heterodox teaching as the governing principle in the church’s life.

The fabric of the life of a church, or communion of churches, is formed of many strands which the members share. Among them are important human ties: the history of the denomination and more recent, local history; methods of administration, governance and worship styles that participants are used to; friendships and other links. But there are also spiritual strands: a shared understanding of what the Christian faith is, and recognition of authority, which overlaps with but is not the same as governance.

It was these strands which were broken by events in 2003, as it became clear that for some Anglicans, understanding of the ‘first order’ elements of Christian faith is not fixed in the past but malleable, and authority is vested in ecclesiastical positions, determined by alignment to a secular worldview, and legally enforceable in the courts if necessary. For others, the gospel is unchanging, and spiritual authority derives from conformity to apostolic authority, which itself is not vested in a human office but from God’s word. The question of authority: who is ultimately in charge; whose church is it – are the same questions that were behind the Reformation.

This history, and understanding of church life, needs to be re-stated, because as preparations are finalized for the third Gafcon gathering in Jerusalem, some people are still saying that the movement which began as a response to the events of 2003 is divisive and schismatic. It is not. Gafcon, by saying “We reject the authority of those churches and leaders who have denied the orthodox faith in word and deed. We pray for them and call on them to repent and return to the Lord.” (Clause 13, Jerusalem Declaration) are, from the basis of the apostolic authority of Scripture and tradition, responding to those human authorities in the church who have deviated from the truth and caused schism, not creating division themselves.

Any true Christian denomination is aligned with apostolic faith in its formularies and official practice, but will always have individuals and movements within it that deviate from these norms because of sin. If a majority of leaders change the formularies, officially reject apostolic authority, and bring in new and heretical teachings and practices, they create a schism not just in their local church but worldwide.

 

There are three ways to respond. One is to fully agree with those who are putting forward a revisionist form of Christian faith, and to see mission primarily as changing the church locally and worldwide to take on the new ideas. Another is to say that there is no definitive universal expression of the Christian faith, only local, contextual ones. As long as we believe in God, honour Jesus and practice love of neighbour, we can remain united within the church even with those whose theology and practice is incompatible. In fact maintaining such institutional unity, respecting the duly elected leaders of a church, and accepting different views with ‘good disagreement’ is, according to this view, the most important thing we can do as a witness to a loving God.

A third view says that with the gospel, a miracle occurs, whereby those from different cultures, alienated by sin from God and one another find forgiveness and reconciliation through Christ’s death on the cross. God makes a new humanity out of the many cultures, who are united through shared understanding and experience of salvation. Christian unity is not an end in itself, but a result of Christ working through his saved people to produce growth and maturity, thereby displaying God’s wisdom to the world. Church unity is shown in shared belief in the same basic truths, and shared rejection of the former, sinful ways of life to which we are all naturally inclined and from which we have been delivered. Church renewal and reform comes from recovery of shared commitment to God’s truth in the face of pressures from other worldviews, not by compromise with them.

This third model, a summary of what is described in Ephesians 2-4, is reflected in the work of Gafcon. Close to 2000 delegates from UK and Europe, North and South America, Africa, Asia and Australasia will meet in Jerusalem from June 17-22 to celebrate God’s goodness in sending his Son to die and rise again, in sending his Spirit to create the church, and in ensuring the faithful passing on of his word through the apostles. We will meet to worship God and hear teaching together, and to discuss in carefully arranged multinational small groups. The focus will not be on false teaching in the Anglican churches of the West (although of course the continued crisis, and its wider implications in terms of secularism, will provide background); rather the focus will be on mission, and genuine partnership in proclaiming Christ faithfully to the nations. There will not be a plan to establish an alternative Anglican Communion. The future strategies of the movement and of local branches have not all been decided in advance, because there will be space to genuinely hear from the Lord as we meet together.

Of course the vision of Gafcon will be opposed by those who want to completely redefine the Christian faith, and by those who want the church to be inclusive of everyone who calls themselves an Anglican, no matter what they believe and do. And it will be seen as unnecessary by some whose churches permit a variety of different beliefs and practices on the ground but have not yet officially departed from orthodoxy in their official formularies. Recent history (Scotland, New Zealand, Brazil) has shown how easily that can change.

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