Faint praise for Gafcon offers no solutions for the C of E or the Communion

Oct 2, 2018 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

In the editorials of the Church Society journal Churchman, Gerald Bray performs his customary switch from high level theological research to shrewd, sometimes whimsical, often controversial reflections on the state of the church. The latest offering, entitled ‘The Empire Strikes Back”[1], sees Gafcon as the descendant of serious-minded, energetic and evangelistic Anglicans of the 18th and 19th centuries, who went overseas and planted churches in the colonies of the British Empire. Today, the population of England has become more secular and its national Church more liberal and feeble. The new Anglicanism of the global South, now independent of the ‘Mother Church’, has grown exponentially – and still believes the message that was brought to it. The geopolitical Empire may have gone, but its spiritual descendant, Gafcon, is striking back.

Professor Bray sketches a theory whereby for decades at the height of British global expansion, the really committed and single-minded Christians went overseas, leaving behind the effete, the conformist, the ‘rakish’. This is updated to a comparison of committed global South Anglicans of today, often ministering in dangerous and needy contexts, with the secularized and lukewarm Church of England. For Bray, the C of E is now so different from Anglicanism in the majority world, in theology, culture and style of governance, as to make rapprochement almost impossible.

But some of Bray’s analysis of Gafcon is not quite right. In his summary of the events which led up to 2008, he says that after TEC refused to abide by Lambeth Resolution I:10 and no discipline was imposed, “the shock of this perceived betrayal” led to the formation of Gafcon. This implies that those who made the courageous decision to bring together this movement were somehow emotionally over-reacting in haste. The reality is that many months, even years of careful study, negotiation and soul-searching took place among the orthodox leaders in the Communion before the decision was taken to form Gafcon and later ACNA.

In another assertion, Bray says: “just as the mainstream Anglican Communion has been hijacked by TEC, so Gafcon may come under the spell of ACNA, thereby internationalizing an essentially American conflict”. This is wrong on two levels. Firstly, the leadership of Gafcon has always been genuinely international, reflecting shared understanding of faith across cultures. The full history has yet to be written, but the movement involves the remarkable partnership of godly leaders from different backgrounds and continents, working together for the sake of the gospel. While different Provinces provide their own particular contributions, there has never been any question of domination by one group.

Secondly, the conflicts within global Anglicanism are not simply an internal theological dispute, the result of issues exported from TEC. Rather they are the overspill of a global ‘culture war’ in which all Christians and people of all faiths and none are involved; a battle of ideas between the Judaeo-Christian worldview and the ideologies of secular humanism. These ideologies did not originate in revisionist American Anglicanism in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but in central Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries: Nietzsche’s ‘death of God’, Marx’s utopian ‘equality’ through forced removal of ‘oppressive’ structures; Freud’s sexual ‘liberation’, Jung’s primacy of authentic self-fulfilment to name but four.

As these anti-Christian ideologies, providing the basis for secular humanism, have captured the ruling establishment of Britain, the establishment-aligned Church of England tries desperately to span the ever-widening gap between orthodox Christianity and the dominant worldviews of society. C of E Bishops are selected and expected to manage this tension and it is this ultimately impossible task, rather than necessarily “theological mediocrity” (Bray’s phrase), which causes them to be “timorous shepherds”.

Gerald Bray believes that because Bishops are chosen on their management skills rather than theological acuity, the character and beliefs of future leaders is a lottery: “As for the next Archbishop of Canterbury, nobody can say…what line he (or she?) will take on anything.” But in fact we know very well what line will be taken. It is already impossible for any senior public figure, including Archbishops, to publicly advocate a biblical position on marriage, the family, sexual ethics or gender identity, let alone the uniqueness of Christ or the necessity of the new birth and conversion. So hoping that the next Archbishop will somehow be more orthodox shows a misunderstanding of the grip on the culture by the new ideology: the next Archbishop will certainly be a facilitator of the secular agenda like the present one.

In his conclusion, Bray returns to the clever literary allusion with which he started. Just as (Charlotte Bronte’s) Jane Eyre chose secular Mr Rochester over pious St John Rivers, and England eventually chose nominal, undemanding Christianity over hard line Puritanism, so today’s C of E will always align with the majority English culture over what Gafcon represents. This is accepted as inevitable, and is not seen as a great cause for concern, because of the apparent underlying spiritual strength of many ordinary clergy and lay people in the parishes. Bray is totally opposed to orthodox Anglicans separating from the C of E and establishing new congregations. He thinks “dissenting Anglicanism is a contradiction in terms”, and that separation leads to “oblivion”.

But while this may have been true in the past, the situation today is very different. In the Church of England, attendance numbers are nosediving, but also nominal affiliation, once so strong, is also weakening year by year, especially among young people[2]. Meanwhile attendance at non-C of E evangelical churches is growing, and according to some estimates projected to be higher than C of E attendance within five years. Hardly “oblivion”. To add to this, in the 1950’s and 1960’s when individual dissenters left the C of E, there was no Gafcon to offer alternative Anglican oversight. Today this option is there.

Gafcon’s leaders and adherents around the world don’t see this movement in sociological terms, as an interesting expansion of a minority religious tribe in England which has somehow gone global. By seeing it as such: admirable in its way, but not offering a solution for preserving gospel witness in an increasingly hostile Western church and culture, Professor Bray damns it with faint praise. Rather, the reason for Gafcon is theological, an alliance holding firm and maintaining gospel vision in the face of an invasion by hostile ideologies. The Churchman piece ultimately disappoints because it fails to engage with this.


[1] http://churchsociety.org/blog/entry/the_empire_strikes_back/ for an excerpt, subscription required for full article.

[2] “Last year, the British Social Attitudes survey found that only 3% of adults under 24 and only 5% of 25-34 year-olds described themselves as Anglican.” (Guardian, 11 July https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/11/c-of-e-to-create-100-new-churches-as-number-of-anglicans-hits-new-low


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