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Deciding and dividing

27 June 2014

Paul Avis examines the thinking behind GAFCON's stances

The Truth Shall Set You Free: Global Anglicans in the 21st century
Charles Raven, editor
The Latimer Trust £7.99
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How the Anglican Communion Came to be and Where it is Going
Michael Nazir-Ali
The Latimer Trust £3.99
Church Times Bookshop £3.60 (Use code CT522 )

THE Truth Shall Set You Free is a manifesto for an alternative Anglican Communion. It consists of material produced for the leaders' conference of the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (GFCA), preparatory to the second GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference) in Nairobi, 2013.

Most readers of the Church Times would probably not naturally gravitate to this milieu. But we need to acquaint ourselves with what this movement of dissent and regrouping stands for, and to assess its implications for the Anglican Communion.

Some writers are avowedly "disaffiliated" clergy, who have either left or been expelled from what they see as persecuting liberal Churches. On the other hand, the Jerusalem Statement, the foundation document of the movement, is generally unexceptionable. There is, however, a strange short piece, "What is the Gospel?". It deals in a biblical way with atonement and conversion. But its understanding of salvation is confined to the individual. The Church is mentioned only as a witness to the gospel; the sacraments are ignored.

The presenting issues are policies regarding human sexuality and "liberal theology" in the Episcopal Church in the United States and parts of the Anglican Church of Canada which are accused of preaching a "different" or "false" gospel. But, as these documents point out, the underlying issue is the authority of scripture. What they do not explicitly admit is that behind the question of the authority of scripture is the question of the interpretation of scripture (hermeneutics). This question is not addressed, except for one unfortunate remark by the editor which takes a swipeat "biblical criticism", as though "criticism" were meant in a negative, destructive way rather than by analogy with the disciplines of "literary criticism" and "musical criticism" - that is to say, understanding, explanation, and appreciation.

A rigidly conservative stance on the Bible is here equated with "orthodoxy", implying that those who do not share it are unorthodox, heterodox. Some of these writers talk about "God's just and holy wrath" and "the awful reality of hell" - for others, of course.

The authors sit in judgement on their fellow members of the Anglican Communion. The US Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada are the prime culprits, but the Church of England is not unscathed, and the office of Archbishop of Canterbury is castigated. There is a rather paranoid conspiracy theory about the Anglican Communion Office (ACO), which is characterised mistakenlyas an arm of the Lambeth Palace "bureaucracy" that has "marginalised the Primates and sought to supplant their decision-making role" (did they ever have one?).

The report also shamelessly plays the "colonialist" card, as though Lord Williams could be seen as an imperialist adventurer, or theACO, whose senior staff is mainly non-British, as a colonialist threat. But the central accusation is that "the troubles of the Anglican Communion flow from a rejection of the uniqueness and sufficiencyof the Lord Jesus Christ." This accusation, that Anglican Chris-tians in the West generally do not accept Christ as their one Saviour and Lord, is completely unjustified.

The authors repeatedly affirm that they have no intention of departing from the Anglican Communion, but simply want to restructure its conciliar polity. They argue that the Instruments of Communion (the Lambeth Conference, the Primates' Meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council [ACC], and the ministry of the Archbishop of Canterbury) have failed and remain dysfunctional.

In his otherwise balanced and useful booklet on the Anglican Communion, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali says the same. In his chapter in the report itself, he calls the Instruments what they have never been: "instruments of decision-making". The report tends to reify, objectify, the Instruments of Communion as things "out there" that can function irrespective of who is taking part. But the Instruments are made up of people: they are organic and relational entities. They have no existence without their members. Like musical or surgical instruments, they need skill, dedication, practice, and wisdom to enable them to do their job effectively.

As the significant boycott of the Lambeth Conference 2008 showed, the GFCA constituency feels so strongly in conscience about the views of some Western Churches with regard to sex that they are not willing even to talk to them. In that case, how can the Instruments be expected to work well?

Except for the constitutionalpart played by the ACC, the Instruments are not decision-making bodies. They are instruments of consultation with the capacity to offer guidance and make recommendations to the member Churches of the Communion, who must then consider that advice through their own synodical-episcopal channels. The GFCA will discover for itself the limits of central, global "decision-making"if it attempts to legislate for its member Churches and groups. It will, it says, construct alternative structures of consultation and oversight, beginning with the Primates' Council. The claim to wish to remain within the Communion is a smokescreen: what seems to be intended is an alternative Communion, the real Anglican Communion.

The lack of momentum of the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant is not regretted, and the Covenant itself is assimilated to "managerial and organisational strategies". It is dismissed as "institutional" rather than "spiritual". In fact, the Covenant is intended as an instrument of mediation and reconciliation, requiring ongoing spiritual conversion of the participants if it is to realise its potential.

Ashley Null contributes a helpful exposition of the ecclesiology of the English Reformers and Richard Hooker, while Arthur Middleton puts the cat among the pigeons with an apologia for the High Church 17th-century divines and the Oxford Movement, which gave the visible Church and its tradition a rather different place from any that this report generally does. Middleton suggests in a friendly way that the Anglican Catholic and Anglican Evangelical approaches are "complementary", but the editor seeks to pre-empt this idea. The report leaves us still asking what it means as Anglicans to be "Catholic and reformed".

The Revd Professor Paul Avis's latest book on Anglicanism, In Search of Authority: Anglican theological method from the Reformation to the Enlightenment, is reviewed here.

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