Initial thoughts on the GAFCON documents

Posted on July 26, 2008 by

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By the Rev’d Fr Samuel L. Edwards SSM

ACA/TAC

 

Preface

            On June 30th, the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) ended in Jerusalem with the release of a “Statement on the Global Anglican Future.”  Within this Statement is embedded “The Jerusalem Declaration,” described as constituting the “basis of fellowship” of the GAFCON movement.

            What follows are my initial thoughts on this pair of documents.  These may be useful, since I write as a priest who served for over two decades (1979-2002) as a member of the clergy of The Episcopal Church (TEC) before transitioning into the mainstream Anglican Continuum where I now serve in the Anglican Church in America – our national iteration of the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC).  Because I identified myself with the traditional and conservative resistance to TEC’s decay almost from my entry into it as a college sophomore and particularly because I spent seven years (1993-2000) as the Executive Director of Forward in Faith North America (FIFNA), I have personal acquaintance with many people still in TEC and the Anglican Communion, in the mainstream Anglican Continuum, and in what for lack of a better term I have described as the “new traditionalist” or “neo-trad” Anglicans (some of whom lately have taken to describing themselves as “reasserters” and who made up the vast majority of GAFCON attendees).  As a result, I have become conversant with the assumptions and perspectives that form their various responses to the Anglican crisis.

 

Introduction to Analysis

            To begin with a positive, I found the initial paragraph in the section on “the Global Anglican Context” to present an acutely accurate assessment of its topic.  Probably unintentionally (and therefore the more powerfully) its evaluation of the spiritual degeneracy evident in the First World resonates with those repeatedly given by Benedict XVI and by his late predecessor, John Paul II.  The remaining paragraphs of the section clearly define where lies the ultimate responsibility for the current phase of the ongoing debacle within the Anglican Communion, namely unrepented American and Canadian defiance of 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10 and the failure of the so-called “Instruments of Unity” to take effective disciplinary action.

            While there is much in GAFCON’s Statement and the Declaration that I find similarly accurate and encouraging, there are also things in them – and things absent from them – which leave me disappointed, uneasy, and fearful that many of my friends and colleagues who have seen the rising of this new star in the Anglican constellation and are now hitching their wagons to it are going ultimately to face disillusionment with its lack of ability to pull the weight that is being placed upon it.

 

Analysis:  What is “the Anglican Communion”

            The first of these items of concern is the assertion in the Introduction to the Statement that “We cherish our Anglican heritage and the Anglican Communion and have no intention of departing from it.”  In its plain and grammatical sense, this assertion involves a conflation of the Anglican heritage and the Anglican Communion and the consequent implication that the Communion is the only arena in which the heritage can be fully and authentically appropriated.  There is no indication that the term “Anglican Communion” means anything different from its ordinary contemporary reference to those churches in sacramental communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury.  If it means something else, then one suspects some degree of disingenuity on the part of its drafters.  Possible though it is, I think this unlikely, and would therefore expect that the phrasing is due to (1) carelessness, (2) lack of imagination, or (3) a deliberate choice to ignore non-Canterbury Communion Anglicans.

            The phrase saying that GAFCON’s participants have “no intention of departing” raises questions of its own.  Is it a hedge, or a capitulation to corporatist Anglicanism, or a reflection of the unresolved tension within GAFCON between the Rodgers/Jensen/SPREAD school, which preferred an open break with the Canterbury Communion and the Duncan/Gomez/ACI school which did not?  I do not think it would be inherently irrational to suggest that it is in fact all three.

            This suggestion is reinforced by the paragraph immediately preceding the Jerusalem Declaration, which begins by repeating that the GAFCON fellowship “is not breaking away from the Anglican Communion,” but then (following an assertion – drawn, I think, from the Canons of the Church of England – that the “core identity” of Anglicans is lies in certain doctrinal commitments) rejects the notion that “Anglican identity is determined necessarily through recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  An additional thought that emerges in response to this paragraph is that it may indicate that at least some of the GAFCON participants consider the question of institutional fellowship of such a lesser order of concern that it is not worth expending energy to make a formal break with Canterbury.  Perhaps they simply expect that, if there is a clear break, it will become evident in due time and that the necessary structures will emerge more or less naturally, on an ad hoc basis.  For now, the essential thing appears to be assent to the Jerusalem Declaration as a basis of fellowship.  It is to this we now turn.

 

Analysis:  Jerusalem Declaration

            So far, I have found nothing particularly problematic in the preamble and first two items of the Declaration, apart from its reference to “the power of the Holy Spirit,” which I think an unfortunate echo of the inaccurate translation of the Apostles’ Creed by the ICET, which plays into the world’s dangerous obsession with power. 

            It is at the third item that the first problem comes for me.  Although, given the general makeup of GAFCON, it is hardly a surprise, it is still a disappointment to read a statement which confines the “rule of the faith of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church” to “the four Ecumenical Councils and the three historic creeds.”  As a mainstream Continuing Anglican I cannot accept that there are only four ecumenical councils (which this paragraph in its plain and grammatical sense asserts by the use of the definite article.)  There are not less than seven such councils, and I would contend that the failure to recognize this minimum puts the GAFCON movement in peril of continuing the inadequate, semi-Nestorian, and therefore insufficiently sacramental ecclesiology that has brought official Anglicanism to this pass.

            As many who are acquainted with me know, I am an admirer of the 39 Articles of Religion and am as impatient with anglo-catholic partisans who discount them as I am with evangelical partisans who refuse to interpret them in accordance with the letter prefixed to them in the English Book of Common Prayer of 1662 that they so much admire otherwise.  Not only however, but because of this, I am seriously bothered by  the Declaration’s assertion in the fourth paragraph that they contain “the true doctrine of the Church” (note that pesky definite article again).  This puts a weight on the Articles that they were not designed to bear – a significance that goes far beyond that reflected in the general assent that Anglican clergy in many places have been required to give them.

            Speaking of the 1662 BCP, it seems to me that the sixth paragraph’s upholding of this edition as “a true an authoritative standard of worship and prayer” might be considered a bit strange for a group that elsewhere decries ecclesiastical colonialism.  At least the definite article is missing here!

            The seventh paragraph, on the ordained ministry, avoids the question of women in holy orders, and here the indefinite article is the mischief-maker with its description of “the classic Anglican Ordinal as an authoritative standard of clerical orders.”  Calling it the authoritative standard would pose insuperable difficulties in principle for those GAFCON participants who support women’s ordination.

            The eighth paragraph, affirming the divine charter of marriage and family, repenting of failures to maintain it, and calling for a renewed commitment to the Christian sexual ethic, is good insofar as it goes.  However (perhaps unavoidably in this type of document) it does not treat of issues which, taken together, indicate that the Anglican Communion has been going off the rails in this area at least since the 1930 Lambeth Conference – issues such as the culture of contraception, serial divorce and remarriage, abortion, and now euthanasia – nor does it point to the alterations of current habits of thinking and teaching that would form the basis of a return to the classical teaching in which the Anglican witness was at one with that of the rest of the catholic Church, Western and Eastern.

            The twelfth paragraph, which celebrates “the God-given diversity among us” also acknowledges “freedom in secondary matters.”  There is nothing on its face objectionable in the wording, but there is also no definition of anything as a “secondary matter.”  If this phrase includes the question of women in holy orders and other matters in which human sexuality is at issue (apart from homosexuality, on which all participants seem to be agreed), then the “adiaphorists” (those who consider these secondary) seem to be starting with the advantage of definition.

 

General evaluation

            I think the essential problem evident in these documents is that they express a commitment, not to the catholic and evangelical faith as received by Anglicans from the Lord through the Great Tradition, but to the religious ideology of Anglicanism.  (I have written before and elsewhere about the nature of Anglicanism as a substitute for the Anglican Way of being a catholic Christian, and I will not further belabor the point here except to point out that they are not the same thing.) 

The GAFCON documents avoid dealing with a major departure from catholic order, limit its dogmatic basis to four-council minimalism, and deal not at all with official Anglicanism’s quiet surrender of the first principles of the culture of life.  Because of this the movement they are intended to initiate may have initial success, but is very likely ultimately to succumb to the poison from these barbs with which it will not deal – which it does not recognize or will not acknowledge.  I fear that this movement cannot be a vehicle for genuinely catholic and evangelical renewal because it lacks commitment to the catholic faith in its fullness.  If this is so, it will sooner or later either suborn or squeeze out those catholic Anglicans who at present are participating in it. 

Because of all this, I can give it only a very qualified endorsement:  If the GAFCON group can see mainstream Continuing Anglicans as upholding orthodoxy, it is because we meet their definition of the same; however, since what is defined does not rise to the standards of orthodoxy by which we have lived for more than three decades, regrettably we cannot return the favor.  While there is enough here for co-operation, there is not enough to justify participation in a unified command structure.

 

               Waynesville, North Carolina

Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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