Reflections by the Bishop of Durham
June 30 2008
I spent this last week in a great celebration of the love and power of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I confirmed many new believers. I installed a dynamic new rector in a key parish. I assisted in consecrating a wonderful man as the new Bishop of Stockport. I spent four days in prayer and pastoral conversations with twenty-seven ordinands, listening to their breathtaking stories of God’s power, guidance, and (in some cases) profound healing, and praying with them for their new ministries. All this climaxed in two wonderful ordination services, with great crowds, great singing, great praying, and above all a delight in and celebration of God’s presence, God’s gospel, and the power of God’s Spirit to love Jesus and make his good news known in our diocese and parishes.
So it was with great interest that I heard that many Anglicans had spent that same week in Jerusalem – which has been, over the years, a special place for me, too – to celebrate the same gospel, the same God, the same love and power of Jesus, the same dynamic and life-changing message through the work of the Spirit. As I read the GAFCON communiqué, phrase after phrase said to me ‘How wonderful that my brothers and sisters gathered there were joining with me in this great adventure we call God’s kingdom!’
I warmed, too, to GAFCON’s statement of our contemporary context. I have long believed and taught that our new century presents new problems (secularism, pluralism, the decline of modernity with nothing to put in its place, and much else) and that this means a great, fresh opportunity for the gospel. I have been saying for years that, in this context, we shouldn’t be surprised that serious challenges arise from within the church itself, offering the world a pseudo-gospel, a caricature of the world-changing love of God in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, an attempt to hold the outward form of godliness while denying its real power. I have believed and taught for years that we will have to work through these challenges if, instead of merely being distracted and having our gospel energies soaked up, we are to come through with the fresh message our culture (and individuals within it!) so badly need. If mission is our priority – as it certainly is for me and my diocese – then we should expect to face serious theological and moral challenges, and to have to overcome them in prayer and deeper study of scripture.
And of course I have found myself involved in the troubled situation of our Communion following the disastrous events of 2003. I have grieved at the muddled teaching which has allowed all kinds of confusions about Christian doctrine, behaviour and even the nature of Anglicanism to abound, with disastrous consequences. I have shared the frustration of many at the fact that we don’t possess the kind of structures that would enable us to deal straightforwardly and clearly with the complex problems that have faced us. As Archbishop Rowan has said, our present ‘instruments of Communion’ were not designed to meet this kind of problem, and we badly need to find new ways forward. I, with others, have given a lot of time and energy to work on all this, and the Archbishop’s statement that the forthcoming Lambeth Conference will take Windsor and the Covenant as its basic road-map were very heartening. So I fully agree with the GAFCON statement – and with Archbishop Rowan – that the Communion instruments have not been able to deal with the problems, and that we need to find better ways of going about it. Part of the genius of Anglicanism has been to be reformed by the gospel but always ready for fresh reformations by that same gospel: to recognise that God has more light to break out of his holy word, and that this may lead us to do things in new ways, sometimes setting us free from tired structures and sometimes creating new structures for new gospel purposes. That is precisely what Windsor is proposing, and what Lambeth will be pursuing.
What’s more, it is enormously exciting to live at a time when new leadership is arising from places completely outside the north Atlantic axis. Africa was one of the great cradles of early Christianity, producing such towering minds as Tertullian and Augustine. Most of us have long ago moved away from any idea that Christianity, or even Anglicanism, somehow ‘belongs’ to England or northern Europe. In my own diocese we love our link with Lesotho, and always find that visits from our friends there bring new energy and joy to our parishes and schools. Just as you don’t have to go to Jerusalem to meet Jesus – he is alive and present to heal and save in every place! – so it’s obvious that you don’t have to go to Canterbury to be part of the Anglican family. However, as I know, going to Jerusalem can help. Pilgrimage can add a new dimension to our awareness of who Jesus was and is; it has done that for me, as it clearly has done for those attending GAFCON. Likewise, the historic link with Canterbury is not to be dismissed. Cutting your links with the past can be like cutting off the roots of a tree. Reconnecting with our roots – and, where necessary, refreshing and cleaning them – is always better than pretending we don’t need them. But what matters is of course the fruit. Here in my diocese, as in so many in England, we are refreshing our roots and seeing real fruit; but we don’t imagine we are self-sufficient. On the contrary, we know we have a great deal to learn from brothers and sisters in many other parts of the world, Africa included. I would have hoped, actually, that all this would now go without saying: that we have long moved beyond the sterile stand-off between ‘colonialism’ and ‘post-colonialism’. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s what matters.
I and my colleagues in this diocese, like so many others, share exactly in the sense that we are a fellowship ‘confessing the faith of Christ crucified, standing firm for the gospel in the global and Anglican context’, sharing too the goal ‘to reform, heal and revitalise the Anglican Communion and expand its mission to the world’ and ‘to give clear and certain witness to Jesus Christ’. For this reason, I know that the GAFCON leaders can’t have intended to imply (as a ‘suspicious’ reading of their text might suggest) that they are the only ones who really believe all this, that they and they alone care about such things. The rest of us, no doubt – including several of us who were not invited to GAFCON – are eager to share in any fresh movements of the Spirit that are going ahead. And as we do so I know that the GAFCON leaders would want us to express the various questions that naturally come to mind as we contemplate what they have said to us. Just as they wouldn’t want anyone to swallow uncritically the latest pronouncement from Canterbury or New York, so clearly they wouldn’t want us merely to glance at their document, see that it’s ‘all about the gospel’, and then conclude that we must sign up without thinking through what’s being said and why. It is in that spirit that I raise certain questions which seem to me important precisely because of our shared goals (the advancement of the gospel), our shared context (the enormous challenges of contemporary society and of a church often muddled in theology and ethics and lacking the structures to cope), and our shared heritage (the Anglican tradition with its Articles, Prayer Books and historic roots).
Central to these questions is the puzzle about the new proposed structure. I am sure the GAFCON organisers are as horrified as I am to see today’s headlines about ‘a new church’. That doesn’t seem to be what they intended. But for that reason it is all the more strange to reflect on what the proposed ‘Primates’ Council’ is all about. What authority will it have, and how will that work? Who is to ‘police’ the boundaries of this new body – not least to declare which Anglicans are ‘upholding orthodox faith and practice’ (Article 11 of the ‘Jerusalem Declaration’), and who have denied it (Article 13)? Who will be able to decide (as in Article 12) which matters are ‘secondary’ and which are primary, and by what means? (What, for instance, about Eucharistic vestments and practices? What about women priests and bishops?) Who will elucidate the relationship between the 39 Articles and the Book of Common Prayer, on the one hand, and the 14 Articles of GAFCON on the other, and by what means? It is precisely questions like these, within the larger Anglican world, which have proved so problematic in the last five years, and the ‘Declaration’ is actually a strange document which doesn’t help us address them. Many at GAFCON may think the answers will be obvious; in some clear-cut cases they may be. But there will be many other cases where they will not. It is precisely because I share the officially stated aims of GAFCON that I am extremely concerned about these proposals, and urge all those who likewise share that concern to concentrate their prayers and their work on addressing the issues in the way which, remarkably, GAFCON never mentioned, namely, the development of the Anglican Covenant and the fulfilment of the recommendations of the Windsor Report. I am delighted that many of the bishops who were at GAFCON are also coming to Lambeth, where their help in pursuing these goals will be invaluable.
In particular, though, there is something very odd about the proposal to form a ‘Council’ and then to ask such a body to ‘authenticate and recognise confessing Anglican jurisdictions, clergy and congregations’ – and then, as an addition, ‘to encourage all Anglicans to promote the gospel and defend the faith’. Many Anglicans around the world intend to do that in any case, and will not understand why they need to be ‘recognised’ or ‘authenticated’ by a new, self-selected and non-representative body to which they were not invited and which will not itself, it seems be accountable to anyone else. Of course, within the larger global context, not least in North America, I can understand the perceived need for something like this. I know how warmly the proposals have already been welcomed by many in America whose situation has been truly dire. But I also know from my own situation the dangerous ambiguities that will result from the suggestion that there should be a new ‘territorial jurisdiction for provinces and dioceses of the Anglican Communion, in those areas where churches and leaders are denying the orthodox faith or are preventing its spread.’ Sadly, as I suspect many at GAFCON simply didn’t realise, that kind of language has been used, in my personal experience, to attempt to justify various kinds of high-handed activity. It offers a blank cheque to anyone who wants to defy a bishop for whatever reasons, even if the bishop in question is scrupulously orthodox, and then to claim the right to alternative jurisdictional oversight. This cannot be the way forward; nor do I think most of those at GAFCON intended such a thing. That, of course, is the risk when documents are drafted at speed.
In short, my hope and prayer is that the spiritual energy, the sense of celebration, the eagerness for living and preaching the gospel, which were so evident at GAFCON, can and will be brought to the forum where we badly need it, namely, the existing central councils of the Anglican Communion. I understand only too well the frustration that many have felt at these bodies. But if GAFCON is to join up with the great majority of faithful, joyful Anglicans around the world, rather than to invite them to leave their present allegiance and sign up to a movement which is as yet – to put it mildly – strange in form and uncertain in destination, it is not so much that GAFCON needs to invite others to sign up and join in. Bishops, clergy and congregations should think very carefully before taking such a step, which will have enormous and confusing consequences. Rather, GAFCON itself needs to bring its rich experience and gospel-driven exuberance to the larger party where the rest of us are working day and night for the same gospel, the same biblical wisdom, the same Lord.
GAFCON was a great celebration of the gospel of the love and transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The church needs this energy and vision. But this doesn’t mean the GAFCON proposals can be accepted without question. The proposed ‘Primates’ Council’ is a strange body, just as the ‘Declaration’ is an odd document which leaves many ambiguities. It gives far too many hostages to fortune, inviting us to trust an unformed and unaccountable body to make major decisions and giving licence to all kinds of unhelpful activities. It isn’t so much that GAFCON should invite people to sign up to its blank cheque. Rather, GAFCON itself should be invited to bring its Christian vision and exuberance to the larger party where the rest of us are working for the same gospel, the same biblical wisdom, the same Lord.