Unity in the Anglican Church
For the media, what makes the Anglican Church, or to be more precise, the Anglican Communion, newsworthy is its potential for schism and we cannot dismiss this as mere sensationalism. Journalists may not always have a strong theological grasp, but most of those I have dealt with over the past twenty years have had high standards of reporting and always a strong instinct for the real human dynamics at work behind the spin.
All this can be endlessly diverting, but it is tragic to see a Church turned in on itself in this way. The current leading item of Anglican news focuses the issues with stark clarity. As I write, William Love, the Episcopal Bishop of Albany, New York, is on trial before an ecclesiastical court for violating his ordination vows to ‘conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church.’
Not unreasonable, one might think, until it is realised that Bishop Love’s offence has been to prevent same-sex unions being solemnised as marriages in his diocese. So we have the deeply disturbing paradox that the discipline of this Church, through its canons, is being used to outlaw the law of God as revealed in Scripture and as held universally to be the teaching of the Church until less than a generation ago.
This illustrates the fact that the Anglican Communion, at least in its traditional form, is becoming institutionally divisive as church structures are used to abrogate the authority of Scripture upon which the Church’s faith and order are based, and such Churches continue to be welcomed by the Communion’s global structures as full participants in good standing.
Here we have a form of spiritual autoimmune disease as the system that is supposed to protect the body actually turns to attack it. But is it terminal? For those Provinces of the Anglican Communion where neo-pagan sexual practices have become entrenched, probably yes, although in the case The Episcopal Church in the United States it will probably manage a zombie-like existence for years to come by living off huge historic assets.
But there is hope if the diagnosis of the illness can be determined accurately and here we turn to another paradox, that the problem of disunity has arisen through the failure of the four so called ‘Instruments of Unity’, that is the Lambeth Conference, the Primates Meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
If the Church is, as the Reformers taught, the creature of the divine word and its outward life is recognised primarily by the marks of the pure preaching of the Word and the faithful administration of the sacraments (Article XIX), it follows that it must be subject to discipline in order to preserve its spiritual life and health.
Sadly, however, the history of the Anglican Communion since the Lambeth Conference of 1998 has seen the progressive breakdown of discipline presided over by successive Archbishops of Canterbury as they have failed to exercise the moral and spiritual authority of the Mother See of the Communion, hoping to keep all sides at the table while actually, albeit unwittingly, incubating a false gospel which now imposes its own discipline which many in North America experienced years before Bishop Love.
Critics of Gafcon routinely refer to it as schismatic because its Primates have authorised new Provinces and other structures where traditional leadership has failed, but that is deceptively superficial. Once heresy is allowed to become entrenched, schism is inevitable, but in this case the schismatics are not the ones who have had to separate. Gafcon is no more schismatic than the Reformed Church of England which Hooker famously defended against this charge when he wrote
‘That which they call schism we know to be our reasonable service unto God and obedience to his voice…’ (Sermon on Jude).
Gafcon itself, of course, is only an ‘instrument of unity’. It is ultimately dispensable and has no ambition to be a new Church, having insisted from the outset that it is not breaking away from the Anglican Communion. But God in his grace has used this movement to restore to our hearts and minds a vision of confessional Anglicanism which ‘gathers the outcasts of Israel’ (Psalm 147:2) and lays the foundations of that godly order upon which true unity and witness must be built.
As creatures, redeemed by grace, we cannot presume upon that which belongs to the creator. We do not try to take the Church into our own hands as if it were just a vehicle for the fashionable causes of the time, but we leave it in God’s hands and cherish the true unity of such a Church, for it is there that we are able most clearly to hear the voice of the Great Shepherd who gathers his sheep.
- Charles Raven, Gafcon Membership Development Secretary
Originally published for Latimer Trust