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The Empire Strikes Back

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Posted by Gerald Bray, 28 Sep 2018

An excerpt from Gerald Bray's editorial in the latest edition of Churchman which looks at the relationship between the Church of England, the Anglican Communion, and GAFCON.

Readers of Jane Eyre will recall that the heroine was courted by two very different types of man. On the one side was the dark and dubious Mr Rochester, a man with a mysterious past and an uncertain future. On the other was the pious and pure St John Rivers, whose path to the overseas mission field was clearly predestined. As we know, Jane chose Mr Rochester, perhaps because she thought she could play a part in his redemption, but she remained in touch with St John and never lost her admiration for him, even if she could not see herself measuring up to his high standards. Nearly two centuries later, we can look back on that and ponder how the story unfolded after the novel ended. The descendants of the Rochesters have either been redeemed and reintegrated into normal middle-class society, or have continued to lead the sort of rakish lives that the tabloid press revels in. The St Johns have had a lower profile, but arguably their influence has been far greater. Unable or unwilling to conform to standard English domesticity, they have travelled to the far corners of the earth, preaching the Gospel and forming churches wherever they have gone. It would not be entirely true to say that they were the spiritual arm of the British Empire, but there is no doubt that they shared in the optimistic expansionism of the imperial era, nor that the modern Anglican Communion is strongest in the Commonwealth and in areas of British settlement outside it, like the United States and parts of South America.

Until a generation ago, this missionary expansion was accepted by the Church of England in much the same way that the Empire was. It was an extension of British Christian values, designed to benefit the people to whom it went, but its impact on the homeland was minimal. Lambeth Conferences that included overseas bishops convened every ten years or so, but most of them were little more than glorified garden parties with a little housekeeping attached. Old friends met up again, contacts were established or renewed, and everyone went home thinking that all was well in a church on which the sun never set.

This happy picture began to crack in the late twentieth century, for two diametrically opposed reasons. On the one hand, the slow but steady increase in Global South churches suddenly accelerated at an astonishing speed. Countries like Nigeria and Uganda have come to have far more Anglicans than the United Kingdom or the United States, and few of them are nominal or occasional churchgoers. For the most part, they are enthusiastic, highly motivated and deeply committed to their faith. Many are living in conditions of extreme poverty and not a few are in serious danger, either from civil wars in their homelands or from militant Islam—or both. At the other end of the scale have been the declining churches of the affluent West. Faced with falling numbers and growing indifference, church leaders in the lands of traditional Anglican Christendom have either buried their heads in the sand or sought to be “relevant” to their increasingly secular contexts. That has meant revising liturgies by introducing modern language and by diluting their theological content, opening holy orders to women and to non-university trained men (who were expected to compensate for their lack of formal training by “knowledge” gained from their social and employment backgrounds), and more recently by appealing to pressure groups, in particular to the homosexual community. Churches that a generation ago would never have allowed a divorced and remarried man to exercise a pastoral ministry have now found themselves accommodating openly lesbian bishops, with the very real possibility that a transgendered man/woman will soon be elevated to the episcopate.

Needless to say, these are two different worlds, and a clash between them was probably inevitable from the start. It came into the open at Lambeth 1998, when a resolution repudiating homosexual practice was passed by a large majority, only to be disregarded by those in the Western churches who opposed it. Before long, the American Episcopal Church (TEC) was in meltdown over the issue, and when the majority succumbed to the spirit of the age, calls to impose sanctions on TEC were heard across the world. As we now know, a form of discipline was invoked but it was ineffective, and when Lambeth 2008 came around, the erring Americans were invited to attend, in spite of assurances given to others that they would be excluded. The shock of this perceived betrayal was such that several churches banded together to create the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON), which has just held its third meeting in June 2018. What was originally intended as a pressure group to persuade the wider Anglican Communion to stick to its principles has now become a quasi-communion of its own. The election of the archbishop of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), which is not recognised by Lambeth, as GAFCON’s head and the challenge to the archbishop of Canterbury, not to invite heterodox prelates to the projected Lambeth 2020 has made it clear that any reconciliation is a long way off. We do not yet know what the archbishop of Canterbury will do, but it is extremely unlikely that he will succumb to this kind of pressure, which will be seen as a provocation, and the result will almost certainly be further, more deeply entrenched division.

GAFCON has its work cut out.

Read the rest of the editorial by subscribing to Churchman or purchasing a single issue of Churchman.

Gerald Bray is Editor of Churchman

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