The Anglican Communion, one of the world's largest Christian bodies, is veering in an unpredictable but potentially historic new direction as the result of conservatives' Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem.
The proximate reason for the June 22-29 event was approval for same-sex relationships in two of Anglicanism's 38 self-governing provinces, the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, and Anglican leaders' failure to impose any discipline. The situation exploded with the consecration of partnered U.S. gay Bishop Gene Robinson in 2003. However, Jerusalem participants insisted, the fundamental issue is not homosexuality but rejection of "the authority of God's Word written" and of Christian tradition.
The 1,148 Jerusalem delegates-lay members, priests, and 291 bishops from 27 nations-claimed to represent at least 35 million parishioners, "a clear majority of the world's practicing Anglicans." Although the World Christian Database counts 79.1 million Anglicans, that includes multiplied millions of non-practicing members in the mother Church of England. The Database lists 43.2 million Anglicans in Africa south of the Sahara, 55 percent of the global total, versus a mere 8 percent as recently as 1970. Africa's burgeoning churches are pivotal for GAFCON.
The invitation-only meeting issued an orthodox 14-point doctrinal platform called the Jerusalem Declaration and exuberantly launched a global "movement" with new structures and processes separate from Anglicanism-as-usual. Observers were uncertain how to characterize this new entity. The astute London Times religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill commented, "When is a schism not a schism? When it is done by Anglicans."
GAFCONites say a split in fellowship already exists and the blame rests squarely with North Americans. "There is no longer any hope, therefore, for a unified Communion," said Archbishop Peter Akinola, leader of Nigeria's huge church and GAFCON's chairman. By opting to reform Anglicanism from within and maintain formal ties, GAFCON rejected hardliners' call for a decisive split. The final declaration said, "We cherish our Anglican heritage and the Anglican Communion and have no intention of departing from it."
But GAFCON is no limp compromise. The declaration rejected bishops and churches that proclaim a "false gospel" in which "all religions offer equal access to God" and "a variety of sexual preferences and immoral behavior" are treated as human rights. Because existing "instruments" that unite and lead Anglicanism have failed, GAFCON stated, the crisis requires "realignment."
The new movement will be led by a council of the primates (bishops) who head conservative Anglican provinces, starting with Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda, West Africa, southernmost South America, and probably Tanzania, with hopes to enlist other nations. Australia's large Sydney diocese is solidly on board. Right after GAFCON, nearly 800 Church of England clergy and laity met in London to discuss joining the movement, which is backed by England's prominent, Pakistan-born Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali.
Dramatically ignoring Anglican tradition against overlapping jurisdictions, GAFCON hierarchs will jointly establish a new North American province to rally some 300 dissenting congregations that recently quit The Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada, plus hundreds more from earlier breakaways. These fellowships will include those who both allow and forbid women clergy.
The spiritual leader of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, personifies what GAFCON considers an outdated "colonial structure." GAFCON acknowledged Canterbury as "an historic see" but added, "We do not accept that Anglican identity is determined necessarily through recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury."
Though GAFCON did not cut ties with Canterbury, it defied the custom in which Canterbury defines Anglican Communion membership. Williams does not recognize the missionary bishops that foreign provinces have planted in North America. Eleven such parishes that left The Episcopal Church won a strategic victory during the Jerusalem meeting when a Virginia judge ruled they retain ownership of their properties, although legal appeals are expected.
Responding to GAFCON, Williams said "the vast majority of Anglicans" agree with Jerusalem Declaration doctrines, but the improvised plans from "self-selected" bishops are problematic, risky, and "create more problems than they solve." He especially lamented invasions into other bishops' dioceses.
The new GAFCON network will parallel international forums summoned and led by Canterbury. The most important of these is the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference for all Anglican bishops July 16-Aug. 3. Conservatives are vexed that Williams did not invite North American missionary bishops sponsored by GAFCON provinces to Lambeth, while he welcomed U.S. clergy who consecrated Robinson or endorsed his elevation. (Robinson himself was dis-invited.) Some GAFCON bishops will attend Lambeth but an unprecedented number are boycotting due to the presence of errant North Americans.
The 1998 Lambeth voted 526-70 with 45 abstentions to reject same-sex behavior as "incompatible with Scripture." This time Williams changed procedures so the conference will avoid plenary decision-making and policy-setting. Unless the bishops revolt against this, the grandly assembled Anglican hierarchy will settle nothing while both liberal Anglicans and GAFCON continue to busily consolidate their gains.
The Presbyterian Church (USA), long divided over the gay issue, now seems to be moving inexorably leftward. Delegates at its biennial June assembly voted by 54 percent to abolish a law that requires all clergy and lay office-holders "to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness."
Instead, replacement wording initiated by Boston Presbyterians would commit candidates for office to obey Jesus Christ, "striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures" with "fidelity" to unspecified church standards. Local examiners would assess each candidate's "sincere efforts."
Because the "fidelity and chastity" law is contained in the church constitution, this revision must also be ratified over the coming year by a majority of the denomination's 173 regional presbyteries. Traditionalists handily blocked similar proposals in 1997 and 2000, so have reason to hope they can block liberals' latest repeal bid.
But the meeting in San Jose, Calif., also passed two "authoritative interpretations" of church law that take immediate effect in the nation's largest Presbyterian denomination. One abolishes previous assemblies' conservative interpretations of sexual morality. The other reinstates a policy approved by the 2006 assembly that grants local Presbyterians leeway to approve candidates who do not follow national church standards. That overturns a February ruling from the church's highest court, which said the sexual standard cannot be legitimately nullified except by a constitutional amendment.
The 2006 assembly's local-option gambit provoked a small schism, one reason for a net loss of more than 57,500 members from 2006 to 2007, the shrinking denomination's worst annual percentage decline since 1974. Conservatives warn that the 2008 assembly actions may provoke more turmoil. Further roiling matters are liberals' ongoing ordinations of openly homosexual candidates and resulting church tribunals.
One legislative committee complained that the current law limits "Christ's freedom to use his servants as he would choose." After the voting, a liberal caucus rejoiced that the assembly had agreed "to open the door to the gifts and callings of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer members."
But a somber statement from Presbyterians for Renewal declared that moral compromise now requires biblical conservatives to redirect financial giving, create "formally distinct bodies without a formal split in the denomination," and hope for "formal reunification" sometime in the future. This evangelical group also wants a change in church law so disgruntled congregations can quit the denomination without surrendering their buildings.
The assembly also initiated plans to revise the Heidelberg Catechism. Instead of denouncing individuals guilty of "homosexual perversion," the church would adopt other translations of the 1576 text that speak of an "unchaste person." Delegates killed a proposal that the church redefine marriage as being between "two people" rather than a "man and woman," but authorized a committee to ponder the problem of marriage and civil unions.