By George Sumner
I did not attend GAFCON, and so I can only comment on what I read and hear by word of mouth. At the very least we can say it was an impressive gathering, one that included many representatives of the largest Anglican Churches, as well as our most evangelistic. It needs to be taken seriously. Moreover, their choice of the primate of ACNA as chair of their Primates’ Council forces us here in North America to reckon with these developments.
1. We in the Communion Partners agree with its doctrinal commitments, including the importance of the doctrines of the atonement and sin as well as the traditional teaching on marriage. I dare say most of us sympathize with the GAFCON communiqué’s critique of modern culture, as well as their frustration with the Instruments of Communion over the past 15 years. But this leads naturally to a question.
2. What are we to make of the lack of any acknowledgment that we are part of this complicated North American scene? We represent a group of dioceses, including several in Latin America, which haven’t left, but dissent from some of our own church’s decisions. We are, demographically speaking, a sodality comparable in size to ACNA itself.
3. This leads to another conundrum. What kind of a body does GAFCON imagine itself to be? At times it has spoken of itself as a renewal movement; I myself have heard the retired head of GAFCON, the then Archbishop of Kenya, Eliud Wabukala, compare it to the East African Revival. It also has the quality of being a goad to the Communion: fair enough! But at this most recent meeting it turned more deliberately toward thinking of itself as an alternative structure. GAFCON seems at present to be standing somewhere in the middle. It says that it is not leaving, and yet it creates its own synodical structure. How are we to assess all of this? The answer to this question in turn has an implication for what GAFCON makes of the Communion Partners in TEC, now joined in a single organization with the Gracious Restraint bishops in the Anglican Church of Canada.
4. There are other features of this unacknowledged complexity in the North American situation. TEC and ACNA are still suing one another. The day, now foreseeable, when the suits are over, one way or another, is the day when a serious conversation between them could occur. As an Episcopalian, I would challenge my own church with this question: If we can consider full communion with Methodists, why could we not, on that post-litigious day, open ecumenical talks with our own fellow Anglicans? Perhaps the offer would be refused. But then again, a day finally came, for example, when combatants in Northern Ireland were willing to talk with one another. Could such a day come for us? Would the Archbishop of Canterbury not be an appropriate convener of such a meeting, someday, given his own evangelical commitments and his interest in reconciliation?
5. On the subject of Canterbury, surely we can say this much. The current archbishop, like those before him, is not (nor does he aspire to be) the king of the Anglican Communion. He does not alone adjudicate its disputes. But on the other hand, there can be no Anglican structure, nor resolution, that ignores him. He is the heir of the see of Augustine, Becket, Anselm, Cranmer, Temple, and Ramsey. He alone has a share in the counsels of all the Instruments. Furthermore, part of the critique of modernity is the accompanying affirmation of cultures with a more robust sense of tradition. I doubt that ignoring Canterbury as the embodiment of this lineage of our ancestors in the “faith once delivered” could really work long-term among Anglican Churches in Africa.
6. Perhaps what everyone can agree on is this: North America continues to be a problem for Anglicanism. The primates have officially said as much. Sooner or later this will require all the relevant parties talking. It may be that ACNA will come to this conclusion at some point. If such a conversation were to take place, I believe that concepts like “walking together or apart” or “degrees of communion” will come back into play. Anglicans from various perches can criticize the Windsor process and the Anglican Covenant as they wish, but sooner or later we may come to see that its conceptual pathways are unavoidable, if perhaps under different names.
7. At the end of the day what we all need most are humility and hope. Is there a way forward amid all these conundra? “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). To continue in a conflicted and awkward communion is not to be dismissed as mere temporizing, but can, when done with integrity, be an act of hope that something may change, or open up, that we cannot anticipate. At the very least it means that if communion does break down finally, we have done all that we possibly could. For such humility and hope we ought all to pray.