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Attacks on the Anglican Communion, and the need for repentance on all sides

I would generally prefer not to gather negative fruit, but I think Anglicans should be aware of a concerted effort by some members of the Anglican Church in North America to discredit key figures and institutions of the Anglican Communion. The American Anglican Council (AAC) is connected to most of these attacks.

The Rt. Rev. Bill Atwood, Bishop of ACNA’s International Diocese, recently declared Communion structures “utterly bankrupt” (“Hope, Victory, and the Battle of the Bulge”), capable of resurrection, but only in the form of replacement — by GAFCON’s structures.

Soon after in August, the Rev. Canon Phil Ashey, CEO of the AAC, denounced Communion structures as “irrevocably broken.” This charge came in the midst of several weeks of attack on the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, for what Ashey considers liberalism, heterodoxy, a readiness to compromise truth and betray the Gospel, duplicitousness, and weakness. At the heart of Ashey’s attack is a belief that Canterbury’s centrality in the Anglican Communion is “a novel idea that has weaseled its way into modern thinking.” See Ashey’s repeated posts over at the ACC:

These attacks coincided with a piece from Juicy Ecumenism, claiming that Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon recently attempted, perhaps falsely, to speak the language of conservative African Anglicans at a CAPA meeting. The article states that Abp. Idowu-Fearon was all the while putting conservative Africans in contact with organizations and funds associated with Western progressives, despite the wish of many African Anglican provinces to avoid receiving money from progressives (Jeffrey Walton, “Anglican Alliance: Backdoor for Episcopal Church funds into Africa?”).

Finally, a statement from GAFCON rounded off these weeks of attack on Communion figures and institutions: the Most Rev. Nicholas Okoh, Primate of Nigeria and GAFCON chairman, reported on a recent meeting with the Archbishop of ACNA, the Most. Rev. Foley Beach. Abp. Okoh praised ACNA and denounced the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, claiming that, were it not for ACNA and GAFCON, “a whole continent would have been lost to orthodox witness within the Anglican Communion.”

I normally would have ignored these pieces, were it not for my Facebook feed, where they kept appearing as sponsored posts. We are familiar with Facebook’s options for business advertising here at Covenant, having used the tools ourselves from time to time. So I can tell you why the AAC’s posts keep appearing: the AAC and perhaps others have paid to boost these defamatory posts and keep them before the eyes of their supporters and other related audiences. Moreover, the number of comments from African users further suggests a desire to keep such news before GAFCON and Global South allies, continuing to persuade them that engagement with Communion structures is unnecessary.

In other words, American money is funding these negative attacks. And that’s where I began to feel nervous.

Since I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church in 2008, I have witnessed members of TEC and ACNA spend countless hours denouncing each other to the Anglican Communion, each labeling the other heretical or schismatic. No amount of money or vitriol has seemed too much, so long as one of them emerged as the victor.

Moreover, I see a complete lack of repentance or even mild concern over the divisions wrought across the world for the past 13 years by American conflicts and money, as well as no attempt to think through a sort of endgame that involves reconciliation of the global Anglican body.

What I have rarely seen acknowledged in public are facts that seems obvious: there is blame enough to go around in both churches; and mutual repentance and reconciliation would best serve the Communion’s future.

The need for repentance (and truth) in the midst of church renewal and ecumenical endeavor is before my eyes right now, as Covenant prepares to hold a seminar in Rome this month at the Centro Pro Unione and the Anglican Centre, on the topic of Roman Catholic ecclesiology and ecumenism.

One of the recognitions of the Second Vatican Council and, notably, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint (“That they all may be one”) is that, in the midst of various Christian divisions, “people of both sides were to blame” (Unitatis Redintegratio 3; Ut Unum Sint 11).

“There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart,” without individual repentance, without radical corporate conversion (Unitatis Redintegratio 7; Ut Unum Sint 15).

Another recognition of Roman Catholic ecclesiology is that “many elements of sanctification and truth” are present in other churches and ecclesial communities: the Spirit is at work in those baptized in the name of the Trinity (Lumen Gentium).

This is why, as Pope John Paul II wrote, mutual repentance flows from Christian commitment to unity, which is inspired by the Lord’s prayer that all “might be one” as he and the Father are one. This repentance is driven by open encounter with divided brethren (an encounter so many members of TEC and ACNA have avoided).

Thanks to ecumenism, our contemplation of “the mighty works of God” (mirabilia Dei) has been enriched by new horizons, for which the triune God calls us to give thanks: the knowledge that the Spirit is at work in other Christian communities, the discovery of examples of holiness, the experience of the immense riches present in the communion of saints, and contact with unexpected dimensions of Christian commitment. In a corresponding way, there is an increased sense of the need for repentance: an awareness of certain exclusions which seriously harm fraternal charity, of certain refusals to forgive, of a certain pride, of an unevangelical insistence on condemning the “other side,” of a disdain born of an unhealthy presumption. (John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint 15, emphasis added)

To the extent that we look on our wounded division and blame only other parties, seeing no good in them and no fault in us, we have not yet come to that fullness of love, repentance, and unity in truth that characterizes the Christian life. “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in darkness” (1 John 2:9).

If the Roman Catholic Church, so many years after the Reformation, could claims its own share in Christian division, how can Anglicans not do the same?

To the extent that anyone’s identity involves “not being TEC” or “not being ACNA,” with a corresponding pride in personal righteousness, a corresponding deficiency is present. Let us recall the Gospel parable.

The Pharisee, standing by himself, said “I thank God that I am not like other men: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector here.” …

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:11, 13)

May we, by God’s grace, learn to look on all Anglicans with the fulsome vision that a commitment to Chrisitian unity brings. Can we recognize the “elements of sanctification and truth” present among each other, no matter how faint and flickering? Can we see these as forces impelling us toward a unity that will only be brought about by costly repentance?

Please join me in praying for this goal: that all Anglicans may have “the grace to be genuinely self-denying, humble, gentle in the service of others, and to have an attitude of brotherly generosity” (Ut Unum Sint 26).

Let us pray for that day when Anglicans in North America, and across the globe, are reconciled in one body, ready to live and die with and for one another, united in the truth, the beauty of holiness, and the fellowship of the eucharistic supper.

Let us join our Lord’s prayer “that they may be one.”


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