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Vol I No. 1
Anglican Communion

After GAFCON III — Whither Lambeth 2020 & Whither the Communion?

by William J. Martin

A further personal reflection

on some of the implications flowing from GAFCON III in Jerusalem

A M-R

The GAFCON conference was a thoroughly upbeat and joyful event of unprecedented scale that demonstrated most powerfully the rising organizational capacity of the movement —and the consequent importance for Anglicanism of whether or not it is enabled to see its future, in the long-term, within the Communion. There was a deeply positive atmosphere with huge goodwill among those attending. (Whom it was somewhat confusing to call delegates when they took no real part in decisions,  just as it will be important to be clearer in the future, just which Primates are in fact full and committed supporters and of these which have the full backing of their Province as distinct from participating in a purely personal capacity).

Nonetheless, the overall outcome can only emerge over time and has to be viewed currently in the light of the statement issued at the end,  after having been prepared and approved by the Synodical Council (which is also a confusing term given that it relates to no Synod and seems to have comprised simply those Primates who were present at the event and some others appointed by means undisclosed).

There is a risk that this document,  in relation to the Lambeth Conference at least, may well prove to cost  traditional orthodox Anglicans dear. This is because,  in setting out conditions which are most unlikely to be met, and by saying that in the absence of such being fulfilled,  all bishops and Archbishops from GAFCON Provinces (however  defined) should decline the invitation to attend the next Lambeth Conference, the stage is set now for a transition into a fundamentally divided Communion which it will be ever harder to put back together.  Ironically, to act thus is to risk completing what the radical Provinces started in breaking with the mind of the Church expressed at the last fully attended Lambeth in 1998!

After all, if  many of the GAFCON bishops and Provinces plan effectively to withdraw from all practical participation in the structures of the Anglican Communion,  even though (for reasons that are likely to become ever less clear), they continue to assert that they are in Communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury and are most certainly still Anglican, they risk facilitating more radical change not halting it. Just as they appear to be the ones splitting the Communion, when they have previously suggested that this was what the radicals would do, by ignoring the mind of the whole in preference for new, albeit local and quite literally Provincial insights.

Ironic as it may seem,  such an outcome has surely to be beyond the dreams of those who desire a more radical future for the Communion, who will see it as  clearing the way for the revisionary agenda to proceed without hesitation, since those likely to be offended are effectively no longer there to be offended or to impede it. In other words,  radical options will now seem to carry relatively little cost and fear of consequent disruption need provide no reason (even on a merely pragmatic basis) for delay, lest it fracture the Communion.

This new situation affects the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, since he and his predecessors have hitherto always had to point to the grave consequences of adopting radical proposals,  and now it will seem as though many of those consequences have come and gone.

And yet, there is in fact still reason for the Instruments of Unity and the Archbishop to counsel caution and indeed to hold back any further breaking with the mind of the Church as a whole.

First of all, while it may be true that only a relatively small number of actual Provinces of the global communion are in GAFCON,  the number of Anglicans in those provinces is huge. It stands at about 36 or 37 million, which represents more than half of the worldwide total, particularly when one recalls that the Province of Canterbury may claim 25 million members in England when in all probability less than 10% are truly active members!

Given these considerations, and the deep Christian obligation to try and overcome disunity, what then are the policy implications?

How can the trajectory towards disintegration of the Anglican Communion be halted?

It is commonly said that when in a hole the first priority is to “stop digging” since that will make the hole deeper. This simple point indicates that the first priority has to be to try and blunt, or head off any and all factors and actions that could make matters worse, and deepen the divides now expanding across the Communion.

This would suggest that the next Lambeth Conference should follow the precedent set in 2008, whereby the Conference –in recognition that it lacked the customary full participation needed for full legitimacy – did not take votes or pass potentially divisive resolutions. This is surely a price worth paying in 2020. After all, resolutions passed with perhaps a third of those who should have been there absent, would always lack real credibility. This would then most likely prevent any definitive actions that would irrevocably divide the communion in response at a formal level. (A key point being that so far the division of the Communion is not a public and formal matter which is of huge importance and particularly for the credibility of its international and ecumenical standing not to mention that of its central institutions and the Archbishopric of Canterbury.)

There are two years to go before the next Lambeth Conference convenes and there is much that can be done in between.

First, it is surely time to halt all rhetorical exchanges that will tend to deepen mutual suspicion. For example, it is perfectly clear that,  as a purely technical matter,  the ACC is indeed bound by the terms of its own constitution only to recognise as full Anglican Provinces,  those which have emerged through its existing procedures. But setting that out in an overly aggressive way which implies that this even decides who is in fact an Anglican,  is not helpful and only sharpens divides.  The ACC is a servant of the Communion not its master.

A similar consideration applies to the reported letter from the ACC General Secretary ciriticising the formation of a number of practical networks by GAFCON. This suggests a competitive unchristian spirit that is unattractive and that would like to restrict ministry that it does not control.

Moreover, the Archbishop of Canterbury has himself a huge amount of room for pastoral flexibility and a positive calling to exercise that ministry expansively and creatively, in ways that not only seek to preserve, but also to expand, the community of those in fellowship with him. This is something he can surely use to renew and build up the sense of Communion over time. It would be ironic indeed,  if those Provinces which incline to radical actions in the name of greater inclusion,  were to attack the Archbishop for seeking to preserve the inclusion of as many Anglicans as possible under himself.

With the benefit of hindsight,  it was surely a mistake on his part to have reportedly referred to GACFCON as a mere “ginger group” and a far deeper one not to have made an appearance there himself and not to have followed the example in doing so of Archbishop Suheil Dawani the Ordinary in Jerusalem who was widely praised for doing so,  As Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby could have experienced and addressed the assembled throng to significant mutual advantage. If the office of Canterbury has found it hard or even impossible to facilitate Communion-wide discipline,  it surely must now seek to do what is needful to sustain Communion-wide cohesion,  while still minimizing damage to overall integrity.

There is also, an urgent need to undertake ecclesio-diplomatic outreach to try and overcome the impasse over Lambeth 2020 and to achieve restraint on the part of any Provinces that might be tempted, in the meantime, to go the way of TEC and the Episcopal Churches of Canada and Scotland by way of radical innovation in the area of human sexuality.   Similarly too,  it is time to explore what room there is for the Archbishop to seek (privately no doubt) to mitigate or even mediate in places of crisis where secular litigation is clearly causing scandal and threatens to undermine most grievously the ministry of the Church as is clearly happening in TEC?  This would seem particularly possible where bishops engaged in such unedifying litigation are obliged to remain in Communion with Canterbury under the terms of their Provincial formularies, since if they fail to settle matters in ways he could facilitate,  he might be moved to question if those so falling short would indeed remain in his good standing.

The active pursuit and application of such policies could do much to hold back the creeping separation within the Communion that with each passing day now risks becoming formal and then unfolding in ways it may be very hard indeed to reverse.