Sunday, 6 July 2008

England bypassed. Global Communion isolated.

In the wake of Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem and the post-GAFCON meeting at All Souls Church on Monday two things are becoming clear about the situation as it affects us here in England.

The first is that there is no clear way ahead for GAFCON supporters and sympathizers within England itself.

The second is that in the long term it probably doesn’t matter.

The absence of a clear way ahead is due to there being no post-GAFCON follow up group in England itself. Nor does there appear to be any coordinated strategy for the future. Some have seen the online petitions (posted in my name) as part of such a strategy. In fact, the idea of posting them came about during Tuesday’s gathering, and the basic wording was devised during a coffee break. (My involvement was having the experience and a GoPetition account to do it quickly).

They are there to encourage people to show their commitment, individually and as organizations, to GAFCON principles. And this itself may send important signals, both to supporters and the wider institution. There is, however, no ‘next step’. There is no commitment to further action, nor is there, as yet, any intention to follow up signatories with requests or suggestions.

All this will, no doubt, come as a surprise to some. Prior to, and even following, Tuesday’s meeting in London there was much talk of ‘breakaway groups’, ‘takeover bids’ and the like. Conspiracy seemed to be in the air.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The earliest it seems that any post-GAFCON collective action is scheduled is a meeting being organized by the Church of England Evangelical Council, titled Shaping the Future: Anglican evangelicalism post Lambeth and Gafcon. This, however, will not happen until mid-November, some four and a half months away.

The Reform Council is meeting in September, and may also be making proposals. But then it may not. Nothing is clear on that front.

Meanwhile, Monday’s vote in General Synod about the way ahead on women bishops hangs over the entire English picture. Whatever is decided, it is that which is likely to focus English minds for the next few months, not how to continue what GAFCON has started.

In the meeting at All Souls, Archbishop Peter Jensen challenged the attendees about the need to find ‘English solutions to English problems’. But in reality part of the English problem is precisely that we cannot find solutions to our problems. The content of Liberal theology is diminished, the impact of Liberal churches is less than it once was. But, as is shown by the paranoid reactions of commentators to a possible shift in the balance of power, the Church of England is not in the hands of Evangelicals, let alone Conservatives and ‘fundamentalists’.

On the contrary, its ethos is resolutely ‘middle of the road’ Liberal-Catholic. It is Open, not Conservative, Evangelicals who provide the recruiting ground for diocesan advisors and helpers. It is Liberal, not Conservative, theology which dominates the part-time and post-ordination training courses. It is centrist, not ‘extremist’ clergy who are given preferment as suffragan and diocesan bishops, cathedral deans and archdeacons.

The sheer fact that approval is almost certain to be given in the next twenty-fours hours for women to be consecrated as bishops shows that the Church of England is not what opponents of GAFCON fear it may become. The equal fact that there is nothing in the pipeline that will truly threaten this hegemony means it is likely to stay this way for some while to come.

And yet the security of the current English establishment, and the lack of any apparent threat to this security, does not really matter.

Many years ago a Dutch friend of mine told me about a cartoon which expressed what they thought about the English attitude: an English newspaper headline read, “Fog in the Channel. Continent cut off.”

In the same way, we have seen English bishops, and indeed Archbishops, complaining that GAFCON has not shown due regard for Anglo-centric structures and personalities — that they, and not ‘self-appointed’ individuals and bodies, have the right to define the terms by which Anglicanism is constituted and operates.

Yet that is clearly now no longer the case. Significant sections of the Anglican Communion, representing hundreds of dioceses and millions of members have acted as they have chosen to act — just as, of course, in the past the North American branches of Anglicanism have acted according to their own agenda and in general disregard for the rest of the Communion.

The one does not justify the other. It is simply that just as England was previously powerless to undo what happened in the USA and Canada (but showed due deference), so now (although it is unwilling to defer to them) it cannot undo, or prevent further, actions by other parts of the Communion.

In a sense, Theo Hobson is right when he complains in an article in The Spectator that by emphasising the Anglican Communion, ABp Rowan Williams has made the Church of England in this country hostage to other influences than those which have hitherto dominated the English scene. He is wrong only in his pessimistic assumption that things will necessarily change very quickly here.

In fact, it seems very unlikely that the Church of England in England will do much more than muddle along as it has done since the winds of change began to blow through our society after World War Two. We still have enough ‘family silver’ to be able to fund decline for decades. We still have bishops in the House of Lords and a place in the formal functions of the nation. We still bury our parishioners, though we baptize few and marry even fewer.

The Liberal establishment is likely to remain just that. The Evangelicals will continue to fight amongst themselves and achieve nothing politically, although they will remain committed to the gospel and effective ministry at a local level. In fact, the only real ‘threat’ to the Church of England continuing the same way is whatever injuries it manages to inflict on itself over women bishops tomorrow.

The Global Anglican Communion will thus continue to be ‘cut off’ from the Church of England. It may be decades before we come to see that whilst we retain the affection of some of our erstwhile children, and the clamour for attention from others, it is we who are now powerless and isolated.

John Richardson
6 July 2008

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  1. This is, as always, perceptive comment. I think the thing that has occured, and why a certain bishop is particularly upset, is the end of the English dominance over the Communion.

  2. John you sound a little dejected but I believe you are realistic about the situation in your reporting here. Naturally, I am pleased that women are to join the Episcopate and realistic in my estimations that it might prove to be a number of years before i actually meet a woman priest. In the meantime, I look to Jesus only as my Lord but must admit to being quite excited at the prospect of learning at a theological college under the lead of a woman: Christina Baxter, whom I suspect I might grow to very much admire.

    Blessings Rachel at Re vis.e Reform.

    You continue to be a voice I respect even though our opinions vary. You certainly argue your points with intelligence and gentleness. I have had my eyes opened and I do not approve of all I see regarding some of the voices I am exploring in the debate. The vicars who comment nationally on the state we're in, certainly don't always conform to the godly norm in their tone or implications.

  3. Rachel,

    That's my old college, though when I was there in the 1970s the principal was Michael Green and over half the students were young men in their twenties.

    And look how I turned out!

    Good luck.


  4. Yiex John!
    Of course I meant Bishop not priest when I said 'it might be a number of years before I meet a female one'. Typo error.
    By the way, there's a tribute to you over on my site - last one before I close the curtains for tonight.

    You know, poised on the brink as we are tonight with the debate at York tomorrow nearly upon us, I shake you by the hand, fellow brother and say - all the best - which ever way it goes, provision or no provision - best of British to you!


  5. (Chelmsford)

    John, as you should surely have read in various papers from the Diocese (well, I can't blame you for not reading them), at least here we do not "still have enough ‘family silver’ to be able to fund decline for decades." Decline is only being funded by well above inflation tax, I mean Family Purse, increases on those churches, mostly evangelical, which are still doing well. We are being forced, or at least morally coerced, into subsidising failing churches, which are mostly either liberal or so stuck in tradition that there is little hope for them. Some of us are getting very frustrated. In this situation it wouldn't take very much to organise a local or national campaign of non-payment which would bankrupt whole dioceses rather quickly. I'm not saying these bankruptcies would be a good thing, but even the threat of it is a powerful weapon for anyone who chooses to use it. I understand this weapon was used in the Jeffrey John affair.

    The problem really is the lack of leaders who are prepared to take a lead and who command the confidence of more than a tiny minority. There are probably not enough people in the C of E who oppose women bishops to start a movement. But there are a lot more of us who sympathise with a GAFCON movement which avoids taking definite sides on this particular issue. The right leader could lead a big movement.