How significant are differences in belief about openly gay clergy and church blessings of gay unions? Very significant if you consider that such things are said to form part of a “false gospel”, and have contributed to the formation of an alternative episcopal hierarchy in the Anglican Communion at the GAFCON conference, which ended in Jerusalem today.
The gay issue has naturally dominated much of the press coverage of GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference). However, this movement is about much more than mere disagreements about marriage and sexuality, important though they are. It’s also about evangelical Anglicans, and those from developing countries (particularly Africa), finally making a break from a church whose compromises between evangelicalism, liberalism and catholicism are rooted in a long history (including the history of British imperialism) and in the moral uncertainties of modern Western society. These compromises and ambiguities are no longer perceived to be necessary or relevant to a confident African Christianity and a militant evangelicalism who base their certainties in Scripture and the traditional cornerstones of Anglican doctrine: the four Ecumenical Councils, the three Creeds, the Church Fathers, the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer.
The first thing to be noted is that GAFCON is a schismatic movement. It tries to make out that it will be able to co-exist with the ‘official’ Anglican hierarchy, and that it is just a movement and alternative discipline within the Anglican Communion. However, it is taking the classic form of a schism: seeing itself as the representative of true Anglican-Christian orthodoxy, tradition and liturgy; and setting itself up as able to command authority over all the Anglican faithful by virtue of its claim to uphold the ‘true’ Gospel over against the ‘false’ Gospel that the official hierarchy is unable to confound. It is hard to see how a single Church could survive with two organisations and groupings of bishops competing against each other to be accepted as the very basis for unity, and of coherence of belief and practice, within the Church. The truth of the matter is GAFCON really seeks to supplant the established Church hierarchy and, in a sense, re-launch the Anglican Church as a whole – and not just one movement within it – on its own foundations. It will doubtless take many millions with it, who will believe that it is the ‘true’ Anglican Communion. Many millions will not follow, however, and will retain their allegiance to the established church that has the Archbishop of Canterbury loosely as its head.
The question I would wish to ask is this: will such a schism strengthen or weaken the Church’s witness on homosexuality? Is it more powerful for people to have radically differing views on sexuality within the same community of believers, or to take a stand on the issue to the extent of breaking up over it and forming separate churches? I ask this because I think that gay clergy and blessings are a bit of a straw man. Or should I say they’re being made out to be the ‘last straw’, the final outrage, that’s forcing the hand of the dissidents. But this is really a pretext, and it isn’t necessary to risk splitting up the Communion for the so-called conservatives to express their concerns and their opposition to what is being done in certain parts of the Communion, particularly in North America. This is a matter of discipline not of fundamental Church doctrine: the common Anglican teaching remains that gay clergy should not be in actively sexual relationships, that marriage is an exclusively heterosexual thing and that there is no such thing as an ‘official’ blessing ceremony for gay unions, although these may be carried out by clergy as private occasions.
Admittedly, there are many in the liberal wing of the Communion – and not just in Canada and the USA – who have more affirming views on homosexuality, and consider that loving gay relationships are a positive thing, indeed a gift from God. And such people might even go so far as to sanction gay marriage. However, these views are not the mainstream; and in any case, the traditional Anglican way has been to accept that there is a diversity of beliefs within the Church, reflecting the plurality of beliefs within society at large. The fact that in some churches, they preach that it’s all right for two male or female clergy to share each other’s bed has never up to now been thought to prevent other Anglican churches from believing and preaching diametrically opposing views and still to consider each other as Christian brothers, united in their search for God and for truth. But now, the new organisation is saying that people who advocate and practice such a “false gospel” can no longer be in communion with them: effectively, they would exclude them from their version of the Anglican Communion – they would be excommunicated, meaning they had put themselves beyond the redemption won for us by Christ.
It’s the fact that it isn’t really necessary to set up a dissident church within a church in order to disagree fundamentally with the liberals on these points, and continue teaching the opposite, that makes me think that the gay issue is merely a pretext for a split that the evangelicals and African churches involved have wanted for some time. In reality, it’s the only issue of substance that divides the new proto-church from the old. The statement of belief issued by GAFCON, the Jerusalem Declaration (see above link), is essentially no more than standard traditional Anglicanism that most Anglican believers would have no difficulty in embracing – deliberately so, as the new movement seeks to impose itself as the true Church. The gay issue is being made out to be more extreme and threatening than it really is (because, as I say, the majority of believers do not follow the ultra-liberal line) to justify a split that is ultimately about re-centring the Communion on evangelical principles: Scripture and a specifically conservative-Anglican acception of Tradition; as opposed to the Trinity of (evangelical) Scripture, (Catholic) Tradition and (liberal) Reason that has provided the foundation for the co-existence of multiple interpretations of the faith within the Anglican Communion hitherto.
Ultimately, the new movement is not interested in the gay issue: they simply want out, and want it out of the church. No actively gay person will be welcomed within their Anglican Communion. And it’s in this refusal to exercise the Church’s pastoral mission to its gay followers, as much as in the schism GAFCON is bringing about, that the bishops behind the new movement are failing in their duty to act as a focus for unity in the Church and a witness of God’s love to the world.