Stephen Noll on the Pilling Report and the Anglican Communion

I would urge GFCA churches to leave the PR alone, to pray for brothers and sisters in the Church of England who will be affected by it, and to move forward with the ambitious agenda set forth in Nairobi.

On 28 November 2013The Church of England House of Bishops’ Working Group on Human Sexuality released its Report, which is more commonly known as the Pilling Report (PR). The full text of the 200-page document is found here: http://www.churchofengland.org/media/1891063/pilling_report_gs_1929_web.pdf

An introduction and commendations by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York are found here: http://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2013/11/pilling-report-published.aspx

Initial reaction from conservatives in the Church of England can be found here: http://www.anglican-mainstream.net/category/pilling-report/

No doubt there will be much commentary yet to come, especially from within the Church of England.

The following analysis is restricted to those parts of the PR that most directly relate to the Anglican Communion in general and the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (GFCA) in particular. Although the Report does have chapter divisions, I shall refer to it by section (§).

The Anglican Communion

The PR devotes considerable space referencing the Anglican Communion. However, the references are lopsided in emphasis. In its Introduction (§§10-39), it focuses exclusively on a purported “Communion-wide shift of emphasis” to “the listening process,” or “facilitated conversation” or, using an African word, “indaba.”

An entire chapter (§§85-100) is devoted to “The Obligations of Belonging to the Anglican Communion.” While noting the legal autonomy of the Church of England, the PR seems to affirm the “mutual interdependence” of Anglican provinces:

So, while the Church of England may be legally free to decide its own belief and practice in the area of human sexuality without having regard for the rest of the communion, it would be unwise for it to do so. It needs to engage in continuing consultation with the other Churches of the Communion through the various structures that exist for this purpose and to try to seek an agreed way forward based on Anglicans thinking together about human sexuality in the light of the classic Anglican sources of theological authority. (§97)

Having affirmed the principle, the PR (§92) quotes – ominously in my view – a section of the 2004 Windsor Report to the effect that

in the exercise of its autonomy, each church should … [bullet point] be able to depart, where appropriate and acceptable, on the basis of its own corporate conscience and with the blessing of the Communion, from the standards of the community of which it is an autonomous part, provided such departure is neither critical to the maintenance of communion nor likely to harm the common good of the Anglican Communion and of the Church universal (again, as determined by the Instruments of Unity).

The Windsor Report, which was the Communion-wide forerunner of the PR, did judge that the Episcopal Church USA (TEC) had harmed the common good of the Communion. But to no avail. The Instruments of Unity collectively failed to do anything about TEC’s provocations, and this failure led to disunity and broken communion among its Provinces. Why should one expect any different result now, especially when the historic mother church is involved?

If there is a real lesson to be drawn from the “Windsor process,” which followed on from 2004 to the present, it is that “facilitated conversation” always facilitates those who would overturn existing norms. After more than a decade of experience with “processes,” those of us in North America and the Global South are rightly wary of yet another proposal to “dialogue.”

The PR does not understand the resistance of the Global South provinces to the Western agenda. It thinks the resistance is not a matter of principle but rather of “context”: “within the Anglican Communion, different provinces encounter questions of human sexuality in different contexts” (§98). The meaning of “context” is spelled out later:

As members of the global Anglican Communion, we cannot fail to be aware that Anglican Christians in some countries have been subject to violence and intimidation because of others’ perceptions about what Anglicans believe about homosexuality. (§325)

This explanation airbrushes away the biblical and theological objections which these churches have raised. It is, frankly, patronizing to think that the Islamist terrorists in Boko Haram are killing Nigerian Christians or the Islamists burning churches in Egypt because they are associated with sexual politics in the UK and not because those Christian churches will not bow the knee to sharia law and keep proclaiming the freedom which is in Christ.

Additionally, §99 refers to the concerns of “other ecumenical partners” about this agenda. Could this include the Roman Catholics and Orthodox? Of course, one can probably find some ecumenical professionals who will “indaba” away late into the night, but it is hard to imagine those churches will diverge at all from the position of Lambeth I.10.

Despite the chapter on “Obligations of Belonging to the Anglican Communion,” the only reference to the Communion in the “Findings and Recommendations” (§490) comes at #10:

The Church of England needs to recognize that the way we have lived out our divisions on same sex relationships creates problems for effective mission and evangelism within our culture, and that such problems are shared by some other Churches and in some other parts of the Anglican Communion. The Church of England also needs to recognize that any change to the Church’s stance in one province could have serious consequences for mission in some other provinces of the Communion.

Surely the consequences of such a change have been illustrated vividly in the fifteen years since Lambeth 1998: division within and among the churches, expulsions, lawsuits, excommunication of one Province by others, and the formation of an alternative jurisdiction. So yes, it might be well for the Church of England to ponder the lessons of recent history and their impact on the wider mission of Christ!

Lambeth Resolution I.10

Resolution I.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference can been seen as many things: as one of the few “dogmatic” statements of the Lambeth Conferences; as a sign of the emergence of the Global South coalition that produced it; and as a proximate cause of the crisis that engulfed the Communion when the North American churches blatantly violated it. For my summary of its message, see http://www.stephenswitness.org/2000/05/what-anglican-bishops-said-about-sex.html. The normative teaching of the Resolution is that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Scripture” and the Church “cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions” (note: it speaks not only of marriage but unions of any sort).

To its credit, the PR (§§101-106) identifies Lambeth I.10 as one of three main documents of the Church of England’s teaching on sexuality, alongside a General Synod motion (1987) and a House of Bishops’ statement, Issues in Sexuality (1991). All three statements, generally speaking, uphold the biblical and traditional understanding of sex and marriage. However, the PR undercuts the normative status of the two English statements by noting that they are 26 and 21 years old respectively and may not represent the current mind of the Church.

The PR similarly relativizes the 1998 Lambeth Resolution by focusing on the one clause in which the bishops “commit ourselves to listening to the experience of homosexual persons” and by comparing unfavorably the 1998 Lambeth Conference with the 2008 Conference:

It is noteworthy that, whilst the 1998 Lambeth Conference seemed to be dominated by arguments about sexuality, the 2008 Lambeth Conference (with issues of sexuality being very much part of the context, not least of the Indaba groups) said nothing new on the subject. It has become harder to occupy the middle ground of uncertainty and tentatively seeking after truth. (§106)

This revision of Anglican history leaves out the following facts:

that the issue dominated the 1998 Conference because of the threatened actions of the North American churches*;

that Resolution I.10 was approved by a vast majority of bishops and continues to be held as normative by virtually all the churches of the Global South;

that the primary ground of the Resolution was fidelity to Scripture, and several additional Resolutions affirmed this point;

that the North American churches followed through on their threat with the consecration of Gene Robinson despite repeated warnings from various Instruments*; and

the more “collegial” atmosphere at Lambeth 2008 was purchased at the expense of 280 bishops being absent from Lambeth 2008.

*N.B.: the PR lacks any reference to The Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church of Canada. I wonder why.

In his dissent to the PR narrative, Bishop Birkenhead states:  “I have come to the conclusion with great regret that the Report if adopted will undermine this teaching [Lambeth I.10] both in its theological argument and in its proposals for the recognition of permanent same sex relationships” (§§472-475). His regret is not shared by others, as it appears the attitude of the PR to Lambeth I.10 is: “that was then, this is now.” Is this also the view of the current Archbishops of Canterbury and York? Has either one of them publicly cited and endorsed Lambeth I.10 during the debate over same-sex marriage in the UK?

The Primates

The PR engages in some selective editing of the work of the Primates’ Meeting, one of the four “Instruments of Unity” of Communion governance, over the past fifteen years. It mentions the Primates’ endorsement of the “listening process” in 2003 (§12) and of the “shift of emphasis” to mutual listening in 2009 (§17), but it omits any reference to their forceful Communiqués from 2002-2007, all of which upheld the Lambeth I.10 Resolution and called the Episcopal church to refrain from ordaining practicing homosexuals or proposing same-sex marriage rites.

In one particularly misleading revision of recent history, the PR comments that the Don’t Throw Stones initiative against homophobia “was presented to the 2007 Primates’ Meeting where it was unopposed” (§191). That single reference hardly represents the substance of the meeting at Dar es Salaam, which threatened the Episcopal Church with exclusion from Communion councils. By “majoring in the minors” here, the PR shows itself resolutely committed to avoiding the very reasons the Anglican Communion has split apart since 2007.

GAFCON

The PR makes one reference to the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) held in Jerusalem in 2008 and the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (GFCA) which emerged from it:

Meanwhile, the unresolved nature of the issue has led to the formation of new structures within Anglicanism, such as GAFCON (the Global Anglican Future Conference) and the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FOCA [sic]) created to focus opposition to what they see as the growing threat to Christian teaching posed by secularization and especially by liberal attitudes to sexual morality. Organizations such as these have changed the dynamics of Anglican relationships across the world in ways which are still emerging. (§52)

I suppose one should be grateful for any notice at all, since most of the official Instruments have studiously avoided doing so, and the reference to “new structures” and new “dynamics of Anglican relationships” does at least hint at the significance of the movement. However, the PR does not consider seriously the extent of the current breach in the Communion and the potential that that breach will widen further if the Church of England travels along the path of the North American churches.

In a footnote (n. 63), the PR quotes without comment the Jerusalem Declaration (clause 8), which presents the GAFCON understanding of marriage:

We acknowledge God’s creation of humankind as male and female and the unchangeable standard of Christian marriage between one man and one woman as the proper place for sexual intimacy and the basis of the family. We repent of our failures to maintain this standard and call for a renewed commitment to lifelong fidelity in marriage and abstinence for those who are not married.

This same footnote describes GAFCON 2008 as “a meeting of conservative Anglican bishops and other leaders.” In the context of the chapter on “A Rapidly Changing Context,” it is obvious that GAFCON is seen as a reactionary movement and its agenda narrowly focused on opposition to homosexuality. In truth, the position of the GAFCON movement, as summarized in the Statements of 2008 and 2013, is hardly limited to opposition to secularization and liberal attitudes to sexual morality. These statements raise the following commitments:

to the Gospel which is the power of salvation to all who believe;

to the unique and universal Lordship of Jesus Christ;

to the authority of Holy Scripture as God’s Word written;

to the ongoing authority of the classic creeds, formularies, and Prayer Book and ordinal;

to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives from darkness to “walking in the light”;

to offer assistance and economic empowerment to those afflicted with poverty and disease and opposing violence against women and children;

to model godly marriage and family life;

to Christ’s Great Commission to take the Gospel to all nations;

to social justice and the stewardship of creation;

to Christ’s prayer for unity within the Anglican Communion and the wider Christian church, and a call to repentance and reconciliation for those who have undermined that unity;

to standing in prayer and care for persecuted Christians around the world; and

to a renewal of joyous hope at Christ’s Second Coming.

The PR makes no mention of the second GAFCON meeting held in Nairobi in October 2013. This oversight may be excused, I suppose, on the ground that they could not anticipate what the Conference might do. For its part, GAFCON did anticipate, in the Nairobi Communiqué and Commitment, the direction of the PR: 

We grieve that several national governments, aided by some church leaders, have claimed to redefine marriage and have turned same-sex marriage into a human rights issue. Human rights, we believe, are founded on a true understanding of human nature, which is that we are created in God’s image, male and female such that a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife (Matthew 19:6; Ephesians 5:31). We want to make clear that any civil partnership of a sexual nature does not receive the blessing of God. We continue to pray for and offer pastoral support to Christians struggling with same-sex temptation who remain celibate in obedience to Christ and affirm them in their faithfulness.

Commitment 4. We commit ourselves to defend essential truths of the biblical faith even when this defence threatens existing structures of human authority (Acts 5:29).  For this reason, the bishops at GAFCON 2013 resolved ‘to affirm and endorse the position of the Primates’ Council in providing oversight in cases where provinces and dioceses compromise biblical faith, including the affirmation of a duly discerned call to ministry. This may involve ordination and consecration if the situation requires.’

Commitment 5. We commit ourselves to the support and defence of those who in standing for apostolic truth are marginalized or excluded from formal communion with other Anglicans in their dioceses. We have therefore recognized the Anglican Mission in England (AMiE) as an expression of authentic Anglicanism both for those within and outside the Church of England, and welcomed their intention to appoint a General Secretary of AMiE.

For the full Nairobi Communiqué and Commitment, see http://gafcon.org/news/nairobi-communique-and-commitment. For my prospective and retrospective analysis of GAFCON 2013, see “Sea Change in the Anglican Communion” at http://www.stephenswitness.org/2013/10/sea-change-in-anglican-communion.html.

Conclusion

The Pilling Report has one goal: to legitimize an ongoing dialogue about normalizing homosexual relationships in the church’s life. In my opinion, this goal is incompatible with Lambeth Resolution I.10 and the position of the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans.

Nearly eighteen years ago, the Episcopal Church USA initiated a process called “Continuing the Dialogue” on sexuality that sounds very much like the PR’s idea of “facilitated conversation.” The end result of that “dialogue” was never in doubt – approval of the gay rights agenda – nor were conservatives ever more than token participants. I would ask conservatives in the Church of England one simple question: can you imagine any circumstance in which the traditional teaching of the Church on the exclusive character of Holy Matrimony will be reaffirmed as a result of this dialogue?

Although the PR is primarily addressing the Church of England, it also calls for Communion-wide dialogue – as if we had not already experienced the “Windsor process” from 2004 and the “Lambeth Indaba” in 2008. For global Anglicans to return to such a fruitless endeavor would be to deter their mission and divert attention from ongoing social issues that really do affect them. Finally, many Global South churches over the past decade provided refuge to orthodox churches and clergy in North America. They may well need to do the same for English churches and clergy as well, if the recommended listening process is adopted and has the same divisive result in the Church of England that the parallel “dialogue” has had in North America.

For these reasons, I would urge GFCA churches to leave the PR alone, to pray for brothers and sisters in the Church of England who will be affected by it, and to move forward with the ambitious agenda set forth in Nairobi. For those churches and leaders that may view the PR optimistically as a way out of the divisions facing the Anglican Communion, I can only suggest they attend the wisdom of the old limerick:

There was a young lady of Niger

Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;

They returned from the ride

With the lady inside,

And the smile on the face of the tiger.

 

5 December 2013

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