“Indissolubly together” GAFCON III at the midpoint

Spirits are high at GAFCON III as the conference moves towards its close, but major issues remain to be addressed

The movement upward [toward God] cannot be separated from the movement toward our neighbor. Both belong indissolubly together . . . Standing under God’s rule means living in community with God and with the church.

Sanctorum Communio, Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

As GAFCON III moves towards its close, the conference exhibits the dullness of a happy family. So far the pan-Anglican jamboree that has gathered in Jerusalem 2000 traditional-minded Christians from 53 countries has not generated a crisis. There is no shouting, no shooting — not even sniping at targets of opportunity. As a whole, GAFCON has been a success for all but the reporters.

The delegates at GAFCON come from disparate cultures, races, and classes displaying tremendous differences in affluence, political and social backgrounds. Citizens of democracies rub shoulders with subjects of despots. There are Trump-lovers and those who care not. Yet it is still a happy, respectable, dull family. “We are united in what we believe, united in our despair”, GAFCON general secretary Dr. Peter Jensen said.

One might conclude the bonhomie may be facilitated by the lack of a common language. Though the conference is conducted in English, a significant proportion take advantage of the translation services. The English do not quite speak English — as it is properly spoken by Americans. Yet the impression one gets moving through the public gatherings is not of atomized groups — here the Nigerians, there the Anglo-Catholics, round the corner the Australians — but of a seamless whole.

This message has been a staple from the dias beginning with Archbishop Nicholas Okoh’s presidential address.  This experience is particularly heightened in worship. GAFCON III is a profoundly Christ-centered place. In his biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas recounts the then 18-year old German Lutheran’s impressions of Palm Sunday services at St Peter’s in Rome, writing: “ I am beginning, I believe, to understand the concept ‘church.’”

“The universality of the church was illustrated in a marvelously effective manner. White, black, yellow members of religious orders—everyone was in clerical robes united under the church. It truly seems ideal,” the future pastor and martyr wrote in his diary.

Metaxas observed that Bonhoeffer was not a stranger to Catholic liturgy, but at St Peter’s he witnessed a  “vivid illustration of the church’s transcendence of race and national identity.” Bonhoeffer would go on to formulate — or rediscover a doctrine of the Church that was not bound by institutions, privilege, class, race or culture.

The strength of GAFCON III rests upon the same foundation that Bonhoeffer observed at St Peter’s — a unity centered round, and resting upon Jesus Christ and his word. As Bonhoeffer expressed it: “standing under God’s rule means living in community with God and with the church.”

Happy families, are comprised of individuals — and not all of them are happy. GAFCON’s constituencies are in different places — ACNA delegates were uniformly upbeat. Their church has prospered, their work is bearing visible fruit. English delegates at the start of the week were discouraged and divided — battling a hostile culture and an indifferent or unpleasant ecclesial establishment. The Anglo-Catholic presence at GAFCON is smaller than at previous gatherings. Fort Worth has 14 members present, but many of its bishops are absent and not represented in the top leadership ranks. Sydney delegates voice mixed thoughts — some are fearful that the culture in Australia is moving against them, undercutting their complementarian viewpoint on human anthropology, while others see the universality of the Anglican way as a portent of the future of the church.

Small blips on the news radar have surfaced. The Church of Uganda has restated its views on Lambeth 2020 (they won’t go if ACNA doesn’t go). The Church of Kenya has restated its ambivalence about the relationship of GAFCON with the Anglican Communion (if GAFCON leaves the Anglican Communion it would have to reconsider it’s relationship to GAFCON). And primates whose first language is not English have made verbal slips that have not fully expressed their views. But as of this point — no surprises have arisen.

The closing days will see the preparation of a communique, worship, and moves by individual groups to bring their agendas or needs to the forefront of GAFCON’s attention. Issues discussed in private meetings include the question of women’s orders, how GAFCON relates to the Anglican Communion’s “instruments of unity”, and perhaps most critically — GAFCON’s relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and what steps it takes to support British traditionalists.

The conference continues. …

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