Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden have recently proposed rethinking the Anglican Communion, given the extra year provided by the Covid-19 crisis. They call on the three main groupings of Anglicans – the Communion Establishment (a.k.a., “Instruments of Unity”), the Gafcon movement, and the Global South Anglican Network – to back away from their political stances and come together to imagine a better way forward. The political model they propose is the British Commonwealth of Nations.
Having lived a while in an African Commonwealth country, I would observe that, apart from various sponsored meetings of Commonwealth “heads” of this and that, the ground level impact of the Commonwealth seems mostly limited to the periodic excitement aroused when the Queen pays a visit. Weak tea, it seems to me.
At the church level, the closest analogy to this “Commonwealth” proposal is the Lutheran World Federation, which has no authority and which, due to the funding of European and North American churches, has drifted steadily leftward.
By contrast, the worldwide United Methodist church has a Book of Discipline that is considered authoritative and has an international synod where representation by numbers has given the Global South churches a strong voice. In February 2019, the Methodist General Conference rejected a “weak tea” proposal to allow “diversity” in matters of homosexual clergy and same-sex marriage. This stance led in turn to a “A Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” in effect splitting United Methodists into two churches, one Evangelical and global, the other liberal and Western. One may grieve this parting of ways, but it is, frankly, true to reality, spiritually and practically.
The Anglican Communion, for historical reasons related to the Established Church, has never had an authoritative covenant of doctrine and discipline. In 1998 the Communion was faced with a matter of doctrine and practice which challenged its theological and ecclesial unity. Lambeth Resolution I.10 on Human Sexuality was approved overwhelmingly, which stated that homosexual practice was “incompatible with Scripture” and could not be “advised” (persuasion being the only tool of inner-communion discipline).
The Episcopal Church USA and the Anglican Church of Canada defied this Resolution, and this led to a series of fruitless meetings among the “Instruments.” The one opportunity to adopt communion discipline, as I see it, was a proposal in 2001 from two Global South bishops “To Mend the Net.” Archbishops George Carey and Rowan Williams allowed this proposal to be deep-sixed. Canterbury’s “weak tea” led directly to the Global Anglican Future Conference in 2008 and its confession of biblical orthodoxy in the Jerusalem Statement and Declaration.
Gafcon and the Global South network have repeatedly appealed to the Instruments to affirm and apply Lambeth I.10. In its 2018 “Letter to the Churches,” two thousand global Anglicans declared:
We are not leaving the Anglican Communion; we are the majority of the Anglican Communion seeking to remain faithful to our Anglican heritage. As Archbishop Nicholas Okoh stated in the inaugural Synodical Council: “We are merely doing what the Communion leadership should have done to uphold its own resolution in 1998.”
In particular, the Jerusalem Conference urged the Archbishop Justin Welby to invite to the Lambeth Conference those Anglicans who had upheld Lambeth I.10 at considerable price. He has refused to do so and is moving ahead with “business as usual” for the next Lambeth Conference.
I worked alongside Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden in 1998 to help mobilize support for the Lambeth Resolution on sexuality. I would say to them now: you cannot “think again” about the Anglican Communion unless you repent and go back to the point where it came apart.
Let the “Instruments” wholeheartedly affirm the biblical teaching on sex and marriage and invite to the table all those who are prepared to uphold it. Let them also “mend the net” of communion discipline along the lines proposed almost twenty years ago.
Any other “Commonwealth” model will be weak tea and not worthy of the name “Communion,” because ultimately fellowship in Christ must be based on the mighty Truth of the Gospel (Galatians 2:5).
Note: For a defense of Gafcon’s theological integrity, see my new book The Gospel of God and the Church of God: Global Anglican Essays (2020).