Further Thoughts on GAFCON and related matters by the Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright

I wrote an initial response to GAFCON last Sunday/Monday (June 29/30). This went out on the Fulcrum site and elsewhere. In that response, I was trying to find as many points of contact as possible, as many things to affirm as I could, as many features to celebrate as possible. I don’t want to back down from that: there were many people, including many friends of mine, who found the whole GAFCON experience deeply moving – as of course they should, since worshipping and praying in Jerusalem is always likely to be a wonderful Christian experience, as I know from many such visits myself. I do not, though, suppose that when I have been on such visits everything I then think or write is automatically dictated by the Holy Spirit. I believe we should assess GAFCON with generosity but also with appropriate critical questioning – such as I would expect to be applied to anything I might say myself, however deep and meaningful the experience which produced it.

Having written my initial response, I then received reports, late on Tuesday July 1 and through parts of Wednesday July 2, of the meeting of GAFCON leaders with several hundred English clergy at All Souls, Langham Place on the July 1. Frankly, I was quite disturbed, as were various others who had actually been there. I checked websites to see as far as I could precisely what had been said, and discussed the meeting with some who were there during the day and some who were there during the evening including the question time. It is as a result of that that I became convinced that some more clearly negative comments were necessary as well. I stress that this is in no way to say ‘so America doesn’t need help’ or ‘so the African leaders are completely mistaken’. It is to say, rather, that the GAFCON proposals are not only not needed in England but are positively harmful and indeed offensive. This was more or less what I said on the radio last Thursday, where I distinguished carefully between the American and English situations. AS FAR AS ENGLAND IS CONCERNED, it is damaging, arrogant and irrelevant for GAFCON leaders to say, as they are now doing, ‘choose you this day whom you will serve’, with the implication that there are now only two parties in the church, the orthodox and the liberals, and that to refuse to sign up to GAFCON is to decide for the liberals. Things are just not like that. Certainly not here in England.

Henry Orombi was the opening speaker at All Souls, and I have nothing but admiration for who he is and what he represents. But his moving account of his own early days and of how the gospel has worked in Uganda does not in any way constitute an argument for saying ‘therefore England needs the GAFCON solution’. Nor, I believe, did Greg Venables offer any reflections that would lead to that conclusion. Unfortunately, the great Dr Jim Packer, one of my early theological heroes and still someone I respect enormously, was used as a kind of stalking horse. It was a shrewd move by the organisers to get him there: for many older English evangelicals, with long memories of listening to John Stott and Jim Packer in conferences at All Souls, it will have stirred recollections of happier days. And now to discover that our great Jim Packer is being persecuted by a wicked liberal bishop in Canada – well, clearly it’s time to man the barricades! Why can’t the Anglican Communion do something to help this wonderful man?

That is the very question I have asked myself – not only in relation to Jim Packer faced with the Diocese of New Westminster (i.e. Vancouver), but in relation to many of my close friends in various dire situations in the United States and in other parts of Canada as well. I want to assure such friends, many of whom are in regular email correspondence with me, that nothing I have said takes away at all from my strong and consistent support for them, my prayers for them, my desire that a solution be found to the appalling situation that so many have faced, AND (please note) a lot of hard work, necessarily behind the scenes, on their behalf. It is simply untrue to suggest that I and others have done nothing to help the beleaguered orthodox in America; I call to witness the vitriol I have received from revisionist journalists on several occasions over the last few years! I have taught and lectured in the USA many times over many years (to the point where some of my detractors sneer at me for it). I am very well aware, as many in England are not, of the almost incredible situations that people face for the sole crime of continuing to preach and teach the orthodox faith in Jesus Christ as the true and only Saviour, the final revelation of the one true God, and the standards of behaviour which Christians around the world have taught, and tried to live up to, for 2000 years. Since this is my own position, too, and since I do not regard the recent innovations in the USA and Canada as ‘allowable local options’, or as ‘secondary matters’ upon which we can ‘agree to differ’, I continue to stand where I have always stood, that is, shoulder to shoulder with those in the USA who have suffered much for the sake of their allegiance to this same gospel and standard of behaviour. I fully agree with those who say that the innovations which came to their head in 2003 are the symptom of a much deeper doctrinal and spiritual malaise, and that it is tragic that this has been allowed to develop in North America in particular (though elsewhere as well to a lesser extent) to the point where things that two generations ago were unthinkable to almost any Christians anywhere in the world are now not only thinkable but taught as necessary doctrines to be enforced (without irony; but then apart from Stephen Colbert there doesn’t seem to be that much irony in North America just now) with the full rigour of canonical and legal processes which were designed to protect, not to attack or undermine, biblical and theological orthodoxy. All this I have taken for granted. Those who know me personally have not, I think, ever doubted that this is where I stand.

Why then am I anxious about GAFCON even on a generous reading? And why have I been so critical of it once I heard what was said at All Souls last Tuesday, especially by the Archbishop of Sydney?

Basically, as I made crystal clear on the BBC ‘World at One’ programme last Thursday, there is an enormous difference between the USA situation and the English situation. Some of the leaders of GAFCON are trying to impose on England a regime whose only validity (if any) is that it offers an emergency measure for the situation in the USA and Canada.

The problem is that GAFCON is addressing (at least) three quite different issues:

  • a.The real, substantial and scandalous situation in the USA and Canada;
  • b.The African sense that it’s time for leadership to come from black Africa rather than white N Atlantic;
  • c.The belief among a VERY SMALL group of hard-line right-wing English evangelicals (including in Sydney, Australia) that they are called to take over the C of E by aggressive planting of new churches under the nose even of existing evangelical churches and bishops, and insisting that they are the only real ‘evangelicals’, that they alone are true to scripture.

What is happening is that the Archbishop of Sydney, and his English colleagues, are using the fact of (a) and the energy of (b) to advance their agenda on (c). I am objecting as strongly as I can to (c) since I believe it to be doctrinally and pastorally unwarranted and extremely dangerous even in the short and medium term, let alone in the long. These objections have nothing whatever to do with compromising the gospel or the ethical teaching of scripture.

The policy in question (as in (c)) was in fact well established long before Gene Robinson was even proposed as a bishop for New Hampshire. One of the policy’s key architects explained it to me enthusiastically early in 2003, and another highly influential figure stated it quite explicitly in a hand-out at the NEAC conference later that year. It has been energetically promoted not least e.g. through the illegal ordinations in Southwark.

The rhetoric of this policy has not changed since then. It was advanced in the so-called and abortive ‘Covenant for the Church of England’ put out in December 2006. It basically consists of three moves: (a) liberalism has taken over the Church of England/the Anglican Communion; (b) the present structures (Lambeth, Archbishop of Canterbury, etc.) are powerless and/or spineless and it’s no good looking to them for help; therefore (c) here is a new movement which offers protection to those persecuted by wicked bishops, and which will enable us to advance the gospel.

This analysis is hopelessly inaccurate as regards England. Once again, the English situation is NOT like America. (a) Of course there is something you can call ‘liberalism’, which has affected many parts of the church, but life is much more complicated and interesting, and actually hopeful, than the old, tired rhetoric of ‘creeping liberalism’ would allow for. Many of the theological teachers in our universities now occupy what one might call a ‘generous orthodox’ position. Our theological colleges are not dominated by the liberal agenda – some may be to some degree, but there is a wonderful doctrinal and practical health, indeed exuberance, about many of our colleges and training courses. Evangelical bishops – a phrase that was almost a contradiction in terms thirty years ago – are now to be found up and down the country, and they are working closely with orthodox bishops from the Catholic tradition, of whom again there are several. As I look around not only my own diocese but also the larger Church of England, I see many clergy and laity who are not from an ‘evangelical‘ stable but who are cheerfully preaching the gospel, working for God’s kingdom, saying their prayers and living lives of faithful holiness. Yes, there are huge problems in America, and they are of course reflected here and there in the C of E, but we are NOT AT ALL in the same situation. What I was objecting to strongly in my radio interview was the suggestion that English parishes now needed to ‘sign up’ to GAFCON – with the implication that all ‘sound’ people will do so, and that anyone who doesn’t is colluding with the liberalism of which the American revisionism is the main symptom. Some have questioned whether this implication is really present, and I want to assure them that it truly is – just as it was truly present in the GAFCON declaration itself. The response to my radio interview shows exactly what I mean: ‘here is someone questioning GAFCON: well, he has “chosen this day whom he will serve”, and it’s clearly the liberal agenda!’ The proper, technical term for this kind of behaviour is ‘bullying’: ‘we know what’s best, sign here or we’ll declare you to be beyond the pale’. Or perhaps it’s a protection racket: ‘we will look after you; just keep paying the subscription.’

Likewise, (b), the present structures are neither powerless nor spineless. The General Synod of the Church of England has not voted to allow same-sex blessings or the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Yes, such events have happened, and the problem is then partly that the bishops are hindered in their desire to exercise proper discipline by the new regulations (the ‘Clergy Discipline Measure’) which came in very recently and which is proving extremely difficult and problematic to operate. But the doctrinal and ethical teaching of the Church has not changed, and I see no prospect of it being changed in the near future.

As for leadership: nobody who has spent any time with +Rowan Williams will be able to accuse him either of woolly liberalism or of spiritual spinelessness. I know that some have criticized, even mocked, me and others for supporting him. All I can say is that I have spent plenty of time over my nearly 60 years with Christian leaders from many traditions and, though I have questioned some of the conclusions +Rowan draws and some of the policy judgments he has made, I remain convinced that he is one of the holiest and most remarkable Christians I have ever known and that God has indeed called him to lead us at this time. Certainly there isn’t anyone else who could do it. (And, to answer something people have been suggesting, he is more than a year younger than I am, and I expect to retire some while before he does!) As to the structures, we wait to see whether the Lambeth Conference will ‘deliver the goods’ or not. +Rowan’s initial desire not to have too many ‘statements’ stemmed from the belief that it is not healthy to spend three weeks in ‘parliamentary’ style debates, and the sense he had from going around the Communion that there was no appetite to re-open the question of Lambeth 1998 1.10. It is bizarre to have this interpreted as a desire to alter that teaching. Yes, the ‘Windsor process’ has not done what many of us wanted (another footnote: I do wish people would stop implying that I wrote the whole Windsor Report! I didn’t. Source critics are right to detect my hand in various sections but I guess at most I wrote about 1/5 of it, probably less.) Yes, the ‘covenant’ draft has not so far reached a point where I am convinced it will do what we urgently need it to do. Yes, I and some other ‘Windsor’ authors did assume that what we had said would mean that those who had consecrated Gene Robinson (or who had authorised same-sex blessings) would not be invited to Lambeth, and the initial invitations, by stating that Windsor and the Covenant were the criteria for Lambeth, seemed to me to be designed to get at that by a different route. (There was of course a problem, in that some of the ‘consecrators’ had retired, and new bishops had arrived who had not consecrated Robinson but would have done had they been bishops at the time; but this category has too many grey areas to be easily dealt with.) I understand the disappointment over what has happened, including the remarkable non-appearance of key ‘letters’ which I was assured were about to be sent out (and which have been replaced by telephone conversations). But the key point is this: several of the GAFCON architects have a long-standing and oft-expressed vested interest in Lambeth failing, because they need point (b) to be true if they are to be able to advance their plan (c): but to help Lambeth to fail by telling key ‘orthodox’ bishops that they should not attend it is the worst kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

The point is this: global Anglicanism has never had, and still does not have, ANY mechanisms for enabling anyone, Canterbury or anyone else, to ‘intervene’ in another province. I’ve said it before and say it again: the Archbishop of Canterbury is not the CEO of Anglicanism plc; he cannot walk down the hall and fire people (which seems to be what some American bishops can do in their dioceses; believe me, my American/Canadian friends, it doesn’t work like that here in England, or globally!). The reason the Windsor Report was commissioned in the first place was precisely because we don’t have structures that could deal with the present appalling situation, and we quickly concluded that the only way we could work towards such things was to build on what we already had, i.e. Lambeth, ACC, Primates and the Archbishop himself. I know, and the Archbishop has said, that the present structures and their present way of working are not adequate. That is why Lambeth needs to chart ways of reforming them. But that urgent and necessary task is made much, much harder, both by the extraordinary proposals for a different way altogether and by the refusal on the part of some leaders to allow their bishops to come to Lambeth to help the great many orthodox bishops who are going to be there working flat out for the gospel-based, Bible-based and Kingdom-based way forward – which is what +Rowan Williams has invited us to do.

And so to (c). When I hear Peter Jensen say that ‘we are not self-selected; we are God-selected, because we are based on the word of God’; when I hear beloved and respected Jim Packer say that the ‘Jerusalem Declaration’ should be the basis of a new covenant to which all English bishops will be required to sign up; when I hear Vinay Samuel, one of the sharpest minds in the whole GAFCON movement, saying (unless he was misreported) that ‘we are not breaking away from the Anglican Communion – we ARE the Anglican Communion’; and when I see Bishop John Rodgers of AMiA saying that ‘we are the true and faithful Anglicans . . . the true representatives of the Anglican Communion’ – then it is time for someone, and it might as well be an old-fashioned Bible-believing evangelical like me, to stand up and say , with usual English understatement, ‘hold on, this seems to be somewhat over the top’. Just as the ‘covenant for the Church of England’ bore all the marks of sloppy thinking and hasty drafting, so the ‘Jerusalem Declaration’, though affirming more or less the doctrines that I myself have spent my whole adult life affirming and teaching, bears all the marks of similar haste. In addition to its embarrassingly obvious weaknesses, it has smuggled in, alongside the doctrinal affirmations, various open-ended formulae which basically mean ‘We will decide who’s in this new club and who’s out of it, and if we decide you’re out we claim the right to plant new churches in your territory, “authorize” them, and send in bishops to look after them’. This is not a ‘suspicious’ reading; it is more or less exactly what the text says. And I say to my fellow evangelicals in the Church of England: do not be taken in by this. This is not the answer. There are good answers to such problems as we face and this is not among them. There is such a thing, alive and well in our church, as sound, lively, wise biblical teaching and preaching. America may need drastic action: we most certainly do not. This is why I spoke in my radio interview of GAFCON taking a global sledgehammer to crack the American nut.

And I say to my American friends: please do not alienate the great majority of English evangelicals by implying that unless we sign up to something which makes no sense in our own context we are somehow failing to support you in your own dire need. Nothing that I have said pulls me back from agreeing that the situation in US and Canada is appalling, that same-sex blessings and ordination of practising homosexuals is an anti-scriptural scandal symptomatic of major theological and exegetical unAnglican innovation, and that we urgently need to address this whole situation. But I do wish some US right-wingers would realise that the US and the UK are not the same place, that England has NOT done ANY of the key things the US church has done (i.e. our Synod has not voted to depart from traditional ethics at all), and that there are completely different agendas running here. This can be seen from the fact that the small-but-loud English group are extremely low-church and anti-social-justice-as-part-of-the-gospel, whereas most of the American reasserters are high-church with strong social concern as part of their kingdom-theology. This is a coalition held together with string, which always indicates that some people at least are in it for the power they may gain in their own situations.

I am grateful for the many affirmations I have had of friendship, prayer and support at this extremely difficult time. I ask those who have jumped to the wrong conclusions about what I wrote and said to ponder carefully the radically different situations that exist in different parts of the world, to look beyond their own horizons and see that what they are eager to embrace as a solution to their own pressing difficulties may well create other difficulties in other countries. Yes, we need to solve the American and Canadian problems. Yes, we need the wonderful and exuberant African energy as we take forward God’s mission in the next generation. But no, GAFCON is not the answer. Especially not here in England.

Bishop N. T. Wright

July 6 2008

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