Should we all join the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans?

Should we all join the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans?

by Andrew Goddard

The Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FCA) launches in the UK on 6th July, just over a year after it was formed at the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem At that time I was unclear what to make of GAFCON and appealed to the Gamaliel Principle – ‘“Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men” Why? Because “if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God”’.

GAFCON’s initial seriously flawed response to the Anglican Covenant did not bode well but since then the Primates’ Council has been more careful and cautious in their statements and most recently Stephen Noll was encouragingly positive about the final Ridley draft. This last week has also seen the launch of the other major development called for at GAFCON – a new province in North America, the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA). This significant development has received statements with varying degrees of support from not only those aligned with GAFCON but wider Global South leaders such as Archbishops John Chew and Mouneer Anis and a number of leading Church of England bishops.

FCA presents itself as a broad coalition of charismatic, evangelical and Anglo-Catholic Anglicans committed to orthodoxy and mission. This in some ways echoes the Essentials movement in Canada (which many have hoped might someday find a Church of England equivalent) though the present reality of FCA does not appear as broadly representative as this rhetoric implies. FCA is also clearly a confessional movement with the Jerusalem Declaration as its basis and, although I have concerns about aspects of the content and context of that Declaration, it is one with which I am in broad agreement. Certainly I consider myself in close fellowship with many of those who are prominent supporters of FCA but I am concerned that its launch could cause greater separation between us.

So why have I only decided to attend the launch but not to join?

There are for me - and I suspect for many others - still a number of major questions about FCA which remain unanswered. I would highlight the following six.

First, why launch FCA now in the Church of England?

There is, at present, no widespread sense that this new initiative is a necessity for Anglicans to be faithful and maintain fellowship within the Church of England and with the churches of the Communion. The Church of England is not exactly short of fellowships and groupings committed to orthodox faith and morals – CEEC, Fulcrum, Anglican Mainstream, Forward in Faith, Reform, Church Society, New Wine etc etc. Why do we need something new? I know that FCA has had a much wider and warmer welcome in Scotland, Wales and Ireland where there is not such strength and organisation as in England. Part of the attraction of FCA and GAFCON is to offer support to friends in those provinces some of whom are concerned that significant elements of their church’s leadership are increasingly aligned with TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada and may soon treat them as the orthodox have been treated in those provinces. There is, however, very little evidence of such an environment or such imminent dangers within the Church of England.

The low turnout at some of the local meetings to launch FCA last month and the recent evidence of a strong last-minute push to get people to sign up for the national launch are perhaps signs confirming that there is not at present a widespread felt need for such a fellowship in the Church of England, just as there was not massive support for the Covenant for the Church of England which many of those evangelicals involved in FCA drew up two and a half years ago. Certainly, even if a significant number of people do join FCA they are only ever likely to be a minority of the large numbers within the Church of England who are committed to orthodox faith and morals and Anglican teaching on sexuality. The challenge then is for FCA to respect the discernment of others who do not think it right to join them at this time, to find ways of working with them or persuading them in due course to join FCA, and to ensure FCA’s launch and development do not introduce divisions into the broader majority viewpoint or lead to FCA claiming to speak and act on behalf of more than it genuinely represents.

Second, and related to the first question, what will FCA do in practice and is it schismatic?

FCA have emphatically denied they are schismatic. Paul Perkin has said “It is not a separatist party” and I believe this assurance and hope others will also accept it in good faith. There remain, however, two concerns related to issues spoken of in terms of schism and separation.

The first concern is that Chris Sugden at NEAC clearly stated, ‘We will keep formal administrative links with the formal Church of England, but our real identity is with Global Anglicanism as defined by the Jerusalem statement and declaration. GAFCON is our connection to the Global Anglican Communion’. This suggests that aligning with FCA is self-consciously to distance oneself from the structures of the Church of the England and the Instruments and to view FCA as one’s primary ecclesial identity. Is this FCA’s stance towards the Church of England and the Communion and what does such a distinction between “formal administrative links” and “real identity” means in practice?

The second concern is that although FCA as a fellowship may not be a separatist party it is clear that it includes and is supportive of some who have already separated (people such as Charles Raven in Kidderminster and Tony Jones in Durham) and others such as Richard Coekin who have come very close to doing so in the past and may well push the envelope further in the future. It appears likely that these people will want FCA to distance itself from at least parts of the Church of England and will seek to move FCA in a more separatist direction. The danger is that FCA - even if it as a whole does not officially follow a “separatist” path - will give legitimacy and provide cover for any of its members who do effectively separate. It remains unclear to what extent FCA wishes to provide a forum for genuine discussion and discernment among the broadest coalition of the orthodox in situations of conflict. Does it seek to act as a wider fellowship to which those who are most discontent will be able to bring their concerns and from which they will receive fellowship and support but to which they also will in some sense be accountable? The concern is that it will simply support those who sign up to it however they conduct themselves in relation to the authority structures of the Church of England and the separatist tail will end up wagging the officially non-separatist dog.

Third, and following on from this, how is FCA being financed and governed?

It is clear that much planning, money and organisation has gone into the launch of FCA but it is still not clear who is currently directing and funding the fellowship or how those who join will be given a voice within it. Evangelicals sadly do not always have a good track-record when it comes to issues of power. The strong activist gene within evangelical DNA means that “leadership” in movements often claim to speak for a large group (some FCA publicity is now claiming it represents 70% or even 80% of the Communion) while not always being marked by genuine listening and collaboration or acknowledging the diversity within the constituency. Those of us who still have some serious questions about certain tendencies within GAFCON and FCA are therefore most likely to remain on the outside as friends who sometimes raise critical voices unless it is clear that questioning voices are genuinely welcome within the Fellowship and its constitutional structures and political realities are such that power is not being concentrated in the hands of a few men whose political agendas will be carried out in the name of the Fellowship as a whole.

Fourth, reference to “a few men” raises one of the most difficult questions of all in relation to FCA: what place is there in the Fellowship for women clergy and supporters of women’s ministry at every level of the church?

Here is where the claims to be a broad coalition and any parallels with Essentials Canada are currently hard to believe. Although it is claimed that women’s ordination is recognised as a “second-order” issue within FCA, many of those most associated with FCA are committed to “male headship” as clear biblical teaching and are firmly opposed to both women priests and women bishops. The concern is that one major factor in uniting those evangelicals and anglo-Catholics currently in FCA is apparently their shared opposition to these developments. Over half the speakers advertised for the launch - both anglo-Catholic and evangelical – are committed to the minority integrity but there is not a single ordained woman speaking (there is only one woman among the 12 speakers on the FCA brochure) or prominent in the Fellowship.

The extent to which there can really be fundamental long-term harmony between Reform and Forward in Faith (given their major ecclesiological, liturgical and sacramental differences and the lay presidency sub-culture in parts of one constituency and the gay sub-culture in parts of the other) is a question that must be being asked within both those groupings but there is an even more important set of questions for most evangelicals: If the FCA is correct in its analysis that there is a need for a confessing fellowship in the Church of England because it could soon be headed down the perilous path of TEC, why do they appear so unconcerned that they are not viewed as a welcoming and nourishing place by the many orthodox women priests who share their opposition to such a development? Are evangelicals fully supportive of women’s ministry really as welcome in FCA as Anglo-Catholics opposed to it? Is it surprising - given its public face and most vocal supporters - that many looking in from the outside see FCA as a new alliance which will be resolute in opposing women bishops and create more places where ordained women and their gifts will not be welcome, no matter how orthodox and mission-minded the ordained women are?

Fifth, can FCA be fully supportive of those who remain in TEC and ACC?

FCA’s total and apparently unreserved and unquestioning commitment to the creation of ACNA, the new American province, fuels concerns that it too will ultimately embrace such a path. Current denials are thus viewed by many either as a sign of its duplicity or, more charitably, its lack of self-awareness as to the consequences of its current stance. It must not be forgotten that at its launch the Anglican Communion Network was rejecting of separatism and reportedly most American Anglican Council (AAC) members remain within TEC. Nevertheless, much of the Network and AAC leadership are now bishops and leaders in the new province. Essentials Canada found itself divided between the majority Essentials Federation (committed to staying within the Anglican Church of Canada) and Essentials Network which is now part of ACNA and with two of its leaders slated to be consecrated as new bishops. Continued fellowship with those in ACNA is important for evangelicals in the Church of England and FCA clearly offers a means of achieving this but if FCA does not also recognise that most faithful Anglicans in North America have purposefully not taken this route and that they – in bodies such as the Communion Partners - also require support and encouragement then many in the Church of England will not be able to join FCA.

Sixth, and finally, how can those of us who long for unity and fellowship with those in FCA have these and other questions engaged with constructively by FCA’s leadership?

The sad impression of the last year is that those most committed to GAFCON and FCA are determined to press ahead with their vision and, convinced by their own rhetoric and rightness, to ignore or dismiss those who are unwilling to follow their lead. NEAC5 demonstrated widespread unease about aspects of GAFCON and FCA but no serious attempt has been made to address these by those who have now proceeded to launch FCA in the UK. The majority of evangelical bishops remain at best cautious or sceptical about this development but there appears to have been no attempt to consult with them or take on board their concerns.

At NEAC5 it was clear that there were those already convinced about GAFCON and FCA – many of them having been in Jerusalem or close to those who were – but that the majority was not as yet persuaded. The presentations on the day from GAFCON supporters preached to and roused the converted but left many others at best unconvinced and at worst further alienated and concerned. Rather than learning from their failure to win a majority on that day, FCA appears to have continued with the same conviction that passionate selling of its diagnosis and itself as the remedy will be sufficient to win people over. It does not appear to recognise that this rallying of the core troops in fact often has the opposite effect on those looking in from outside or the margins. It appears unable or unwilling to understand why some of us who have so much in common with its commitments feel unable to throw ourselves whole-heartedly into its plans yet long to find a way of engaging constructively with them rather than simply opposing them.

It may be that FCA’s calling is to launch now as a small tight-knit fellowship of the whole-heartedly committed who feel most alienated by developments in the Church of England and Anglican Communion over recent years (including women’s leadership) and who want to form a body of the like-minded on how to pursue their concerns politically. In that case it is clearly not the place for me and the only question is whether it can relate to people like me in a constructive rather than destructive manner.

Given what I know of many of those involved, however, I think its hope and vision is to be much more than that:

a genuine mission-minded fellowship of

  • all those who see in the Jerusalem Declaration’s account of Anglicanism a vision which they share
  • all who are concerned at the Communion’s recent inability to effect discipline and seek the Instruments’ reform and
  • all who are determined that the innovations in TEC and ACC should not be embraced in other provinces.

In that case, it could be a place for me and others currently keeping their distance. That’s why I hope that some way can be found to address seriously genuine questions both to and from FCA about their plans and reactions to them. What is needed is a way to wrestle with these together and build up trust so that FCA can establish good relationships with those of us who do not wish GAFCON or FCA ill and who are open to working with or even within it but who fear that at present in the Church of England the way it is developing risks it becoming more of a future problem for evangelical Anglicans and the wider church rather than, as it claims, the promising solution.

The Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is Tutor in Christian Ethics at Trinity College, Bristol and on the leadership team of Fulcrum

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