Gafcon's message: that churches must return to the plain meaning of scripture, even at the risk of institutions
A lofty pair of bombproof towers that rise out of the parched ground of a concrete suburb, the Renaissance Ramada Hotel and Convention Centre hardly bespeaks the romance and piety Christian pilgrims come to Jerusalem to find. Nonetheless, it was here that conservative Anglicans gathered in the final week of June for a major ecclesiastical reform.
The Global Anglican Future Conference – Gafcon – was in many ways the culmination of a decade that has polarised the mostly latitudinarian, liberal Anglicans of the West and biblically orthodox, evangelical “believers” of the Global South. The latter are boycotting the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference, which convened on July 16. It is, as expected, the most sparsely attended since the event’s inception in 1867.
The conservatives’ decision to hold Gafcon in Jerusalem was a telling indication of where they locate their authority. By day, some 1,200 pilgrims – including nearly 300 bishops, mostly from African dioceses – boarded a fleet of pleasantly air-conditioned tour buses to explore the roots of their faith. They disembarked to pray at Gethsemane, to sing at Bethesda (the site on Mount Zion where Peter baptised early followers of Christ) and to hear sermons at Galilee. The message was that churches must return to the plain meaning of scripture, even at the risk of institutions.
Journalists from the major British dailies went along to a number of these events, which, faithfully reported, would have yielded headlines like “Anglicans Affirm Christ as One True God – Has Implications for Church Structure”. Alas, they were not so reported, and in reading the reports, one is left with the impression that the conservatives sat around all week talking about nothing besides homosexuality and the ordination of women. These things, the conventional wisdom insists, is what this schism is all about.
Yet the schism is really much more fundamental. The African Anglicans and their allies see in Christianity a confessing faith and a universally – and exclusively – redeeming God, whose eternal status is imbued with dogmas and incontrovertible meanings of scripture. In Western secular cultures, this unction seems ever more out of place. The big story of Gafcon is the lengths to which African bishops were willing to go in affirming this orthodox version of Christianity.
The press corps seemed to find all of this a little dull or antiquarian. Reporters strained to excavate the gay angle, an enterprise that took on comedic proportions as the week progressed. Serendipitously, Jerusalem’s Gay Pride parade was to be held on Thursday, while Gafcon pilgrims were “workshopping” in the hotel. On learning this, the press room came alive. The organisers, too, were anxious and security around the hotel was doubled. But no disturbance came to pass.
The rather subdued parade never came near the hotel. At its starting line in Independence Park, the Gafcon press pool searched fruitlessly for Christian pilgrims in the crowd. There was one: an English reverend wearing, with self-aware irony, a bright pink shirt. The BBC’s Robert Pigott made a beeline for him, and finagled an interview with this lonely Anglican. The next day, one could find a story headlined “Anglican rebels clash with gay march” on the Beeb’s website.
Meanwhile, The Guardian’s Riazat Butt seemed more interested in British interlocutors at Gafcon than in the event’s African movers and shakers – and only then to subject them to a line of questioning that was combative, unilluminating and at times completely out of line. After Michael Nazir-Ali, Bishop of Rochester, released a modest statement citing reasons of personal “conscience” for not attending the Lambeth Conference, Ms Butt wondered aloud if this was not an act of “religious snobbery”. She asked: “Are you saying they [bishops who are attending] have fewer principles than you?”
But upstairs, something momentous was happening. Gafcon’s concluding event, a Communion service on the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul, managed to make even the drab ballroom come alive. Peter Jensen, the archbishop of Sydney and one of the most prominent “Westerners” at the event, took the dais to say: “The chaos of the Anglican Communion is about to receive a dose of order.” The Ugandan choir struck up the boisterous Swahili hymn Shetani akiniona anatetemeka (When Satan sees me, he trembles) and the gathered 1,000 broke into a spirited dance. Leaders of the movement crowded around a podium and signed a Statement of Principles, which lays out “the way forward”.
Three significant assertions, each revolutionary, emerge from the text. The declaration claims first, that there is nothing of inherent authority or importance in the see at Canterbury and its Archbishop. Second, it announces a new church will be organised in North America as a formal rival to the US and Canadian branches of the Anglican Communion. (Until now, some 200 to 300 American churches, including the august Virginia church where George Washington served in the vestry, have affiliated on an ad hoc basis with African dioceses.) Finally, and perhaps most controversially, the Gafcon primates executed an ecclesiastical coup, asserting themselves to be an authoritative power, when in council, by virtue of their orthodoxy.
Rowan Williams, sensing urgency, responded by questioning the legitimacy of a “few” bishops acting as soi-disant authorities. There is little factual basis to claim that Gafcon represents a small minority of the church claiming undue rights. While only seven out of the communion’s 38 primates have signed on to the Jerusalem Declaration, as Gafcon’s final statement of principles is titled, their churches represent some 43m Anglicans out of an estimated total of 62m or 77m worldwide – a clear majority, no matter whose numbers are being used.
The Lambeth Conference, which would have seemed the logical location for such a coup, is merely a gathering of bishops. These prelates’ relationship to numbers of churchgoers is tenuous and becoming more so with every year. There are, for instance, 109 dioceses of the US Episcopal Church, which has a membership of 2.1m and shrinking, while Kenya has a mere 29 dioceses with more than double the “active baptised membership”. At Lambeth, unsurprisingly, liberals have attracted the support of more bishops than the conservatives, weighted as their numbers are to the West, but in Gafcon they have already lost much of the church.