Has the GAFCON communique made the right pitch for the relationship between Western Anglican churches and Western culture? I suggest not.
Working from some analysis (at the foot of this post) I suggest the communique represents an approach to Western Anglican churches which encourages conservative churches to focus on their purity of doctrine and practice at the expense of their mission. This is a gaffe because we cannot afford such mistakes in the West = Zone of Christian Decline.
We have been told that the original communique draft had a very explicit mention of Western culture, in negative terms. That the explicit reference has been removed from the final version is good, but it does not alter the implications which remain in the communique, that Western culture is horribly diseased and from this disease the church has become infected with biblical unfaithfulness and a false gospel.
It is a short step from such thinking to offering support for biblically faithful churches adhering to the true gospel, even where those Anglican churches are outside the normative structures of churches such as the Church of England. At precisely such a point, however, an emphasis falls on the purifying of the church, decontaminating it from the false gospel induced by Western culture. It is an attractive option to pursue as no one in their ideal mind wants to be part of an apostate church.
What is overlooked in the communique in my view is that no matter how we evaluate Western culture, for we Western Anglicans it is our culture and it is the only culture in which we live, move and have our evangelical being. In particular, it is the culture of our mission field. If this culture is tolerant of changes in sexual behaviour (both straight and gay) and the church has become infected by that tolerance, nevertheless it is to such a tolerant people that we are commanded to preach the gospel.
Are we to say to our fellow Westerners, 'Your tolerance of fellow human beings working out how to love one another is evil'? That does not strike me as a good way to make evangelistic conversation. Nor does it strike me as the way Paul and others conducted their apostolic mission in the Hellenistic pleasure grounds of the Mediterranean towns and cities. Yet when we establish and encourage churches whose sole distinction (when all is boiled down to basics) is their anti-current-attitudes-to-homosexuality, are we not being party to saying to our fellow Westerners, 'Your tolerance etc is evil. Actually, you are part of evil in our society'?
It is good to purify the church but purification of the church does not take place in a vacuum. History teaches us (as does contemporary observation of, say, the Exclusive Brethren) that the purer the church the further away from connection with society it places itself.
In the particular instance of concerns over homosexuality we Westerners no longer live in a culture which vilifies homosexuals. Our culture does not rejoice that the church's attitudes to homosexuality seem stuck in the 1950s or even 1850s. We live in a culture which loves, welcomes and supports homosexuals and is completely mystified by what is perceived as opposition and antagonism to homosexuals. To preach the gospel in such cultural conditions requires great care.
Yes, we must be faithful to the truth revealed in Scripture and taught in the tradition of the church. But Scripture also presents us with the example of the greatest evangelist, Paul, who sought to be a Jew to the Jews and a Gentile to the Gentiles, that is, minimised cultural barriers to the gospel being heard. I do not see how forming Anglican churches whose point of distinctiveness is a specific approach to homosexuality at odds with surrounding society minimises cultural barriers to hearing the gospel.
It is not as though we are forming churches whose point of distinction is promotion of lifestyle at odds with the material affluence encouraged by Western culture. As a commenter on a recent post points out, one feels like saying something when a church family takes off for an overseas holiday while the church is trying to raise funds for a school in South Sudan but for (what can only be cultural reasons) one does not speak up.
It would be quite a barrier to the hearing of the gospel if it was clear to hearers that when they convert to Christ they will sell not just one of their houses but all of them and bring the proceeds to the Vestry for dispersal among the poor. Yet, if cultural distinctiveness should be a feature of Anglican churches, does not Scripture point us in that direction?
Where is the deep thinking within the communique which justifies emphasis on homosexuality as the contemporary form of cultural infection of Western Anglican churches rather than on greed and selfishness?
What GAFCON's communique misses is that Western cultural is nuanced on matters of sexuality. Imagine for a moment if the concern of our day was tolerance of pornography in the life of the church (wait, someone is going to send me statistics about pastors' addiction to pornography!). Clearly we live in a culture which tolerates pornography and allows it to be widely available, especially in these days of the internet. Even more clearly then, tolerance of pornography in the life of the church would be an infection of church life by Western culture. But here is the thing: Western culture tolerates pornography but is simultaneously uncomfortable with its own tolerance. Thus we have ongoing discussions about pornography: how can we curb access to it by (say) teenagers? Is it not demeaning to women, often involving commercial exploitation?
In such a context, for the church to say, in a reasonable manner, laying out the issues, connecting them to society's discomfort, that it is against pornography presents no cultural barrier to the proclamation of the gospel.
Homosexuality is not the same phenomenon. Western society sees no problems with same sex partnerships providing they are conducted with the same decorum as expected of heterosexual partnerships. Sympathy lies with homosexuals. When the church lays out a reasonable explanation for why it does not support same sex partnerships it strikes no common accord with social discomfort about homosexuality. Rather at best it receives quizzical looks from uncomprehending people; at worst it receives virulent criticism with unveiled language about bigotry, homophobia and antediluvian attitudes. Of this subtle differentiation in Western culture between (in the church's eyes) one sexual sin and another, the GAFCON communique offers no recognition.
GAFCON arguably has not done Western Anglicanism many favours by issuing this communique. It has encouraged some Anglicans to believe that they are on the right track by separating off from churches they do not agree with. But the track is a dead end if the disagreement is over homosexuality and GAFCON would have been more helpful by pointing that out.
To focus on unfaithfulness to the gospel in the limited way it has done means that GAFCON may have bought into a church focused understanding of church: if the church is impure, separate off the pure church and be happy.
Better, more faithful to Jesus, would be to encourage the church to have a mission focused understanding of church. In this focus the emphasis falls less on distinctive purity separating the church off from society and more on engagement with social reality.
The great Communion question of today is, How can the global fellowship of Anglicans assist the Western Anglican churches, living in a diseased culture, infected itself by the culture?
The answer is not, If you separate, we will support you.
The answer is, We will support you with understanding and sympathy as your infected churches engage with your diseased culture; we will applaud you as you work out how gospel proclamation in the West works with cultural realities; we urge you to minimise cultural barriers to the proclamation and we assure you of our understanding if that minimisation looks different to the minimisation we ourselves engage in when evangelising in places such as Africa, Asia, Oceania, and South America.
Has GAFCON's communique gaffed on the matter of gospel and culture?
Supportive analysis for above comments:
There is no doubt that GAFCON/GFCA as a movement of Anglicans remains highly concerned about Western attitudes to homosexuality. The Nairobi Communique places the reason for GAFCON's beginnings near the beginning of the communique:
"In 2008, the first GAFCON was convened in order to counter a false gospel which was spreading throughout the Communion. This false gospel questioned the uniqueness of Christ and his substitutionary death, despite the Bible’s clear revelation that he is the only way to the Father (John 14:6). It undermined the authority of God’s Word written. It sought to mask sinful behaviour with the language of human rights. It promoted homosexual practice as consistent with holiness, despite the fact that the Bible clearly identifies it as sinful. A crisis point was reached in 2003 when a man in an active same-sex relationship was consecrated bishop in the USA. In the years that followed, there were repeated attempts to resolve the crisis within the Communion, none of which succeeded. To the contrary, the situation worsened with further defiance. As a response to the crisis, we adopted The Jerusalem Statement and Declaration which commits us to biblical faithfulness, and has since provided the framework for renewed Anglican orthodoxy to which we, in all our different traditions – Evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics and Charismatics – are committed. We also formed the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (GFCA)."
There are concerns in the communique about social, economic, political issues such as poverty but Western attitudes to homosexuality receive as much if not more attention than any other issues:
"We grieve that several national governments, aided by some church leaders, have claimed to redefine marriage and have turned same-sex marriage into a human rights issue. Human rights, we believe, are founded on a true understanding of human nature, which is that we are created in God’s image, male and female such that a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife (Matthew 19:6; Ephesians 5:31). We want to make clear that any civil partnership of a sexual nature does not receive the blessing of God. We continue to pray for and offer pastoral support to Christians struggling with same-sex temptation who remain celibate in obedience to Christ and affirm them in their faithfulness."
The concepts of supporting 'biblical faithfulness' or combatting 'false gospel' is important to the communique's setting out of the reasons for the continuing work of GAFCON, including cross-jurisdictional support of faithful Anglicans in areas subject to false leadership. On 'false gospel' we can read among the priorities of GAFCON,
"Guarding the gospel. We shall continue publicly to expose any false gospel that is not consistent with apostolic teaching and clearly to articulate the gospel in the church and in the world."
But if we ask what 'false gospel' is at stake, it is hard to find much evidence in the communique of concerns other than about attitudes to homosexuality. Although the first paragraph cited above describes, "a false gospel which was spreading throughout the Communion. This false gospel questioned the uniqueness of Christ and his substitutionary death," 20th century Anglicanism entertained questions about the uniqueness of Christ and whether his death was substitutionary for a long time without provoking a reaction such as GAFCON. I think it reasonable to deduce that the crunch point over a 'false gospel' in the life of the Communion is homosexuality: "It promoted homosexual practice as consistent with holiness, despite the fact that the Bible clearly identifies it as sinful."
Finally, here re text, with the exception of the Diocese of Recife in Brazil, references to biblical (un)faithfulness, false gospel, appear aimed at Anglican situations in the West. England, for instance, is singled out with a paragraph of its own:
"We commit ourselves to the support and defence of those who in standing for apostolic truth are marginalized or excluded from formal communion with other Anglicans in their dioceses. We have therefore recognized the Anglican Mission in England (AMiE) as an expression of authentic Anglicanism both for those within and outside the Church of England, and welcomed their intention to appoint a General Secretary of AMiE.