Anglican diversity and unity
A frequently heard testimony from many white, Western Anglicans attending previous global Gafcon gatherings, is a discovery for the first time of a rich diversity of cultural expression within a shared unity based on a biblical world view and agreed understanding of the gospel. As our local churches become more racially diverse, most of us are learning to appreciate new ways of worshipping and hospitality, and new insights into the bible, from those who previously would not have been considered part of our ‘tribe’.
Gafcon seeks to encourage as much unity among Christians as possible, especially within the global Anglican family, given maximum diversity within biblical boundaries.
On the other hand, when there is no longer a possibility of unity, because one group is for example consistently denying clear biblical truth, Gafcon stands with those who sadly see the necessity of a visible break in fellowship, and rejection of the spiritual authority of heretical leadership.
There are three clauses in the Jerusalem Declaration which explain this concept of unity in diversity, which uses differentiation if necessary to preserve authentic faith:
- We are committed to the unity of all those who know and love Christ and to building authentic ecumenical relationships. We recognise the orders and jurisdiction of those Anglicans who uphold orthodox faith and practice, and we encourage them to join us in this declaration.
- We celebrate the God-given diversity among us which enriches our global fellowship, and we acknowledge freedom in secondary matters. We pledge to work together to seek the mind of Christ on issues that divide us.
- We reject the authority of those churches and leaders who have denied the orthodox faith in word or deed. We pray for them and call on them to repent and return to the Lord.
The word ‘ecumenical’ was hijacked by theological liberals, for example in the World Council of Churches in the 1960’s and 70’s, to mean “lowest common denominator” Christianity. The word ‘interdenominational’ has been more commonly used by bible-believing Christians. But ecumenical is a good word. It comes from the Greek word oikos, originally meaning the firepit or hearth around which the extended family gathers, and then coming to mean the family itself, or the household.
New Testament writers used oikos to mean the local church, gathered around the spiritual hearth of word and sacrament, and the universal church, the wider family of God.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household …Eph 2:19
The unity exists, bought by Christ, but we need to make every effort to build and keep the unity of the spirit with all Christians, defined in JD 11 as “those who know and love Christ”. A clear definition of authentic biblical faith has already been outlined in the earlier clauses of JD.
Anglicans in fellowship despite disagreement
From an expression of commitment to unity in general, clause 11 then focuses on unity among confessing Anglicans, and specifically recognition of ordination in other jurisdictions. Once the principle was established that true Anglicanism does not come through Canterbury or affiliation with a specific group or organisation, but through shared Christian faith as defined by the Scriptures, that makes genuine fellowship and mutual recognition much easier.
Clause 12 opens up the reality of diversity in God’s church, not glossing over or discouraging the things that make us different, celebrating what should be a colourful variety rather than a bland uniformity, acknowledging that there are things on which we differ and where there could be division.
There’s an excellent exposition of this in the book ‘Being Faithful’, pages 61-62, on the goodness of God-given diversity in the church as in creation, and the need to recognise limits of diversity. How do we know what opinions and practices are legitimate, and what might go beyond what’s acceptable? How do we know what are primary and secondary issues? How do we resolve differences over matters which might be secondary but generating strong feelings and convictions? Article 20 of the 39 articles is helpful here: “It is not lawful for the church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s word written, and neither may the church expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.”
There is humility in clause 12 of the JD. It’s recognising that there are some secondary matters which aren’t cut and dried, and maybe we can learn something from engaging in mutual worship, prayer, discussion and witness with others from different cultural and church backgrounds. We don’t just learn from what others do right, but in a different way; we also learn from what we get frustrated about because we think they’re doing it wrong!
Serious disagreement – what then?
But Christian unity is only meaningful if there is some kind of boundary marking what is Christian from what is not. So, clause 13 says that where there is serious error and heresy in the church, it’s not enough to simply re-state the truth and be left with competing plural truths in the same church. There must be a spiritual separation. However, it's clearly a very serious thing to get to the point of saying to another person claiming to be a Christian, that unity has been strained or broken. It is particularly costly to say to those superior to you in status and institutional authority, that they are in grave error and spiritual communion no longer exists. Who or what gives us the right to judge another person like that? Doesn’t Jesus warn against it? In Anglican terms, you’re rejecting the authority of a bishop, so essentially you are in rebellion. Can that ever be right?
The Anglicans from all over the world who composed and endorsed clause 13 of the JD, were not dealing with an abstract theory. They were responding to practical painful realities, especially in North America at that time, where the Anglican leadership authorised blessing of same sex relationships and removed historically-agreed boundaries around sexual behaviour for clergy and bishops – a situation we have now reached in the Church of England (see News).
In setting out clause 13, the first Gafcon meeting agreed:
- The bible is a higher authority than church structures.
- Any decision to reject a bishop’s spiritual authority should be not just an individual decision but part of a corporate process whereby the global church agrees that a line has been crossed, or usually many lines on primary issues have been repeatedly crossed.
- Separation is sometimes necessary to protect the flock and to ensure the continuation of faithful mission.
But ‘Being Faithful’ is very helpful in giving some checks and balances when making the sad and desperate decision to separate from ungodly spiritual leadership. Here are some:
Self-examination: are our attitudes and motives godly?
- Have we explained our decision clearly?
- Have we taken time to pray and consult?
- Has there been a call to repentance, and ongoing prayer for this?
- Is separation a last resort, not an immediate expression of anger?
- Have we come under new godly authority ie not independence?
- Is there a positive purpose: prophetic voice and mission?
In the short sentences of clauses 11-13 of the Jerusalem Declaration, Gafcon gives a great summary of the benefits of Anglican and wider Christian unity, the need to actively pursue what God has already given, how we can celebrate and learn from diversity, but at the same time recognise together with others the clear limits to diversity of belief and behaviour. Then, there is the need to take action to protect people from false teachers, and ensure it’s the saving gospel of Christ we’re sharing and not our own views.