I was quite flippant about GAFCON (the Global Anglican Future CONference) in my last post. The thing is, while I acknowledge that this is something that will bore or bemuse the vast majority, I think it is actually a hugely significant event.
The BBC and the broadsheets certainly think so. Dave Walker, over at the church times, shows some of the huge amount of press comment being generated on this at the moment.
The BBC especially love to talk up disharmony in the Anglican church. last night we had Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark Cathedral, who does for the left what Chris Sugden is for the right of the communion. Between them Auntie can pretty much guarantee that someone will get slagged off, insulted, or described as heretical. Why we never hear moderate, nuanced Anglican voices on PM or Newsnight I don’t know, but then I guess there is nothing a liberal, atheistic media would love more than a real schism in the state church.
So, why does GAFCON matter? Well, despite the fact that the end result of this conference may not be what the commentators are hoping, the fact that GAFCON is happening at all is momentous. The Anglican Church has historically managed to tread a difficult tightrope, maintaining Communion with people of widely different perspectives of theology and praxis. It has often done this through fudge and compromise, but it has done it. As much as they would probably rather not be, Colin Slee and Chris Sugden are ordained in the same church, committed to the same central tenants, recognising the same authorities.
The issues of homosexuality and women priests are not the only ones on which there is a variety of opinions in the Anglican Church. There are Calvinists and Arminianists, Charismatics and Cessationalists, the Anglo-Catholic High Church and the non-liturgical Low. All these and more have managed to remain under a single banner, despite disagreeing, often vehemently. Through fudge, compromise and a glacial pace of change the Anglican leadership has managed to tread a middle way that keeps even those at the far edges in step, never quite reaching the point of breaking away.
Yes, there have been leavers: my current employers for one, and the forbears of my churches movement as another. But for every group that has decided to part ways, there have been others of similar sensibilities who have managed to work within the wider body, enriching it and being enriched as a result.
GAFCON matters because here is a group that is actively talking about alternative structures and relationships, about reaching points of no return. That raises the dreadful possibility of all the fundamentalist evangelicals jumping ship. Many, I know, would say ‘good riddance’ but, as an Aeronautical Engineer, I can tell you that if you lose the end of your right wing and keep the left then you are not going to be able to fly straight. In fact, that lack of stability may well see you crash and burn.
If the GAFCON attendees leave the Communion, the moderates, even the Evangelical moderates who sympathise with the cause (if not the manner of its implementation) will not follow. But the resulting Church will be unbalanced with far more leaders of liberal persuasion in high office than would be healthy.
The other reason that GAFCON matters is because it enables the media to continue to paint the Church (and by that, I mean far wider than just the Anglicans), as illiberal, out of date and obsessed with sex. The resulting image is not one of a love of Christ for the world, but of angry, bigoted reactionaries intent on making society like themselves or departing from it to as great a degree as is possible.
GAFCON makes the Church seem backward and irrelevant to the world. It might actually split the Anglican Communion. It matters, and I sit here and watch with horror and a morbid fascination. Its like watching a train wreck, on live TV…