We are in a strange place. After nearly a decade of crisis, the much-predicted Anglican schism has failed to materialise, at least in any clear-cut way. Significant new structures have been birthed, notably the Anglican Church of North America, but on the whole the drama has subsided.
The Communion lies becalmed and rudderless like a ship after a storm. The Archbishop of Canterbury can no longer gather the Communion and the Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council has announced that it has no set time frame for the adoption of the Covenant. What was once held to be ‘the only show in town’ is dead even though it officially lives.
How does the GAFCON movement respond now? During the storm it provided a lifeboat for those orthodox Anglicans who were tossed over the side, but now there is an opportunity to get the ship under way again by being a catalyst for the renewal and godly unity of the whole Communion. The preparatory documents for the 2008 GAFCON Conference referred to a fork in the road, but how do we understand that road? We can begin to answer this question by taking a hint from the fact that the GAFCON movement was quite deliberately birthed in Jerusalem and its identity is framed by the Jerusalem Statement and Declaration.
But Jerusalem was not intended to take the place of Canterbury. It points to the heavenly Jerusalem, which puts all claims to authority based on geography and history in their proper context. According to the Apostle Paul the ‘Jerusalem above… is our mother’ (Galatians 4:26). As the settled world order of Rome began to unravel, St Augustine gave the Church a new sense of itself, most fully developed in his great work De Civitate Dei. Here we have an overarching model of patristic ecclesiology in which the life of the church is framed by two fundamental spiritual realities – the City of God and the City of the World. “In this very thing,” writes Augustine, “the great difference of the two cities lies most apparent; God’s love prevailing in the one, and self love in the other,” (De Civ. XIV.13).
In our own unsettled times, this Augustinian model expresses three vital truths to undergird the recovery of a biblically and patristically rooted Anglican ecclesiology.
The first is that the church is not something of our own invention. The City of God is that to which the pilgrim church on earth aspires and towards which it journeys. The visible church becomes the church in so far as it conforms its life in loving obedience to the truth it has received, and for confessing Anglicans – with the Reformers — the source of truth and authority is Scripture.
The core issue that revisionism confronts us with is not the challenge to biblical sexual ethics, but the nature of truth itself, which is seen as relativised and experiential. If agreement on these things were made a precondition of engaging in ‘indaba’ it might well evaporate overnight. The Jerusalem Statement and Declaration on the other hand is a contemporary expression of obedience to Scripture that allows the movement to resolve its differences in a conciliar fashion because it has the discipline of an agreed identity – and the exercise of the discipline of excommunication when all else fails.
The second is the reminder that, ultimately, there is no middle ground. There are two cities and we belong to one or the other. The Windsor Report failed because it tried to create a false consensus. It thought institutionally rather than theologically and tried to imply, for instance, a moral equivalence between moratoria against the consecrating of same-sex relationships and the boundary crossing by orthodox Primates that resulted.
Thirdly, the reality of the mystical church, the heavenly Jerusalem, and the yet to be revealed glory of the City of God caution us against impatience with an imperfect church. The visible church is a mixed body, as Augustine recognised in his controversy with the schismatic Donatists. As Hooker would later put it, the church is a ‘society, and a society supernatural’ which can exist in varying degrees of faithfulness and unfaithfulness. There may be only two cities, but we cannot always know with certainty to which we are tending.
We do not need to subscribe to a ‘branch theory’ of the church, but the Anglican discipline of respecting historic succession, buttressed by a willingness to live in a conciliar Communion, could display an appropriate biblical humility before both our forebears and our fellow workers.
Charles Raven is assisting Archbishop Eliud in Kenya, and is supported by The Latimer Trust