Saturday, 28 June 2008


I've been to conferences, and General Assemblies and other gatherings, all of them in networks and organisations on the religious and theological left: radical or liberal. They are usually well prepared, and run smoothly, and in and around the events people of like mind get quite a lift.

There is always the difference between the gathering (national, regional - in this GAFCON case international) and the local. The local situation can often be depressing in comparison, especially when coming back to it from a good gathering. The local situation is either more mixed, or diverse, or otherwise inclined. In the other direction, going to it, the conference gives such an uplift. This is to what Peter Jensen refers at GAFCON in terms of his own uplift, that and being unsure that the gathering would work (given the different extreme constituencies it has gathered, given those who have rejected it despite having some similar views).

Conferences are ways of testing the constituency. In terms of having completed statements, they do relate leadership intentions to that activist constituency. They are also ways of transferring people into and out of the inner cores, maybe along with policy shifts. Some conferences are democratic, and pass resolutions, so that the leadership may find its policies severely checked in some areas but endorsed in others (Liberal Democrats - Conference is sovereign). Some other conferences are media events and conversations and not centres of decision making (Labour Party). In other conferences, lectures dominate and the overview of events may be more business-like (Sea of Faith). Other conferences are there to rubber stamp what has already been decided - but even there speeches can have an impact and input can be made by comment especially regarding functional matters (China, old Soviet Union). It all depends on how much is done by a leadership group and whether the conference in effect comments and passes what all derives from a people in agreement. The feedback process, and sometimes moments of drama (events that come to a conference from outside), lead to some shifts and changes that are not expected. GAFCON has a directive leadership, but its workshops feed opinion back from the closest sympathisers.

What is then different about GAFCON than might have been? Has the Conference made any difference? I take the view that this is a leadership core enterprise, but it has filtered and gathered supporters to test its policies. The authority and autocracy in this set up is reinforced by the episcopal principle, if a little qualified then by the Protestant principle.

There is surely no substantive difference in what GAFCON is going to do. It was and is going to provide international episcopal oversight and challenge existing structures by having its own. These structures won't be built overnight. What is different, I think, is that the presentation has had to follow the form. The form is that the Western New Puritans have led this thing from the beginning, and connected with the Africans in order to punch above their weight. Nevertheless the appearance has had to be more diffuse, less ideological even, and certainly say less on homosexuality. It has more impact if you appear to be reasonable. What's happened is that the Western side has asserted itself: it just communicates better. It is a culture issue: Jensen, NazirAli, Venables simply have communicated with informality, accurate choice of words, and they came to the front. Akinola has baggage and also does not come across: it is why, after all, the inner core rewrite his material, or the odd college academic. Robert Duncan has featured little, but this is because he is busy watching his back in the middle of The Episcopal Church issues: but it is clear that he is also busy with structures. The backroom boys of Sugden and Minns have stayed there, where they are most effective and directive. Presentation probably matters less than it may seem, but it is interesting that the Westerners grabbed more of the reins for such purposes. It shows something about the Anglo-European-Australasian as international and African as particular and in development.

There is a lull now, ahead of this final statement. But what is real has already been demonstrated. Although the issue is full of particularities and complications, GAFCON has already started to act in the way it intends to go on - by putting the first European church under international Episcopal oversight. It is an independent Anglican Church anyway, All Saints Anglican Church in the Algarve, and the real guts of GAFCON will come with those churches on the ground that are not. Archbishop Kolini of Rwanda was already dealing with the church, but now it extends to something like an Episcopal committee, a model that might be expected. See what one of the GAFCON attendees said:

"This is a truly global, cross border commitment to ensure that Anglicans everywhere can look forward with confidence."

Not just Anglicans in Portugal, then, but Anglicans everywhere. And that's the point.

I noticed the doubts on the more conservative blogs, but they have just followed the press commentary too closely and the idea even that the coming final statement was in a kind of melting pot of the Conference. Yes, but it wasn't ever really going to become something else. Journalists who were expecting instant schism by some sort of other denomination simply got that emphasis wrong: it was never going to be so and the Conference is not going to change anything so substantive. The real test won't be the Conference, it will be when it all goes local and particular again. In other words, a group will meet at All Souls Langham Place and some may go on to seek international oversight. What will happen then?

Another aspect always going to happen was somehow making a point at the Lambeth Conference that this is, somehow, last chance saloon. As it happens, people like Venables and Duncan are going, and no doubt going to make a point. Much of the rest of Anglicanism will simply not accept the kind of literalism displayed by the likes of Bishop John Akao of Nigeria. The New Puritans are really a tiny margin of Western Churches; it is why they have created GAFCON after all. The tough bit comes after Lambeth, then, when these Global Anglicans have to put flesh on the statement they issue.

This is where I agree with the Conservative blogs: if these Global Anglicans cannot actually do something different that has been the case, then the thing implodes and badly. It does become yet another evangelical failure. One expects the GAFCON action to cause a split among evangelicals and weaken evangelicalism in the Anglican Communion, but at least there will be something to show for it. If they just implode, it will be the worse of all worlds for them. The flight of Peter Jensen's aeroplane is much the easier circling over this conference: most conferences break up and little results and they gather again. This one is supposed to plan something in the real world. It needs a long haul jet if it is going to fly, and probably some mid-air refuelling.

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