Dissident Anglicans to Set Their Own Agenda

In a conference, more than 1,000 conservative leaders will call for restoring identity to their church.

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Representatives from the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh cast their ballots on a resolution that calls for constitutional amendments in a first step toward leaving the national church and joining with other conservative Anglicans.

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In a further sign that the global Anglican Communion may be heading toward schism, more than 1,000 leaders of a growing movement of conservative Anglicans and Episcopalians will meet in Jerusalem June 22-29 to set forth their ideas for restoring what they believe is the true identity and mission of their church. Called the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), the meeting of dissident clergy and laypeople is expected to reassert the authority of Scripture, particularly on matters of marriage and sexuality. It will also explore specific ways of applying biblical teachings to global challenges, including coexistence with Islam and the rising price of food.

Divisive as it all may sound, conference organizers are quick to reject the charge that they are trying to upstage the upcoming Lambeth Conference, the official meeting of Communion bishops held in England every 10 years under the auspices of the archbishop of Canterbury, now the Most Rev. and Right Hon. Rowan Williams.

But many attending the Jerusalem meeting, including the Most Rev. Peter Akinola of Nigeria, have said that they will not attend the Lambeth gathering in mid-July. And GAFCON attendees admit they have lost patience with Anglican and Episcopal church leaders, who conservatives say have refused to take clear or decisive stands on such issues as gay marriage and openly gay clergy.

"The traditional power brokers of the Communion are being challenged," says the Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns, missionary bishop of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a group of about 60 American congregations that have cut ties with the U. S. Episcopal Church and are now incorporated under Archbishop Akinola's Nigerian province. Minns charges that the Communion's leadership in the global north continues to ignore demographic and theological reality: that the church in the global south is not only the largest part of the Communion (with more than 40 million of the 70 million Anglicans and Episcopalians) but also the most committed to orthodox Christian teaching.

"The heart of GAFCON is a passion to stop reacting to the latest issue in the American church and to get on with the work in the world," Minns says.

Others within the Anglican Communion think the conservatives are overstating their claims. Frank Kirkpatrick, author of The Episcopal Church in Crisis: How Sex, the Bible, and Authority Are Dividing the Faithful, is particularly troubled by the conservatives' assertion that their reading of Scripture is not one of many possible interpretations of a complex text but instead the only true way of reading it. "It is disingenuous," says Kirkpatrick, an Episcopal priest and a professor of religion at Trinity College in Connecticut. "They do not call for homosexuals to be stoned to death. They choose to follow some passage from the Bible and not others. So, clearly, they are interpreting."

Kirkpatrick also questions the view that the Anglican Communion in the global south is a monolithic block of theological conservatism. "There may be more conservatives there," he says, "but they don't dominate the way some scholars think." Kirkpatrick cites the work of Miranda Hassett, whose book, Anglican Communion in Crisis: How Episcopal Dissidents and Their African Allies Are Resphaping Anglicanism, argues that Anglican women in the global south, though largely ignored, voice very different concerns from those of their often conservative clergy.

Much as he differs with Minns and other GAFCON orgagnizers, Kirkpatrick agrees with them on one point: The Jerusalem gathering will not be a real counter-Lambeth conference. Kirkpatrick even suspects that most bishops who go to Jerusalem will end up also attending the Lambeth meeting in Canterbury. "I think it [GAFCON] is a symbolic event, with no real substantive content," says Kirkpatrick.

Perhaps. But that is almost identical to what conservatives say the next Lambeth Conference will be: a lot of small-group chatter resulting in no real decisions. And with that kind of mutual evaluation, prospects for reconciliation look very slim indeed.