Traditionalists lay out bold challenge to Anglican leadership

At their meeting in Jerusalem, Orthodox leaders reject authority of churches that teach a 'false gospel,' signaling an intention to vie for influence within Anglicanism.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Threats of schism in the Anglican Communion are a thing of the past, but the world's third-largest Christian community faces a historic challenge over who will shape its future.

That's the message from a gathering of 1,200 orthodox Anglican bishops, clergy, and lay people from several continents who met in Jerusalem over the past week to hammer out a response to what they see as "revisionist" liberal thinking within some churches.

The traditionalists have decided to replace schism threats – sparked in recent years by Western support for gay clergy and blessing of same-sex unions – with a new movement to reform the Anglican Communion from within. But the statement released Sunday by the Global Anglican Future Conference (Gafcon), while positive in tone, constitutes a shot across the bow of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the US Episcopal Church.

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"Our fellowship is not breaking away," the group says. But "we do not accept that Anglican identity is determined necessarily through recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury."

The conference has launched the Gafcon movement of orthodox Anglicans, formed a council of leaders that is likely to sever ties with liberal Western churches, and called for creation of a North American province within the Communion to include the US parishes and dioceses that have pulled away from the Episcopal Church and built a separate network.

"The North American initiative will only make a current hot zone much hotter," says the Rev. Kendall Harmon, a US traditionalist. "They are basically saying that they intend to compete for the Anglican franchise of North America."

Those heading the movement include leading African, Australian, South American, and English bishops, who aim to rebuild the Communion "on a foundation of biblical truth."

The statement details 14 tenets of orthodoxy in a "Jerusalem Declaration" and rejects the authority of churches that teach a "false gospel."

The conservatives feel that Anglican leadership has failed them in their bid to discipline the churches in the United States and Canada over issues of homosexuality, which are symptomatic of broader differences on biblical authority.

After the Episcopal Church consecrated a gay bishop in 2003, American traditionalists balked and refused to follow US leadership. Bishops in developing countries, in turn, began to provide oversight for those American traditionalists. As tensions rose, the Communion set up a process for addressing them.

But after a series of meetings, ultimatums, and responses, the Gafcon group says, the process "failed to exercise discipline in the face of overt heterodoxy.... We can only come to the conclusion we are a global Communion with a colonial structure."

For many in the developing world, the end of that structure is overdue. The struggles in the Communion come at a time when growth in Anglicanism is concentrated in the "global south." While churches in England and the US are losing members, African membership has soared to 43 million, or 55 percent, of the 77 million-strong Communion.

The Jerusalem meeting was called after several African leaders said they would boycott the Lambeth Conference, the once-a-decade global gathering of more than 800 Anglican bishops hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Lambeth, which is scheduled for July 16-Aug. 3, has traditionally involved passage of resolutions on major issues facing the Anglican churches. In 1998, a conference resolution reiterated that homosexual practice is not compatible with Christian teachings.

This year, Lambeth has been restructured to focus on small-group discussion and will not involve resolutions.

"You have a family in crisis ... and they structured the meeting so that the crisis will not be addressed," says Dr. Harmon. "They basically want to punt the ball down the field for another 10 years, but that never works."

The Rev. Ian Douglas of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., who is on the Lambeth planning committee, counters that, "Bible study and groups which call for genuine discussion on difficult issues provide much greater opportunity to deal with the question than passing resolutions in a body of 800."

Now Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Lambeth face a major challenge of how to respond to Gafcon. (A small number of the 280 bishops in Jerusalem will attend Lambeth.)

And the Episcopal Church, which is already caught up in lawsuits over property with the dioceses and parishes that are departing the church, faces an even more difficult future.

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