Keeping the communion holy

Bishop David Anderson on the dramatic changes in the Anglican Communion.

bishop anderson 224 crt (photo credit: Courtesy)
bishop anderson 224 crt
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Next week marks the beginning of the Lambeth Conference, an international gathering of Anglican bishops held in Britain every 10 years. It is hosted by the archbishop of Canterbury, currently Rowan Williams, head of the worldwide Anglican Communion. This year, however, the Lambeth Conference was pre-empted by a historic and controversial gathering in Jerusalem. The Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), held at Jerusalem's Ramada Renaissance Hotel from June 22-29, brought together 1,148 orthodox Anglican lay and clergy participants, including 291 bishops representing millions of conservative Anglican Christians, many of them African. In his opening remarks at GAFCON, the outspoken archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, described the necessity for such a gathering. "We have found ourselves in a world in which Anglican leaders hold onto a form of religion but consistently deny its power. We have a situation in which some members of the Anglican family think they are so superior to all others that they are above the law, they can do whatever they please with impunity. "As a communion we have been unable to exercise discipline. In the face of global suspicion of the links of Islam with terrorism, Lambeth Palace [official residence of archbishop of Canterbury] is making misleading statements about the Islamic law, Shari'a, to the point that even secular leaders are now calling us to order! We can no longer trust where some of our communion leaders are taking us." A long simmering dispute between the worldwide Anglican Communion and conservative Anglican leaders boiled over in 2003 when the American Episcopal Church ordained openly gay, non-celibate Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson as the ninth bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. Still, several of GAFCON's speakers were quick to point out that debates about homosexuality within the church are only symptoms of a greater malaise, which they identify with the rejection of Orthodox Christian beliefs regarding Holy Scripture and the divinity and redemptive work of Jesus. Although a largely British leadership committee organized GAFCON, and although African bishops were the primary focus of media attention, a number of American bishops were also in attendance. Many of these church leaders, along with hundreds of American churches, have left the American Episcopal Church and have instead placed themselves under the authority of conservative, biblically oriented African archbishops. One such leader is Bishop David Anderson. In 2006, Anderson left the American Episcopal Church and had his holy orders transferred to Nigeria. In 2007 the house of bishops of Nigeria elected him, along with three others, to be suffragan bishops for the Convocation of Anglicans of North America, a missionary outreach of the Anglican Province of Nigeria to the United States. Anderson still holds this position today. He is also president and CEO of the American Anglican Council, a non-profit advocacy group created in 1996 in response to what he describes as "the continued drift of the Episcopal church into biblical revisionism." In Jerusalem asked Anderson about the dramatic changes taking place in the worldwide Anglican Communion and his views about some of the controversies surrounding GAFCON's gathering in Jerusalem. How many North American churches have left the Episcopal Church? That is a difficult number to arrive at because the Episcopal Church (TEC) only counts churches that have lost their property or have lost court cases and have no recourse. If a case is pending in court, the Episcopal Church will not acknowledge that the congregation is gone. If the congregation walks away from its property but four or five people remain behind, TEC will maintain that they still have a congregation there, even though it may be four walls and a janitor. So they won't admit to the hundreds of churches that have departed. When you add it up, between 200 and 300 churches have left, including some of the largest congregations in the Episcopal Church. Some individual churches, like Falls Church, Virginia, have a membership exceeding that of many entire Episcopal dioceses. What is the relationship between the American Anglican Council (AAC) and GAFCON? AAC is very interested in the outcome of GAFCON. We have a deep desire to bring together all the churches that claim Anglican heritage in order to form a new province - one that would be orthodox and part of a global family of Anglicans, but not necessarily recognizing the right of the British government to appoint archbishops of Canterbury and run the Anglican Communion. We are here to support GAFCON. We are here to encourage GAFCON to look at the needs of North America with regards to restoring orthodoxy in the larger Anglican family. GAFCON has been viewed in numerous media reports as an anti-homosexual movement. Is that the case? In the media there is usually a desire to boil everything down to a couple of attention-grabbing sound bites. And sex and money are the two things that grab people's attention the fastest. Certainly there is a factor of human sexuality among the issues that are before the Anglican Communion. But they are not primary. They are secondary at best. The primary issues have to do with other questions: Who is Jesus Christ? What did he really do? Was his death really necessary? Did he really rise from the dead? And what authority does he have over men and women today? And then there is the issue of Holy Scripture. One American bishop has been widely quoted as saying, "The Church wrote the Bible and the Church can rewrite the Bible." That point of view would represent a number of TEC bishops, although most might be wise enough not to say it so clearly. On the other hand we have the New Testament scripture in 2 Timothy 3:16: "All Scripture is God-breathed." There's a world of difference between those two statements. A big part of the Anglican Communion has chosen to line up with the Episcopal Church, believing that Jesus is optional and that the Bible can be reformulated to suit the culture. That said, it should surprise no one that difficulties arise in determining what is a proper sexual standard. How do you respond to those who say that unity is more important than focusing on disagreement? Is GAFCON tearing apart the fabric of the Anglican Church? Unity is useful only when there is agreement to begin with - agreement about what the truth is. If a ship is sinking, do all the passengers want to stay together and sink to the bottom for the sake of unity? Or do they want to get into lifeboats? Many of us have chosen lifeboats, and, by the grace of God, Nigeria and Uganda and Kenya and the Southern Cone and others have taken us in. But the idea that unity trumps truth is foolishness. It's the kind of bizarre statement that we have become used to hearing from those who have lost their theological bearings. Do you equate this quest for unity with multiculturalism? I really don't. Committed Muslims don't want to have their faith put into a big blender and somehow made into a multicultural soup. Neither do Orthodox Jews. Neither do practicing Hindus. And neither do Orthodox Christians. The people who want to recognize this so-called multiculturalism - those for whom anything goes, those who say "whatever works for you" - are in fact those who have lost their faith. They are groping around in the dark trying to find some excuse for being unable to see or hear. In recent months, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, has said that the adoption of some Shari'a law in the UK seems "unavoidable" and that doing so could help social cohesion. Yet some of the African bishops with whom you work have suffered tremendously under Shari'a law. What do you think about the archbishop's statements? That the archbishop of Canterbury would make such a foolish remark about Shari'a law means that he has, in one sense, given up hope of continuing to have a traditional English nation. He has resigned himself to theological and legal chaos in his own country. That he has given up is very sad, especially because he is seen as a leader. Who wants to follow a leader who has lost his own way? If Rowan Williams thinks that Shari'a law is inevitable, perhaps he needs to go and live under it without the safeguards of his archbishop's robes, to live as a common man under Shari'a law and then ask himself how he likes that and whether that's something he could really recommend for someone else. Traditionally, Shari'a law forbids homosexuality. On the one hand Shari'a law "seems unavoidable" to the archbishop of Canterbury, and yet on the other hand he has not forbidden the ordination of homosexual Anglican bishops. Has there been a lot of discussion about this? No, there has not really been a discussion about this incredible paradox. The archbishop says that Shari'a law is inevitable and yet, in a sense he has blessed homosexual issues by failing to take reasonable action that would be in accord with his office. Meanwhile, if each side moves forward, a collision between the two is inevitable. One would hope that a leader would look ahead and would have some wisdom as to how to lead his people away from that kind of situation. Do you and the other GAFCON participants hope for further dialogue with the archbishop of Canterbury? I think there may be continuing usefulness for the office of archbishop of Canterbury. I also think the usefulness of Rowan Williams is being marginalized more and more by his own actions and his own words, such that he becomes an embarrassment to others. It is an odd situation in that the head of the Anglican Communion is essentially the product of Britain's prime minister… it essentially amounts to the British government running the church. And it runs not just the church but, in a colonial sense, the entire Anglican Communion. I think those days are coming to a close. There is a need for the head of the Anglican Communion to be someone who is chosen by the Anglican Communion and answerable to them. He should not be subject to recall by any government but rather subject to recall by the people who elected him. Why did GAFCON choose to come to Jerusalem? At the First Christian Council of Jerusalem, recorded in the Book of Acts, the Apostles took counsel together, and from there Paul went out and began his missionary journeys. That council was a very important first step in authenticating the work that was being done. I think Jerusalem is a very apt place for Anglicanism to come back to, to take counsel together. From here we will go home, go back out into the world, having had the refreshment, the teaching and the redirection that this time in Jerusalem has afforded us.