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Up for Debate?

On 20th November 2012, after a robust and high-quality debate, the General Synod of the Church of England voted to block a proposed Measure permitting women to be bishops. It was the, somewhat flat, last hurrah of then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Fast forward to 2014 when Synod agreed to a “package” opening the episcopate to both sexes. The “package” comprised a Measure, a Declaration of the House of Bishops and “guidance” from them. That such a complicated approach was taken, much of it outside the control of Synod, as opposed to the one-line piece of legislation that could have been put forward, spoke volumes as to how Synod was being sidelined.

By then, that was no surprise, because the “package” was itself a product of another novelty - “Facilitated Discussions” involving a select group of Synod members and others brought in from outside Synod. The formal “facilitation” was that of professional, external mediators, largely using the manipulative “Delphi” technique. But there was informal “facilitation” too - the sort of pressure that can be brought to bear in private, on people not in control, by the powerful. It was all organised by Canon David Porter and represented the sea change in the governance of the Church of England desired by his boss, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

If he could possibly avoid it, Justin Welby was not about to allow the sort of public debate, and risk of losing votes, on the floor of Synod that his predecessors had.

It was a portent of things to come. When Synod moved on to the vexed subject of human sexuality it was by way of “Shared Conversations”. At the conclusion of the process the House of Bishops again did not chance asking Synod to debate their thinking and vote on a motion that could be amended. Instead, they used a procedural device - that the assembly would “Take Note” of the bishops’ reflections on the conversations. When Synod, cross at not being offered more to chew on, decided to do no such thing, the archbishops announced by fiat that there would be a “radical new Christian inclusion” concerning human sexuality.

As it turned out, there was also to be radical new means to bringing that about. The methods deployed in relation to women bishops would not just include some members of Synod, and a few others, but now be rolled out to the whole church. Bishops, clergy and laity at different times and stages, in discussions, with, you guessed it “facilitators” using the “Delphi method". To date it has consumed all of six years and well north of £1m. And after all that, as of this February’s Synod, the Bishops proposals were surprisingly similar to what they sought six years ago, with a few gaps filled in and packaged differently.

Again, no substantive Measure has been put to Synod on which it could vote, only an amendable motion comprised of seven elements drafted by the House of Bishops on their proposed “Prayers of Love and Faith”. Twenty-eight amendments were tabled and nineteen considered. This denied Synod any sustained debate, only a fragmentary one. It was of little consequence in any event, because, with a sole exception, any amendment that looked like passing was defeated by the bishops. The single amendment allowed was one the bishops’ considered would not change their intent but help the motion to pass.

And it worked. According to the Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally that is the end of the “democratic” process, although members of Synod will graciously be allowed to participate in some more “group work” when it meets in July.

The lay members of the General Synod of the Church of England can do nothing about this because the archbishops and bishops have displaced the role parliament intended them to have and instead aggregated to themselves, and those they hire, overwhelming power and control.

But it is not just the Church of England. The Lambeth Conference is supposedly one of the crucial four “Instruments of Communion,” which supposedly form the super-structure of global Anglicanism. Theoretically, meeting every 10 years, after a 14-year hiatus, the gathering finally took place in 2022. It did not have the opportunity, as in the past to vote on “Resolutions” stating policy and principles for the Communion. In their place, there may, or may not have been, “votes by silence” on “Calls” designed by the “Lambeth Conference Organising Committee,” not after debate, but you guessed it - small group Delphi-style discussions. The Calls have now moved on to the third stage of “The Lambeth Conference,” yes, you guessed it - more unfathomable discussion, this time in a wider context- the whole world.

At the same time a new stance for the whole Communion on issues of human sexuality was announced - yep by archiepiscopal fiat.

This time the cost was many millions.

Again, there is nothing that can be done- all the Instruments of Communion have been broken so no new way forward is possible for them, even if they wanted it, which they don’t.

It goes without saying that all this has a single underlying cause. When truth, most particularly revealed truth is abandoned, all that is left are power games. They might be polite, managerial games, masquerading as consultation and even democracy, they might all come dressed in purple and grand titles, but they are simply the more insidious for that.

How refreshing, therefore, to be at GAFCON IV.

At the opening press conference, it was confirmed that the Conference is expecting to produce some type of “statement”.

But it was made clear that this is not the sort of conference where the communique has been agreed in advance. Instead, during the first full day of the Conference (Tuesday), the Gafcon Primates having given input, a draft will be produced to be discussed in Provincial/regional meetings on Wednesday afternoon. Those delegations will be able to comment as they wish. The draft will then be redrafted again, using their feedback before, whatever emerges, is put to the whole Conference on Friday. The drafting committee is broad, and anyone can say whatever they want to them.

In an extempore answer to a question from Anglican Ink, the chair of the Gafcon Primates’ Council, Archbishop Foley Beach, said,

“The process for commenting and having input into the final statement is really amazing and so people are going to be able to speak out a lot. So, you are going to hear a lot of different things and so it really would be premature until the final draft to in any way go ahead.”

Among those who will be able to “speak out a lot” will be delegates from Provinces never previously represented at Gafcon - Angola, Bolivia, Namibia. Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Peru, Uraguay and Sudan. And among those saying “a lot of different things” will be experienced, retired Primates, as well as the youngest Gafcon lay “newbies”, meeting as equals.

It won’t take 6 years; it won’t even take six days.

In some ways it seems ludicrously optimistic, even a folly. Might not an ill-considered or poorly prioritised statement result?

It is a risk, under God, that Gafcon will take because a good statement is achievable. That is the beauty of the discussions taking place on the agreed foundations of the totemic document produced in just the same way by GAFCON I in 2008- The Jerusalem Declaration. And even more so based on shared confidence in confidence in God’s revealed Word to speak into the task.

This blog has opined before on the need for GAFCON IV to start to fill the “ecclesial deficit” in the Anglican Communion and this statement process is one pointer to something of what that might look like.

There was a second indication too, because in the first Conference session Archbishop Foley Beach had something else to say about the broken “Instruments of Communion”. In addressing the first one - the office of Archbishop of Canterbury he lamented,

“Sadly, with broken hearts, we must say that unless the Archbishop of Canterbury repents, we can no longer recognise him as the 'first among equals' and the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion”.

It was an injunction met with loud applause. It will be interesting how, and if, and how, the 'statement' of GAFCON IV takes forward that, and so many other issues.


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