Tough Questions Posed at the Anglican “Hope and a Future” Conference

Unanswered questions regarding the social interactions of individuals and entire cultures require us to pause and look deeply at ourselves, our lives and our circumstances. Questions such as “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and “Why can’t we all just get along?” force us to decide what is important and what is not, what is permanent and what is fleeting, what is wise and what is worthless.

On Remembrance Day 2005 (known in the United States as Veteran’s Day), Rev. Peter Jasper Akinola, a small, elderly African man who is also primate of the Anglican province of Nigeria and spiritual leader of eighteen million Christians, stood before a predominantly white, affluent crowd of 2,500 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, and asked this question: “What do you want?”

After asking this, he paused, gestured to the six other Anglican primates on stage and said, “We can’t tell you what you want. You have to tell us.”

The Anglican Crisis
The “Hope and a Future” conference, organized by the Anglican Communion Network (ACN), was held 10-12 November 2005 and it was there that Akinola spoke. ACN is an ecclesial organization of Episcopalian dioceses, parishes and clergy who believe national church leadership in ECUSA (Episcopal Church USA, the Anglican Communion’s United States province) has drifted so far from historic Christianity that what church leaders practice and teach today bears little resemblance to the teachings of early Christian leaders. Although ECUSA leaders and the secular press routinely identify the disagreement as one based on differing views of human sexuality, this topic was almost never addressed by speakers or conference-goers.

Instead, those attending, including individuals from more than seventy dioceses, forty-five states and four Canadian provinces (as well as guest speakers from around the world), were concerned with three issues: (1) the role of the Bible as a rule of life, (2) the place of Jesus of Nazareth as the focal point of the Christian witness and (3) what relationship looks like if the Church is truly “one, holy, catholic [universal] and apostolic Church.”

That relationship is now fractured, if not disintegrating entirely, in the eighty million-member Anglican communion ever since more than twenty of the thirty-eight worldwide provinces declared their relationship with ECUSA “impaired” or “broken” following the denomination’s consecration of V. Eugene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson had divorced his wife and was living in a same-sex relationship. The consecration followed the denomination’s decades-long practice of ordaining homosexuals to the priesthood (despite repeated Anglican Communion policies which culminated in the 1998 Lambeth Commission report that found “homosexual practice incompatible with scripture”).

The Windsor Report, issued in October 2004 at the request of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in an attempt to address the fracturing denomination, did not address the issues surrounding human sexuality since, it claimed, they had been addressed previously. What it did address was relationship and authority, and it did so with clarity, simplicity and a brilliant command of the “facts on the ground.” This report is now recognized as one of the unique documents that come along only every several hundred years.

The report stated that “the Anglican communion has always declared that its supreme authority is scripture” (Paragraph 42) and that “neither the Diocese of New Westminster (a province in the Anglican Church of Canada which has authorized same-sex blessings) nor the Episcopal Church (USA) has made a serious attempt to offer an explanation to the communion as a whole about the … development of theology which alone could justify the recent moves” (Paragraph 33). Later, the report succinctly (Paragraphs 53-62) explained how scripture is to be read and understood.

What the report said about relationship was even more extensive: “We have reached the present impasse…[because] neither the Episcopal Church (USA) nor the Diocese of New Westminster, in deciding and acting as they did… went through the procedures which might have made it possible for the church to hold together across differences of belief and practice” (Paragraph 35). The sides apparently did this, the report says, because leaders believed that “the questions they were deciding were things upon which Christians might have legitimate difference …[even though] other Anglicans around the world did not regard them in this way” (Paragraph 37). ECUSA and the Diocese of Westminster subsequently made decisions that the rest of the communion believe can only be made by the entire communion. The result was that trust was broken between the members (paragraph 41).
The Bonds of Global Affection
Because most of those attending the ACN conference were familiar with the issues, conference leaders began with the broken trust instead of the underlying causes. Participants’ feelings of alienation and abandonment were discussed.

According to conference attendee Bob Wyatt and others, expectations for the conference remained low. “My expectations were low as far as the conference went,” Wyatt said. “I expected to reconnect with old friends since I’ve been in the renewal movement for more than thirty years.”

But the seven Anglican primates from the southern hemisphere; laity and clergy within ECUSA and the Anglican Church of Canada; and speakers from outside the denomination (Rick Warren, pastor at Saddleback Church in southern California, USA, and Anne Graham Lotz, founder of AnGel Ministries) offered attendees a sense of global solidarity as they struggle with the future of their individual parishes and the larger denomination.

“We will stay with you,” said Primate Datuk Yong Ping Chung, head of the nine-nation province of Southeast Asia.

Akinola added, “Many of you have one foot in ECUSA and one foot in the network. Let us know where you stand.”

“The Anglican communion is being broken by their (ECUSA) stand,” said the Most Reverend Bernard Malango, primate of Central Africa, which has 600,000 members.  “[Yet], we will continue to uphold Scripture.”

The message of relationship was welcomed by the audience and the primates’ comments were repeatedly interrupted by applause.  

Warren, founding pastor of the 80,000-member Saddleback Church, said he felt privileged to speak at the conference. The animated, red-haired author, minister and speaker paced the stage without his trademark Hawaiian shirt. He alluded to anticipated legal and financial disputes expected to occur within ECUSA during the coming year and attempted to encourage the audience with these words: “Jesus didn’t die for facilities, he died for people. They may get the building, but you will get the blessing. Jesus is not interested in your facilities, but in your faith.”

Warren was interrupted with several standing ovations.

He also noted that Saddleback was started in his living room “with me preaching to my wife.” For the first thirteen years, the church met in seventy-nine different locations.

The Unanswered Questions
“It’s very clear God is doing a new thing in your midst,” Warren concluded. He then followed Akinola’s lead in asking, “What do you want?”  

“What is in your hand?” Warren asked the audience as he mirrored the question posed to Moses in Exodus 17. “Remember, when God asks you a question, it’s not for his benefit.”

Warren believes this is the second most important question in scripture behind “What did you do with my son?” He said it is only when one lays down one’s identity—Moses had a staff in his hand, which both assured him and spoke to the world that he was a shepherd—that God can make it come alive.

“What is in your hand, Anglicans?” he asked again.

Anne Graham Lotz asked a familiar and equally important question: “Who is Jesus?”

“Who is this man that is so offensive and so controversial that would cause some of you to leave your church?” she asked. “Who is this man that the Romans crucified, and then acknowledged as king? Who is this man that the world’s greatest art, music and architecture are dedicated to?”

The Way Forward
In addition to support from across the world and outside the communion, Rev. Robert Duncan, the bishop of Pittsburgh and the moderator of the ACN, spoke on the reconciliation of groups who had previously broken from ECUSA. The ACN is leading the effort to organize at the diocesan, parish and clergy level so that international dioceses and provinces can relate to the new group. Duncan termed it an “ecclesial body made up of ecclesial bodies.” Another group, the American Anglican Council (AAC) is membership-based and seeks to organize at the individual level—although there is some overlap between the two groups. According to president Rev. David Anderson, the council has the freedom to move across hierarchies in the communion.

Duncan told the audience that on Whitsunday 2004, six church organizations signed a letter of agreement which was delivered to the Archbishop of Canterbury in Great Britain. The Archbishop subsequently agreed to recognize ACN members as full members of the communion. The ACN, the AAC, the Anglican Mission I American (AMIA, a missionary movement of the Anglican province of Rwanda and Southeast Asia), the Anglican Province in America, Forward in Faith (a US-based ECUSA renewal movement) and the Reformed Episcopal Church became full members.

“We seek to gather the entire Anglican diaspora in North America,” confirmed Duncan. “We are standing on the cusp of a renewed, revitalized, robust Anglicanism. This is a chairos moment.” (Chairos connotes a broad, sweeping concept of time, such as an age or epoch.)

This vision won the hearts of many at the conference.

In reflecting on the conference, Wyatt said his expectations were more than met: “I’m coming away with a sense of newness. The young people here—the very committed people in their twenties and thirties who are appalled at what is going on in society—when you talk to them you sense a freshness and joy and excitement I haven’t seen in a long time. I didn’t expect that.”

“[Over the years] it has felt like we [those in the renewal movement] were the same group who had small victories, but were struggling. And now there’s a new sense of cohesiveness and [a sense] that young people will take the fight into the twenty-first century, long after I’m gone,” Wyatt continued. “There’s a sense that we’ve accomplished one of our critical goals, and that is that there’d be a contingent that would put the gospel first. I want these people to go home with a sense of strength and purpose and that they’re part of something much bigger.”

Rev. Paul Sutcliffe, a priest in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, added, “What I wanted was for faithful, orthodox people to see that they are not alone, and to be encouraged in their faith.”

Linda Newton, a staff member of the AAC, echoed the same thoughts: “I wanted more orthodox [Christians] to recognize that they are not alone, and be more willing to stand for their faith. I wanted them to sense that they are part of something that God is doing.”

In his closing remarks, Duncan closed the conference with this reminder: “No one who God has called has not been asked to make a choice. Our choice is against idolatry. Our choice is for the new day. Our choice is for one another. Our choice is for mission, courage….worship, Scripture and God’s plan for us.”

He paused before asking one final question: “Will you choose anything else?”

Doug Henneman is a writer based in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. He is a member of Messiah Episcopal Church.