Why I return with hope from the Church of England General Synod
By The Rev. Phil Ashey, J.D.
February 12, 2010
Ps. 71:5 "For you have been my hope, O Sovereign LORD, my confidence since my youth."
It is always a privilege and an honor to serve with Bishop David Anderson on your behalf in the councils of the Anglican Communion. I am writing literally in the air on the way home to Atlanta, and wanted to share my reflections about our time in the U.K. During the week prior to the vote, we met with friends and supporters, leaders of the Church of England, those who are eager for more information about the Anglican Church in North America (AC-NA), and sponsors of the Private Member's motion expressing a desire for the General Synod of the Church of England to be in communion with the AC-NA.
Yes, I know that the original motion was entirely substituted by the language submitted by Bishop Mike Hill of Bristol on behalf of many (but certainly not all) in the House of Bishops. Yes, I know that the motion substituted our desire for the desire of the Synod (which is both factually inaccurate as to the origin of the motion, and falls short of the actual desires of those who brought this motion). Yes, I know this lays out a process of investigation and reporting back that postpones formal recognition of the AC-NA. I was there, sitting in the General Synod with Mrs. Ashworth and other sponsors and supporters as the debate unfolded.
No one will ever be able to accuse me of the virtue of patience. Like most Americans, I confess to living in a culture of microwaveable expectations, and a preference for immediate action. Nevertheless, I come home with great hope for the future of orthodox, Christ-centered, biblical and missional Anglicanism in North America and the UK. Here are the reasons for my hope:
1. The Motion itself, in its final form: It is not a fudge. It is an official and public declaration by the Synod of the Church of England which, for the first time:
a) Recognizes the recent divisions (please note: not "schism") between the Anglican Churches in the USA and Canada. No sides are taken, but both parties are referred to as Anglican-and that public recognition by the "mother church" is a significant acknowledgement for the AC-NA.
b) "Recognizes and affirms the desires of those who have formed the Anglican Church in North America..." Not a mere recognition, but a recognition and affirmation. An amendment to strike the word "affirm" was graciously and unexpectedly withdrawn by its author. This was one of a number of Holy Spirit moments in the debate. That action reinforced the intent of the Synod to affirm the AC-NA.
c) Recognizes our desire to "remain within the Anglican family." Not join, become, or enter into a process of reception as Anglicans-but to remain within the Anglican family. Again, this is a tacit acknowledgement by the "mother Church" that we are already Anglican. Many of the supporters of the motion argued both publicly and privately that the people now in the AC-NA, like Dr. J.I. Packer, are the same Anglicans with whom they enjoyed communion before the recent unpleasantness, and they remain the very same Anglicans to this day. The Very Rev. Norman Russell, the Archdeacon of Berkshire, described in a very moving way the worship and fellowship he experienced at our Provincial Assembly in Bedford TX as "more classically Anglican" than in most Anglican groups he knows. Why wouldn't we be considered a part of the family?
d) It establishes a process by which the relevant authorities of the Church of England and the AC-NA can explore issues bearing on relationships and recognition within the Anglican Communion. Those issues to be discussed will include theological clarifications on the meaning of Communion, the degree to which the AC-NA's constitution and canons reflect the architecture and substance of comparable Anglican provincial constitutions and canons, and other factors bearing upon what paragraph 92 of the Windsor Continuation Group report describes as the "ecclesial density" sufficient for the establishment of a new province. We are eager to enter into such discussions, and have communicated our readiness to the proper authorities.
e) The motion sets a definite date for a report back to the Synod. I fully expect that the American Anglican Council and other representatives of the AC-NA will be present for that report-- to share more stories of how we are growing in numbers, in churches planted and, more importantly, in our mission of reaching North America with the transforming love of Jesus Christ.
2. The depth of support we enjoy within the Church of England: Frankly, I was surprised and moved by the expressions of love, prayer and fervent support for the AC-NA from laity, clergy and bishops; from Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals and leaders of the charismatic "New Wine" movement, and from young and old alike. Like Bishop David, I was encouraged by the number of people who read the "Chaplain's Corner" and the briefs we have authored.
The Tuesday lunch for those interested in hearing about AC-NA was packed. In the tea room adjacent to the Synod chamber, we were engaged non-stop with Synod members who wanted to express their support for the AC-NA, or to ask questions and gain clarification on the issues.
Even among those who are not quite ready to extend formal recognition, there is an understanding that it is doctrinal differences which have led to the division between AC-NA and TEC, and that issues of sexuality are secondary. As one person stated to me, "If Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead physically, what's the point?"
There is enormous sympathy and appreciation for what we have done in standing up for the uniqueness and universality of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of all. I am quite confident that Synod members' concern for catholic and biblical teaching on Christology is behind the robust majority that passed the motion.
3. The recognition of what the Holy Spirit is doing in the AC-NA, and how this might contribute to Anglicanism in the Church of England: One theme that surfaced in our conversations again and again was the miracle of Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic and Charismatic Anglicans pulling together in the AC-NA to focus on reaching unchurched people in North America. Of course, we have our own history of "party spirit" that we have had to seriously confront in North America. But across the pond, they see our willingness to make things work for the sake of Christ and the Great Commission as nothing short of a remarkable move of the Holy Spirit. We had serious discussions with many leaders at many levels about how this "charism" could be shared with the full spectrum of orthodox Anglicans in the Church of England-to unite everyone together for the sake of Christ and fulfilling the Great Commission, and to help everyone stand against the growing secularization of the culture.
4. The invitation to build missional partnerships and relationships between AC-NA and the Church of England: During a recess in the debate, a young man approached me about establishing links between young evangelicals in the Church of England and AC-NA youth. Additionally, during a Sunday church visit to an evangelical-charismatic Anglican church, a young priest inquired about establishing links with AC-NA church planters in Canada. Bishops and clergy asked me what experience we might be able to offer young Anglo-Catholic clergy in planting new churches. There were serious discussions about how AC-NA churches and leaders could partner with CofE churches and leaders in mission, church planting and sharing resources to help each other stand firm in the face of secularization within the culture and the church. Clearly the Holy Spirit is opening the door to long-term relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ in the Church of England-mutually supportive relationships that will endure through and beyond the current Communion crises.
I will be returning to the UK in March to work with the GAFCON Theological Resource Group. I will be joining them with great hope for the possibilities that lie ahead, and the theological work we will need to do in order to make genuine communion and missional relationships a reality.
But I will also be returning with an anticipation of what our brothers and sisters in the CofE can contribute to the life and mission of the AC-NA. One of the high points of my visit was an evening service at St. Mark's, Battersea. I have never seen so many 25-35 year olds gathered together for an Anglican service. The church was packed stem to stern with young professionals, young families and infants in tow. The worship was anointed, the prayers and Holy Communion were from the heart, and the preaching was clear, challenging and relevant, with an appeal to become salt and light through a month of community clean-up projects, adoption of whole neighborhoods, concerts, recreational events, and all of it leading to a summertime ALPHA. Salt and light, word and deed. We had an opportunity to share our AC-NA story, and at the end of the service the high school youth group came forward to pray over Bishop David and me.
My friends, I can see some wonderful "cross-pollinization" that lies ahead as we build relationships and missional partnerships with our Anglican brothers and sisters in Christ across the pond.
So be of good cheer. Join me in giving thanks to God for this breakthrough, for the doors that are opening, and for all the blessings that lie ahead as we build genuine bonds of affection across the Anglican Communion that are rooted and grounded in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the power and authority of His word, and the fulfillment of His Great Commission.
Yours joyfully in Christ,
----The Rev. Phil Ashey is Chief Operating and Development Officer for the American Anglican Council
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