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GAFCON AND VOLUNTARY GROUPS

At first glance the meeting of traditionalists in Jerusalem and its outcome seems revolutionary. In the United States, despite the origins of Anglicanism in this land, there has been a tendency to rely on official agencies of the church to get the job done. Granted there are many TEC organizations, privately run, which represent everything from Religious Orders to charitable trusts, One may find most of them listed in the Episcopal Annual. That being said, very early on, it was decided that domestic and foreign missions would be, at least in theory, the task of the entire church and not of “private” missionary societies.

Voluntary groups were a feature of the 18th Century Church. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel was founded in 1701 by Thomas Bray and chartered to provide ministry to the colonies of the New World, the West Indies and later South and West Africa, India, Australia and the Far East. I possess a pre-World War 2 edition of Crockford, which lists parishes, for instance, in India and notes the missionary society involved. The SPG (now USPG) gradually assumed a High Church and then Anglo Catholic hue.

In 1799 the Church Missionary Society was founded by Evangelicals in England and soon had work in Africa and Asia.

These two societies and a few others not only provided missionaries, sponsored bishops, helped in the creation of dioceses but also assumed positions of power particularly in those days before indigenous Provinces emerged in Africa and Asia. What is now called the Intercontinental Church Society was yet another Evangelical group with chaplaincies in Europe and work in Canada and in other parts of the world.

These worldwide groups, with offices in England, formed their own networks of missions, missionaries and sometimes whole dioceses and their bishops. They funded missionary outreach and appointed their clerical and lay workers. Sometimes there was conflict between local bishops and these appointed missionaries and at best the authority of the local church was circumscribed by deference to the body which paid the bills.

In some ways the newly formed Gafcon body resembles much more this “colonial” strategy than perhaps its organizers contemplate. The banding together of like-minded Anglicans to give mutual support and to encourage evangelism and church growth, in bodies which remain within the traditional structure of the church, but in formal and ad hoc ways exercise their own control, has been a part of the Anglican story for centuries.

What is revolutionary and perhaps troubling is the intention of Gafcon to enter existing Provinces of the Communion without the authorization or consent of the canonical bodies involved. In this perhaps crucial aspect, Gafcon is proposing to act as a church rather than as a large “missionary society” or lobby or interest group.

That such a society exhibits impatience with existing church structures is nothing new. The argument which split the Evangelical Movement in the 18th Century was not simply about “Calvinism” versus “Arminianism”, although neither title precisely fits the moment, but about whether the existing parochial structure of the church was to be respected and used, or whether to go outside that structure and create cells of converts linked in “connexion”. Gradually the Wesleyans “invaded” the structure, placing evangelism above ecclesiology. Church evangelicals remained within the structure, “converting” parishes and accepting high office.

As far as North America and perhaps England is concerned, Gafcon seems to be following the path of the early Methodists in placing evangelical strategy and need over ecclesiology. Indeed the creation of episcopal posts in the USA, staffed by bishops who are not recognized by the See of Canterbury resembles at least on the surface the practical position of Asbury and the emerging Methodist leadership in America. Asbury and his followers believed the late Colonial and early Episcopal Church to be a dying and moribund “latitudinarian” body and thought nothing of setting up their chapels within the traditional boundaries of Anglican churches. They went where they pleased in Gospel zeal.

How the Gafcon “society” develops remains in the future. How the Lambeth Conference reacts, if it has the mechanism to react at all, also remains to be seen. At least at this point, and in the area of “mission strategy” the Gafcon communique in intention signals a profound departure from traditional Anglican practice. Only time will tell how these first intentions develop in practice.

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