I am writing in response to an article published today by the Anglican Communion’s news office “What should we do when Christians disagree?” by the Rev. Dr. Phil Groves, facilitator of the Continuing Indaba Project. In the article, Groves writes that when Christians disagree, “when disunity appears, facilitated conversations are the Biblical way forwards.”
With all due respect, his analysis misses the mark by a longshot.
First, he cites the disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2-3 as the Biblical paradigm for all disagreement within the Church. But what about differences over Christian doctrine itself? In his landmark study Conciliarism: A History of Decision making in the Church (Cambridge University Press, 2013, pp. 56-60) Paul Valliere notes meticulously the doctrinal disagreements that gave rise to the Councils of the Early Church. Disagreements over doctrine often present themselves first as disciplinary issues— such as how do you deal with the “re-baptism” of people who vacillated or apostasized in the face of persecution (Council of Carthage, 256 AD), or how do you respond to public rites for the blessing of same-sex unions and the consecration as bishop of a person living in such a union? (Anglican Communion, 2003).
Groves seems to have forgotten his history. The crisis in the Anglican Communion since at least 2003 has been and continues to be over the very definition of the Gospel. Disagreements and innovations in the Communion have been described, time and again, as a crisis of Gospel truth. This is exactly what 1358 bishops, other clergy and lay delegates to GAFCON 2013 re-asserted unanimously in the Nairobi Communique (26 October 2013):
“In 2008, the first GAFCON was convened in order to counter a false gospel which was spreading throughout the Communion. This false gospel questioned the uniqueness of Christ and his substitutionary death, despite the Bible’s clear revelation that he is the only way to the Father (John 14:6). It undermined the authority of God’s Word written. It sought to mask sinful behaviour with the language of human rights. It promoted homosexual practice as consistent with holiness, despite the fact that the Bible clearly identifies it as sinful. A crisis point was reached in 2003 when a man in an active same-sex relationship was consecrated bishop in the USA. In the years that followed, there were repeated attempts to resolve the crisis within the Communion, none of which succeeded. To the contrary, the situation worsened with further defiance.”
Paul was calling his partners in the Gospel, Euodia and Syntyche,”who have struggled with me [Paul] in the work of the Gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers,” not simply to be personally reconciled as an end in itself but to be reconiled in the same Gospel mind, faith, mission and practice as Paul and the other Apostles. Groves forgets that verses 2-3 need to be read in context with at least the verse which immediately precedes it, Philippians 4:1, where Paul exclaims “Therefore my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown. that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!” (emphasis added).
It’s simply not enough for Groves to say that “Paul is calling for a facilitated conversation (read “Indaba”) and for the loyal companion (read “The Continuing Indaba Project”) to be the facilitator.” This is a projection upon the text of Phil. 4:2-3 of personal, relational reconciliation as some kind of end in itself. It is a projection of the sub-religion of “reconciliation” that seems to be gripping the leadership of the Anglican communion, and especially of those “Instruments” (Canterbury, Lambeth Conference, Primates meetings and the ACC) which have thus far failed to serve and safeguard the spiritual unity of the Communion.
Instead we have facilitated conversations. Not long ago it was called “dialogue” and “process of reception.” Now it is called “Indaba.” In 2001, when the storm clouds of innovation and doctrinal disagreement were gathering, two leaders of churches in the Anglican Communion, Archbishops Drexel Gomez (West Indies) and Maurice Sinclair (Southern Cone), addressed the matter of facilitated conversations in To Mend the Net: Anglican faith and Order for Renewed Mission (Ekklesia, 2001). In their critique of the Anglican Communion’s Virginia Report, they described the then Communion “processes of reception” for addressing disagreements as hopelessly naïve– procedural solutions only that did not (and still do not) do justice to the nature and function of authority in the Church. The operating assumption then, and now, is that if we have the right referee and the right “rules of discourse,” we will inevitably come to the right conclusion. We have seen the acceleration of disagreements for the last ten years under that unbiblical assumption. For it does not take into account the problem of human sinfulness and rebellion– much less the powers and principalities with which we must always wrestle (Eph. 6:13).
But in 2001 Gomez and Sinclair spoke with prophetic insight and up-to-the-minute relevance in describing the fatal flaw of facilitated conversations AFTER innovations have been allowed to disrupt the spiritual unity of the church without any consequences:
“the way the ‘process of reception’ is presented and set up for consideration has, practically speaking, only one or two possible results, eventual acceptance of the innovation or a never-ending period of reception.” (63).
This is the heart of the new religion of reconciliation: facilitated conversations (Indaba) that can have only two possible results: eventual acceptance of the innovations, or a never- ending process of facilitated conversations, until all resistance is vanquished.
There is another biblical way for addressing doctrinal disagreements that come packaged as disciplinary questions. It’s a process that Paul knew well– he was one of the main figures who participated in it. The presenting issue was whether Gentile converts needed to be circumcised and follow the Mosaic law. Behind this disciplinary issue was a critical doctrinal issue: is the grace of Christ alone sufficient, his death on the cross for all sin, and appropriation of his saving grace by faith? The Council of Jerusalem met and had some conversations about that. They listened to testimony. They prayed. They sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They sought the mind of the whole body at that time (“It seemed good to us…” Acts 15: 28).
But above all they weighed every word, and every disagreement, against the Word of God so that whatever they decided would agree with the testimony of God’s word, the Bible (Acts 15:15). In the end, it meant saying “no” to the Judaizers.
And that is what Groves and practitioners of “facilitated conversations” simply cannot accept. God save us from the substitution of “relational reconciliation” as an end in itself for the true spiritual unity that comes from the Gospel of Jesus Christ – even when that Gospel says “no.”
The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey is Chief Executive Officer of the American Anglican Council.
This article first appeared in the January 17, 2014 edition of the AAC’s Weekly Email Update.