An orthodox renewal leader in the Anglican Communion has warned that the pressures which divided his family of churches are on the doorstep of every other Christian Church.
“What the Anglicans are suffering is already, or will be, the fate of us all,” warned Archbishop Peter Jensen. “Even evangelical and catholic denominations and movements will not be exempt in years to come. Do not think that you are living in a safe haven. You are not.”
The emeritus Archbishop of Sydney, Australia spoke March 18 at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania for the school’s eighth annual Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. Lecture on Theology, Culture, and Mission. Jensen’s lecture was entitled “Beginning in Jerusalem: The Theological Significance of the 2008 Global Anglican Future Conference.” (GAFCON)
Speaking to an audience of mostly non-Anglicans, Jensen outlined the crisis within the third largest family of Christian churches, explaining why other Christians should take note, and what lessons they could bring back to their own Christian communities.
“This may all seem very remote to you,” Jensen noted. “Your church home may be comfortably orthodox – but so fast is change coming and so massive are the forces at play that no one is safe. You need perhaps to enter into our experience so that you can prepare yourself for what may come. You too may need to form a new confessional fellowship.”
Jensen was one of a number of Anglican bishops who conceived of and organized the 2008 GAFCON gathering in Jerusalem, a conference that brought together bishops, clergy and laity mostly from traditionalist Anglican provinces, including the largest and fastest growing ones in the Anglican Communion. GAFCON was repeated five years later in Nairobi, Kenya.
The worldwide Anglican Communion, Jensen proposed, “is one of the world’s most significant and celebrated Christian communities: it matters.” Comprising churches descended from the Church of England’s missionary activities, the family of churches has often had cultural clout larger than its membership numbers might indicate.
An important point of unity between the churches has been the decennial Lambeth Conference, where the Archbishop of Canterbury, the titular head of the Communion, invited Anglican bishops from around the world to gather.
“Lambeth at its best was the representatives of the Anglican Communion having Trinitarian communion,” Jensen explained. The gathering yielded fellowship, communion and sharing in the same spiritual reality, Jensen outlined, noting that “to decline a gift or refuse an invitation is a powerful rebuke of Christian fellowship.”
The unity that Lambeth represented was becoming undone by a 2003 consecration by the U.S. Episcopal Church of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, the first openly partnered non-celibate homosexual bishop in all of Christendom. While then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams declined to invite Robinson to Lambeth, he did invite the bishops who participated in Robinson’s consecration.
Jensen recalled discussions among orthodox Anglicans pondering rejecting an invitation to Lambeth in 2008, and what might take its place.
Recalling that Christ prayed on the night before his crucifixion “that they may be perfectly one so that the world may know that you sent me and love them even as you love me,” Jensen illustrated what authentic Christian unity might look like.
“Jesus prayed that night (John Chapter 17) that the Father would be glorified and that his apostles would be united in the truth. His prayers as you know were wonderfully vindicated,” Jensen shared. “We do not have to manufacture unity. His one church indefeasibly united is the eschatological church to which all believers now belong – a church founded upon the teaching of the apostles and the prophets and seated with Christ in the heavenly places.”
The Australian Archbishop stated that practice of unity is mandated for Christians in this age, but this is grounded upon what God has done for us in Christ. The obligation to maintain unity is not merely delivered to church leadership, but to all who belong to Christ.
“The Gospel, the Word of God preached among his people, creates unity,” Jensen declared. “Christians are meant to love each other and to welcome each other. Breaking communion is a serious business.”
Jensen explained that the goal of GAFCON was to create “a major bridge of communion.” And to do it not merely by refusing to attend Lambeth but by calling what appeared to be a rival conference in Jerusalem. GAFCON was portrayed not as a divisive force, but one which sought to unify believing Christians following a breaking of the Anglican Communion “by a false gospel and a lack of discipline.”
Answering charges that GAFCON’s existence undermined unity among Anglican Christians, Jensen pointed to the 1998 Lambeth conference in which a motion was passed overwhelmingly affirming traditional Biblical sexual norms and condemning the practice of homosexuality. North American churches had been party to an action seriously at odds with the Christian faith itself.
“Here is a major community in worldwide Christianity confronting, at its sharpest point, the problems of the Christian movement face-to-face with modernity,” Jensen summarized. “Given enough time to get used to the sexual permissiveness around us, will you continue to see this as a Gospel issue and be prepared to force the crisis when the moment comes? If you do, then where will you go? A determination to unite around the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, a determination grown in your heart now is imperative.”
Jensen flatly stated that the days of natural belief in Christianity are over, and that “the holy book of our civilization is now treated with disdain, question, ignored.”
“Now we must choose to believe,” Jensen declared. “True faith is bound to suffer. The waters of unbelief have become a deluge.”
The Anglican Archbishop diagnosed that conditions of unrighteousness described in Romans Chapter 1 have come to pass.
“Our people, our nations, have refused the knowledge of God. We have created false idols, we have abandoned the obedience which alone is the path to true freedom, and we have given ourselves over to gratification. The power of sexual abandonment has gripped us, and the devastating result is a deep uncertainty about our identity as human beings. We are entering an age of aloneness and narcissism,” Jensen assessed. “Once the authority of scripture is abandoned, our view of Christ, of man, of God, becomes distorted. We preach another gospel in which the first casualties of the new gospel that we preach are sin, the doctrine of man, substitutionary atonement, the uniqueness of Christ, the wrath of God, and of course, the need of repentance.”
Remain or Separate?
Jensen outlined four arguments offered by those who disagree with GAFCON and who advocate remaining in fellowship with those who have entered into unbiblical practices:
-First, an argument from hermeneutics: scripture knows nothing of those who are born with same-sex attraction and wish to marry. The persons and relationships which we seek to bless are not even envisaged by scripture and therefore are not condemned by scripture.
-Second, an argument for justice: we’re not advocating homosexual permissiveness any more than heterosexual permissiveness. What we are advocating for is the safer, permanent and monogamous union of two persons in a loving relationship. This involved the Christian recognition – the Biblical recognition – of true love, without which life is diminished. To such love all persons are entitled and we see it in the couples of the same as well as opposite sex.
-Third, an argument from mission: we accept the traditional view, but to make homosexuality a touchstone of fellowship is to put law in place of grace to the detriment of preaching the Gospel in the contemporary world. World won’t understand stance on sexual ethics, when they hear of this the message will always be about sex rather than about Jesus. They will therefore use it as an excuse for rejecting Christ. Furthermore our unity is what the Lord says will speak to the world, and we are experiencing serious but not final disagreement. We should agree to live with “respectful disagreement” as we do on the ordination of women.
-Fourth, an argument from ecclesiology: even if the church of Jesus Christ in its Anglican expression embraces such an error, and we think it is, it is still the church. My task is to stay within it and to bear witness to the error, calling for repentance, and suffering any opprobrium and ill will which will come my way. In the end, according to the promise of Christ, the church will not fail, and it will return to the truth even if it takes 100 years. If the greatest of these is love, and I stay in connection with the body of Christ, by what right do you abandon love?
“If you think it is easy to rubbish these arguments – and perhaps my lecture today may encourage you in that direction – let me discourage you,” Jensen announced, saying that the way forward is not to dismiss the arguments as though they are ridiculous, but to recognize the strength of them. “If you live in the West you know how strong these arguments are, and if you fail to do this you will not understand why your children will accept these arguments if they are not taught otherwise. They are powerful.”
“If we are to stand for the truths of scripture in front of the runaway train of modern culture we will need to do it together, striving side-by-side for the faith of the Gospel,” Jensen predicted, suggested that even the fellowship of denominational loyalties is less significant than unity based on the truth of the Gospel.
Quoting Nigerian Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, Jensen pointed out that the issue at stake is “much wider than human sexuality or same-sex unions. What has been in the works for some years is the challenge to the authority of the Bible in all matters of faith and practice.”
“Yes, the debate is about the authority – and by the way the clarity and unity of scripture – but it is not merely about particular bible texts but about the impact of those texts on what we believe about human identity and purpose,” the ermeritus Archbishop assessed. “It turns out that sex matters. The sexual revolution threatens the very core of what we understand to be humanity.”
Warning of worship “at the idol of a false god” who “will devour those who give him homage,” Jensen cautioned that those involved in the sexual revolution become complicit in an assault upon the human person.
“Christian toleration of the sexual revolution is profoundly unjust to our fellow citizens — it’s like depriving them of food,” Jensen compared. “We deprive them of that which gives life by not bearing witness to what the bible tells us is right and wrong.”
“Lord of All”
Jensen proposed that it was not the GAFCON primates who broke communion, but rather those who defied the majority of Anglicans and consecrated Robinson in 2003.
“GAFCON exists not to break but to heal, not to cast off but to save. Not to bleat but to witness to the Gospel, which unites,” Jensen summarized. “It is my view that when a denomination embraces such a significant breach of the teaching of scripture it may be symbolic, but it is symbolic of the fact that is has left the structure of the faith well behind and needs, in love, the call for repentance and the clear withdrawal of fellowship that goes with it.”
Ultimately, Jensen concluded, Christ is Lord of all, or he is not.
“The Word of God, Gospel and Scripture is the scepter by which he rules. Denying this in favor of the sexual revolution leaves you a religion which is barely Christian.”