Caught between the bishops and the deep blue sea

ACSAby Gavin Mitchell, Anglican Mainstream SA

The Anglican Church of the Province of Southern Africa, now known as the Anglican Church of Southern Africa (ACSA), is one of the provinces of the Anglican Communion that claims to walk the tightrope of the ‘middle path’ in the doctrinal and moral wars of the modern Communion.

ACSA believes that its hero status, from the leading role that it had in the anti-apartheid movement, gives it the new role in championing the indabas (discussions) which some see as essential to the future of Anglicanism. In reality, this means pressure from many bishops and lay leaders for ‘continuous conversations’ until sufficient minds are changed (for a Synod vote) to the new pan-sexual morality. If they can achieve this while convincing people in the pews that nothing is really changing and after all ‘this is what Jesus would want us to do’, all the better.

Evangelicals marginalised

Where does this leave the Bible-believing evangelicals in ACSA? Evangelicals have never really held sway in this province, where history is rooted in the many Anglo Catholic missions of the later 19th century, and which has developed into a very strong hierarchy-centered church. This has suited many in the pews, conferring the status of an Episcopal church over many non-episcopal denominations. Thus there is little demand for sound doctrine as long as the bishop wears a mitre and the liturgy is impressive. All these developments have marginalised the views of evangelicals.

Pockets of churches and clergy around the province identify as evangelical, many with a charismatic strand, with perhaps one or two soundly evangelical bishops. This makes their position precarious. In a number of recent incidents, with or without canonical procedure, evangelical clergy have lost licenses and had to leave the province and, in one case that I am aware of, the country. These have all centred around doctrinal issues and the moral teachings of the church: asking the ‘wrong’ questions can result in severe censure. A few churches like the strong St John’s Wynberg are not really part of the province and can continue in safety. They have not, however, taken the lead which their constitutional independence would make easy.

Upholding the ancient faith

Since the mid-1990s, concerned evangelicals have met hoping to ensure a space in this province, resulting in a small fellowship and support for clergy and churches that come under pressure. While the province has always claimed that the canons remain unchanged and that there are no sanctioned services for blessing same sex relationships, reports have been verified of such blessings and many questions remain about the sexuality of some clergy. The difficulty for evangelicals has been the lack of any declared battleground – such as the Robinson affair in the USA.

Proposed (though never actually accepted) guidelines for pastoral care of people in same sex relationships, were published in 2011. The care suggested was little short of sanctioning sin. This provided the first opportunity for a clear response, which was made by Anglican Mainstream SA. The issue simmered until the Synod of 2016, when a motion was brought by the Diocese of Saldanha Bay for blessing same sex relationships and ordaining men and women in such relationships. This motion was defeated by a very narrow margin in the House of Clergy. For evangelicals this has been cold comfort, since the Archbishop wept publicly when the result was announced and promised that the matter would return in 2019. He was devastated by the hurt which the vote caused to people in same sex relationships, but made no mention that the ancient faith had been upheld, albeit narrowly.

Decisive action?

Is the crisis only delayed or has the time perhaps come for decisive action? This small constituency feels isolated and unable to speak the gospel clearly. Sin cannot be named. Can there be a call to repentance in this atmosphere? Many believe that bold clear alliances should be formed, across diocesan boundaries and with the orthodox bishops that are on the bench. The examples of AMiE and GafconUK have been encouraging as to what could be done, while others hope for some lifeline from ACNA, or from an orthodox Anglican province in Africa.

The situation of evangelicals in this province is precarious. Please pray for guidance. We are open to all help, advice and support from our brothers and sisters in the wider Communion, where perhaps the evangelical wing has a safer and stronger position.

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