Why have a Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans in South Africa?

Keynote address at the launch of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans South Africa, St Johns Church, Walmer, Port Elizabeth, Thursday September 4th 2009

Canon Dr Vinay Samuel, convenor of the Theological Resource Group of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans

That is why the setting up of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans in Southern Africa is so critically important.   Can you from an orthodox biblical faith bring biblical gifts to shape this social agenda that is at the heart of South African social identity?  If South Africa is simply going to take a human rights agenda that is not tempered or shaped by biblical truth, but shaped principally by the ideology of rights and uses the iconic status of leaders such as Desmond  Tutu and Nelson Mandela to silence any questions to its agenda, whether in human sexuality or in any other area, it is not the best gift to the world from South Africa. It is up to you, small as you are, to say “No, we will draw on all the best of South Africa, its journey in reconciliation, its journey in throwing off religious prejudices, its journey in social transformation; but we will also recognize its weaknesses – its weakness in moral frameworks, its inability to be able to uphold truths. Are you prepared to be prophetic that way?  Not prophetic in saying: “ This is the mission God has given to South Africa, lets push it all over.” Rather, prophetic in being obedient to what the Bible is teaching.

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The challenges we face today are for the soul of Anglicanism – defining the centre of Anglican faith and identity.  Anglican identity has become a contested area.

Constestation in Anglican Communion matters is nothing new for Chris Sugden and myself as we work together in the Anglican Communion.  In 1985, Chris and I were invited by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie and Canon Sam Van Culin, the Secretary General of the Anglican Consultative Council to help with the preparations for Lambeth 1988.  We offered the help of  our colleague Bishop Michael Nazir Ali who later became the General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society and after that the Bishop of Rochester, to help prepare study material for the1988 Lambeth.  This recognized that one of the major issues that the 1988 Lambeth was facing was the issue of the ordination of women:  how to take this contentious issue and still remain Anglican and really learn to walk with each other.  We knew that there was all this contestation going on about what it was to be truly Anglican.

In 1995 the issue of sexuality was being promoted in an aggressive fashion by certain sections of the church that we were moving to a situation of real conflict for the soul of Anglicanism and to define the centre of Anglican identity.  So this is nothing new.

We prepared by bringing orthodox bishops together for conferences and consultations in different parts of the world to study both the issue and the processes of the Lambeth Conference. So, when at the 1998 Lambeth, the resolution 1.10 was passed with overwhelming support for an orthodox position, it was not an accident. It was well prepared, because we knew it was a contest for the soul of Anglicanism. It was about defining the centre of Anglican faith and identity. The result of course has been that those who were advocating for revision to the teaching and practice of the Anglican Communion vowed that never again would they submit their plans and proposals to the vote of the Lambeth Conference. And the 2008 Lambeth Conference was designed with that in mind.

From consensus to constestation

Anglican faith and identity has become a contested area. What happened over these 20 years is that the consensus from the past – that you could take if for granted that you could be Anglo-Catholics, High Church, Low Church, Broad Church, Round Church –  there was a consensus and a common ground that you recognized each other, that you could be different types of Anglicans living with mutual tolerance and respect and space. This consensus was rapidly changing with cultural changes, and with pressures from everywhere and with the activism of certain groups of people, more particularly in the western hemisphere.

The heart of the contemporary challenge is whether the Anglican Church will be at the forefront of the human rights agenda.  The human rights agenda is a social programme of producing radical cultural change, where all forms of oppression and discrimination are quickly identified, resisted, rejected and rooted out, where individual freedom and self-expression dominate; where distributive justice is the norm and equality the driving force.  This is the agenda of the transformation of the social order: individual liberties, human dignity, free expression, religious tolerance and transparency of governance.   These terms are heard regularly. South Africa abounds in them. Politicians use them constantly. In many ways this is a gospel agenda as well.

This challenge to the church came, I suspect, strongly from churches who actually were not growing in numbers, Since they could not convert anybody, they got into this social agenda.  That is my suspicion.  Churches which are evangelizing and making disciples, planting churches, addressing poverty and engaged in social activities, and which care for the poor and disadvantaged, do not necessarily get obsessed with cultural transformation in the way that some of our colleagues in the Anglican world tend to do.  That is what is at the heart of the struggle – an agenda for the transformation of the social order with individual liberties and human dignity.

The agenda is also to overthrow traditional viewpoints and understandings which appear to support oppressive practices, values and institutions.  This is seen as a progressive agenda over against a traditional and conservative agenda. Those who are orthodox are seen as conservative and oppressive.  That is the kind of framework and description that was up front at the Episcopal Church Convention at Anaheim. The decision to change the Church’s long established tradition of teaching and practice on marriage and sexuality to a world of sexual freedom was aggressively pushed and adopted.

It is argued that human rights are at the heart of human dignity.  Rightly so.  They need no justification. They are self-evident.  Every resource of power can be drawn upon to ensure that they are adopted and implemented. This must be done without delay and without excuses.  That is what Anaheim said.  We cannot wait, we cannot delay another 15 years: we have to do it now.

Aligned with the focus on rights is the drive for self-expression and freedom.  This is again seen as that which affirms human dignity. Each individual has the right to define, choose and express his or her rights and must have the freedom to do so.

What has really happened is that human rights now provide the moral and ethical framework for our behaviour and ethical commitments.  This decides what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. I am encouraged that Archbishop  Rowan Williams has raised questions about the way the human rights is being pursued in the Anglican Communion. Following the decisions of the Anaheim Convention, he wrote:

“In response, it needs to be made absolutely clear that, on the basis of repeated statements at the highest levels of the Communion’s life, no Anglican has any business reinforcing prejudice against LGBT people, questioning their human dignity and civil liberties or their place within the Body of Christ. Our overall record as a Communion has not been consistent in this respect and this needs to be acknowledged with penitence.

However, the issue is not simply about civil liberties or human dignity or even about pastoral sensitivity to the freedom of individual Christians to form their consciences on this matter. It is about whether the Church is free to recognise same-sex unions by means of public blessings that are seen as being, at the very least, analogous to Christian marriage.

In the light of the way in which the Church has consistently read the Bible for the last two thousand years, it is clear that a positive answer to this question would have to be based on the most painstaking biblical exegesis and on a wide acceptance of the results within the Communion, with due account taken of the teachings of ecumenical partners also. A major change naturally needs a strong level of consensus and solid theological grounding.”

He is saying that he does not think at this point, biblically, we can accept what is being proposed with regard to human sexuality by the proponents  of same-sex marriages.  We have to continue to explore the teaching of the Bible.

God gifts and sets boundaries to human rights for human flourishing.

The Bible begins with our creation in God’s image. That is the source of our rights. He defines the rights. We need a Christian understanding of what creation is and what human persons are. In the Bible human rights are framed within an understanding of creation and human personhood.  It is God who defines our personhood. He sets the boundaries of our behaviour for human flourishing.  He has not said: “I have created you now go and express yourself to the full, and in every possible way that you express yourself, that is how you will flourish and that is what I will bless. “

He calls us to have holy personhood, holy bodies, because we reflect his holiness.  We are made in his image.  He also sets them in a moral framework as being holy as he is in whose image we are made. The understanding of ourselves as persons with minds, spirits, bodies, feelings, sexuality, relationships is drawn from scripture. A Christian view of rights must have a basis in a Christian view of creation and a Christian view of personhood

What is unfortunate here is that rights have become an ideology that dictates what is acceptable and what is not. An ideology is a set of ideas that are above question and are self-evidently right. Therefore it is aggressive and supremely confident and dismissive of opposition – you cannot even dialogue with it, because someone says “This is my right, you cannot question it”.  You dare not question it, especially when this kind of ideology is promoted by iconic religious figures and iconic political figures who are worshipped as iconic social activists of our time, whether it is a Mandela or a Desmond Tutu.  When that is supported it  accrues to itself huge power and therefore becomes above challenge as a social agenda and as an agenda for the church.  Instead of speaking from the perspective of scripture, some of our bishops and church leaders now speak from the perspective of an ideology. Their iconic status lifts their opinions above challenge.

The second drive is one of inclusion. Pluralism and multiculturalism affirms the equality of different religions and worldviews. All values, even those recently constructed are embraced as equal. I come from India where we still have some degree of generational respect.  I have lived also in Oxford for the last 20 years. But the culture has changed so dramatically there that in the UK today, even young people as young as 14 years say that these are our values, and the older people say “We affirm them”.  So even if you are a 14 year old adolescent, I have to accept your values as equal to the values of the sages of the past.  What kind of a culture is this – that all values are equal and must be completely accepted. All must be included and accorded equal value to affirm human dignity. Do we mean we affirm dignity of youth by accepting every thing they say as wonderful, spiritual and the equal of the wisdom of the ages?

The biblical teaching does not support such an understanding of equality. Biblical teaching recognizes diversity, but the test of diversity is still the truth, the universal truth found in scripture.

When ideology dominates, it is power that determines thinking and choices. When rights become an ideology and dictate what is moral and immoral, it creates a new universal.  When it is aligned with power and promoted by iconic religious figures, it refuses to be challenged by the truths of revealed faith.

What is the heart of this divide?

At the heart of this divide is first our understanding of the authority of scripture.  Scripture and the tradition of the church no longer have the dominant position in our undertstanding. The authority of scripture faces the test of reason and critically interpreted religious experience.  Equal weight is given to reason and critically interpreted religious experience. When people say : “this is my experience of Christianity”, it has to be taken seriously and given due weight. So scripture, the text, human reason and human experience are placed all on the same level. In reality human exploration is lifted above scripture and tradition and empowered  to pick and choose how it combines different elements to arrive at truth.

Behind this emergence is the sovereignty of the people, not of God. When it comes to the social well-being of people, and their moral life, the people have final authority. It is the people who decide, the synods which decide, the majorities which decide. Truth is decided by people.  What is authoritative is not decided by scripture.

The heart of the divide is secondly over the view of time and of the future.

One particular view is seen as a progressive view of the future on the one hand, and on the other there is an apocalyptic view of the future.

The progressive view holds that the social order needs to be transformed. The transformative energy of the future needs to be brought in, because there is little transforming energy in the present or past.  The existing social order contains many oppressive and illiberal institutions, customs and values that need to be replaced and the order transformed. The transformative energy of the future needs to be brought in.  There is no transformative energy in the past. It is the pure future that must drive us.

The orthodox view of the future is apocalyptic.  The biblical view is that God’s cosmic order awaits the coming of Christ.  It creates foretastes of the future. It implies a focus on preservation rather than transformation.  But that is not inevitable. The orthodox must show that they are committed to transformational participation along with a conservational one.  The orthodox see the institutions of the past and the practices given as constitutive of a community’s identity. They do not need replacement. They need reformation, they need renewal, they need transformation.  They continue to anticipate the coming of Christ.

Thirdly there is also a retreat of belief in the area of religion and a focus on the practice and experience of faith. Many people see themselves as religious or spiritual. The focus is on practical experiences of religion.  Religious practices, allied to self-expression, well-being and inclusive participation have replaced normative truths at the centre of religion. At the heart of religion is not truth, what you believe, but what you experience and what you practice.  That is why even in our churches the focus is on religious experience and practice not on what is truth, and how we hold on to truth, how we teach it, believe it, express it, and how we live it as disciples.

There is a trajectory from belief  which is seen as too dry and rational to experience and practice which means that religious practice and ethical behaviour are disconnected from religious belief.  Truth as a norm is not as important as religious experience

The fourth area is that absolute truths are difficult to justify today. So focus is on practical things.  You do not tell young people these days that this is universally true – you tell them that this is the right experience, this is a good thing for you to experience rather than something to believe. Truth is not as important as the right kind of experience, an experience that changes and transforms you, that contributes to your well-being and enables you to feel nice.  To talk about truth, as a universal, suggests we are imposing things on people and we do not wish to impose anything on anyone today.  So we include all possible religious experiences.

The special place and role of South Africa in the Human Rights Struggle.

For me, as someone who grew up in India, and focused deeply on the social dimension of the gospel, on the transformation that the gospel brings to the poor communities, to communities that are in conflict, what has happened in South Africa was of great significance. The transformation that South Africa experienced and brings continues to be iconic in social transformation. You have led the way in many areas, and demonstrated that oppressive social situations and systems can be overthrown – and that reconciliation is still possible, that truth is possible.  These are iconic things.  Do not ever forget how important you are in global social images.  So how is your church going to be used in the present Anglican struggles?

That is why the setting up of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans in Southern Africa is so critically important.   Can you from an orthodox biblical faith bring biblical gifts to shape this social agenda that is at the heart of South African social identity?  If South Africa is simply going to take a human rights agenda that is not tempered or shaped by biblical truth, but shaped principally by the ideology of rights and uses the iconic status of leaders such as Desmond  Tutu and Nelson Mandela to silence any questions to its agenda, whether in human sexuality or in any other area, it is not the best gift to the world from South Africa. It is up to you, small as you are, to say “No, we will draw on all the best of South Africa, its journey in reconciliation, its journey in throwing off religious prejudices, its journey in social transformation; but we will also recognize its weaknesses – its weakness in moral frameworks, its inability to be able to uphold truths. Are you prepared to be prophetic that way?  Not prophetic in saying: “ This is the mission God has given to South Africa, lets push it all over”. Rather, prophetic in being obedient to what the Bible is teaching.

Can you bring the biblical resources of faith to shape the heart of South Africa’s agenda?  You will draw on the best of South Africa’s journey of social transformation. But you are called to the prophetic stance of the obedient disciple, rather than the prophetic stance of this political people who have discovered the political stance of a political ideological vision, and believe they are now the new messiah. The liberals have become what they never were before, they have become messianic. This is the new universal with the new universal of human rights which is being imposed, claiming that this is how everybody should behave, this is what freedom means, this is what women are, this is what men are, this is what religion should be.  This has become the new universal. these rights are self-evident –and if the Bible teaches anything different, the Bible is either wrong or is corrected. Let the Holy Spirit guide and lead you differently. What is needed is obedience to the word, humility in the light of what God wants to teach us.

This is what the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans is about. This is the heart of the struggle.  The Church is doing this not just for the sake of the church, we are doing it for society as well, for social transformation and for our political life.

One of the saddest experiences for me recently has been the scandal of MPs’ expenses in the UK and the misuse of  money.  One never expected that at the heart of the political establishment in the UK you can have such ethical ambiguity.

That is why holding on to a moral framework that is biblical, recognizing the authority of scripture, and challenging regimes that have placed themselves as the moral frameworks and seek to define relationships and morality and say “They have to be accountable to the word of God” is our calling.  We will always be few, but if we do not hold on we are not serving the kingdom of God.


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