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+ John Ellison on the Anglican Church in North America

In preparation for the first Provincial Assembly of the Anglican Church of North America, to be held in Bedford, Texas, 22-25 June 2009, the Right Revd John Ellison, the retired Bishop of Paraguay, discusses the marks of a true church – apostolicity, catholicity, holiness and unity.

He argues that the Church of England is in danger of becoming a backwater within Global Anglicanism if it fails to recognise and partner with the new Province.

Bishop John Ellison on the Anglican Church in North America from Stephen Sizer on
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Bishop John Ellison reflects on the marks of a true church as found in the Anglican Church in North America

As I have been thinking about the first Provincial Assembly of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) I have wondered how leaders, especially those bishops in the Church of England who have been invited, will in fact respond. Will we as a church make sure we are represented? My firm conviction is that the ACNA shows the marks of the true church as affirmed by the Nicene and the Niceno Constantinoplan Creeds, that it to say apostolicity, catholicity, holiness and unity.

1. The mark of apostolicity. Then as now apostolicity links the contemporary church with the Apostles of the New Testament and ensures that the church is both earthed historically as well as establishing the vital link of continuity. To speak of apostolicity is to affirm that there is a clearly definable content to the Bible which is not ours to tamper with. The ACNA in its commitment to Scripture and apostolic teaching is clearly worthy of our encouragement and support.

2. The mark of catholicity. Catholicity speaks to us of the church worldwide across national and international boundaries, as well as temporally across the centuries. “Where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church”, famously wrote Ignatius of Antioch in 110AD. Here is the vital safeguard against parochialism, being concerned only with the local and negligent of the wider church catholic. “Those to whom God is Father, the church may also be Mother”, wrote John Calvin (Institutes 4.1.1) He added “One may not put asunder what God has joined together”. As English Christians we should rejoice in the coming together of so many different expressions of North American Anglicanism embracing the vision of both Ignatius and John Calvin. At a time when TEC is sadly but relentlessly turning its back on the wider Anglican Communion, we should be glad to know of the continuing witness to the church both catholic and reformed that is represented within the ACNA and give it our support.

3. The mark of holiness. Holiness has been so emphasized as a mark of the church by both Protestant and Catholic theologians, that we might be tempted to take it for granted. Nevertheless, given the worldliness of so much of the contemporary church in the West, it is reassuring to have in the ACNA a firm testimony to the Christian difference seen in the holy living of the church over against the surrounding secular culture. The ACNA unequivocally affirms that holiness is God’s calling to God’s people, both individually and collectively. In the coming together of different Anglican traditions within the new province there is a renewed emphasis on the corporate nature of our common discipleship. ACNA represents a clear turning away from the excessive individualism that we have seen in TEC and gives us hope that in other western cultures by God’s grace, orthodox belief and behaviour can be brought back together again.

4. The mark of unity. The unity of the church only assumes significant meaning as it grows out of apostolicity, catholicity and holiness. We have in the new province a serious expression of all these characteristics. We might also add that if the church’s suffering is a further sign of authenticity, then the ACNA has much to teach us.

We need to hope and pray that the Church of England will be properly represented at the inauguration of this new province at Forth Worth later this month.

Bishop John was interviewed this week by Stephen Sizer on the ACNA. The transcript is below.

Q What would you say to those who say you are breaking up the Church in forming a new province?

JE That only makes sense if your priority is some sort of institutional unity and that you actually put order above doctrine. My fear is, looking at this from within the English perspective, that the priority in the Church of England is order rather than doctrine – order in the sense of conforming to the rules and regulations that we as a church have put in place which no longer function and have not been exercised to stop the spread of heresy both in belief or behaviour either in the TEC or the Anglican Church of Canada (ACoC) Those who have had the courage to stand up and be counted on these issues are the very people who are part of this new province.

Q What are the specific issues that have led to the formation of this province?

The fundamental issue is the loss of the focus on gospel. However you look at TEC or the ACoC, The people of deep gospel conviction who have obviously been there as the classic evangelicals over the decades and also within the anglo-catholic end of the spectrum, they have been chopped off. What you have ended up with is a bland middle – that is particularly the case in the ACoC, and in the TEC you have not a bland middle but an aggressive neo-liberal leadership which is actually preaching a different gospel. That is well documented on the various websites. That is the heart issue – it is a rejection of authentic Christianity.

Q. Were these issues prevalent while you were a serving in Paraguay as bishop?

JE They were in South America where we in the process of establishing new congregations and founding new dioceses, you have to ask what is the church, who are we and what we are doing that neither Roman Catholic nor Pentecostal Churches are already doing. What is our reason for being here as Anglicans? We have received immense encouragement to be ourselves from the Roman Catholic leadership and the leadership of many Pentecostal denominations. What shocked them and the areas where we were called to give account was when they asked the question over recent years – “Is the Anglican Communion a serious church?” because of the things we were tolerating both about belief and behaviour. So we had to redouble our efforts to make sure our people were taught about the nature of the true church and that we are part of it.

Q What is the timescale for this new province?

JE Later this month there will be the inauguration of a new province in North America, moving beyond the different strands that have been working together and seeing growth over recent years and coming together as never before. The exciting this is that it brings together people of deep conviction both of a more catholic and more reformed background.

Q What do you think the response is going to be from the Church of England towards the new province.

JE The evidence at the moment is that it is trying to ignore it. My hope and prayer is that a diocesan bishop who will have the courage to say that this is something we must identify with for the sake of the global communion. That is where the majority of Anglicans worldwide will be. They will be identified with what is happening in the United States. Not to do anything , to pretend it is not happening, will be further evidence to our brethren, particularly in Africa but in many other parts of the Communion too that the Church of England is moving out of the mainstream of Anglican identity worldwide.

Q The primary support that we are seeing so far for ACNA seems to be coming from the provinces that have been planted as missionary churches in Africa and South America.

JE It is this old story of the family grows up and the children assume responsibility and leadership. How do we as aging parents, if you like grandparents, respond to the new reality. The Church of England is finding it desperately difficult to respond to this new reality – of leadership being given in quite extraordinary ways by non-Anglo-Saxon leadership.

Q. We see TEC trying to seize properties of faithful gospel churches, removing the licences of clergy, seek to defrock bishops in North America, and numerous court cases are going on as well. Where do you see this going?

JE. The litigation culture saturates North American society and it is prevalent within the life of the church. The first thing you do is to go for the properties. These are measurables. What we are seeing in the process is a part of what was once the Anglican Communion beginning to move in its own direction to become an independent organization. It is no coincidence that it simply calls itself The Episcopal Church and seeking to influence many others worldwide. They have their own agenda which they will follow fairly relentlessly.

Q Where do you see Global Anglicanism in the next 10 years? What would your hope be for the Anglican Communion and what is your fear?

JE We see the historic shift of the Church from the East to the West and now to the South. That movement will continue. It does not depend on the Church of England. It has its own momentum and its own pattern. The question is whether we are prepared to learn from the experience of the wider church or not. They want to learn from us. The high regard with which many Anglican leaders and many others hold the Church of England is quite remarkable. We have to enter into a different kind of partnership where we are prepared to learn from one another and much more humbly recognize our interdependence. My hope is that we will do just that. We need the help of the wider church catholic to move forward here in England. They are ready to give it. It is a prayerful yearning for the restoration and the renewal of the Church here in England. They want to be alongside us so that by God’s grace that can happen.

My fear is that we will further isolate ourselves from what is happening in the church worldwide and without being aware of it get further out of step with God the Holy Spirit in terms of the moves that is so dominant in the south and in the worldwide church. We must avoid the terrible kind of parochialism which is not just there in parishes but also in provinces which forget the global catholic reality. This could happen in the provinces of Canterbury and York if we further isolate ourselves from the vibrant Anglicanism of the wider Communion.

Q Where do you see the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans gathering on July 6th having a strategic role to play?
JE. It can be a key moment for raising our awareness of the global Catholic church and to help us to see the great things that God is doing in other parts of the world and saying : “This is tremendous. What more could we do in England with the support of these our brethren and what do we by God’s grace have to give them so that we are truly working together, perhaps as we never believed possible in recent years in partnership in the gospel.

Watch the interview here

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