Michael Poon – An Eirenic Voice from the Global South?

Undercurrents in the Anglican Communion

by Michael Poon

In whatever ways we justify and reinterpret the Communion instruments of the Anglican Communion, it is clear the instruments no longer serve to unite Anglican churches worldwide. Canterbury, the Lambeth Conferences, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meetings have become an obstacle rather than means of solving the Communion ills.

The reasons are clear. The ‘Anglican Communion’ itself, understood as a ‘Christian World Communion’ alongside the Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and other families of churches, is a novel idea in the post Western missionary era. The instruments emerged in haphazard ways amid the devolution of metropolitan authorities from Canterbury and New York to churches in the southern continents. To be sure, they were useful to connect churches with one another in years surrounding the independence of the southern churches. They have now become part of the problem, and have lost their legitimacy in the new conditions in the new century. For one, international conferences are expensive exercises, which are hardly sustainable in present-day economic conditions. More important, there is a worrying disconnect between what happens at Communion-levels and takes place at local levels. The faithful in their parishes are expected to remain loyal Anglicans week in and week out. To them, the Anglican disputes are irrelevant. Many of them perhaps have not even heard about the Anglican Communion Covenant. Churches of weaker numerical strengths and in more fragile conditions are sidelined as well in a high-stake and wasting religious war.

The two watch-words of the Anglican Communion Covenant – ‘Accountability and Interdependence’ are not merely policy matters between top clerics around the globe. They express our communal life – “one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father” (Ephesians 4:4-6). They point us to the ascended Christ’s continuing sanctifying work in the church – “to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Which points to an urgent need to clarify the subtle movements of thought that are shaping the ways we approach communal life. The Anglican family of churches are not merely confronted with a faith/moral issue (namely, same sex unions and homosexuality), and a question on order (namely, Windsor-compliance). Anglicans have dealt with explosive issues before. The 1948 Lambeth decisions on ordination of women was one that deeply offended the Chinese Anglicans. However, the present issues have become intractable, and are fast plunging the Anglican Communion towards breakup. Polemicists from different sides of the disputes have not really addressed the deep-seated powerful currents that are twisting the ways we connect with one another.

In brief:

  1. To church leaders in sub-Sahara Africa, does the strong protest against Western decadence in fact reveal a deep anxiety on your ecclesial identity? Jean-François Bayert in his seminal essay “Africa in the world: A history of extraversion” pointed out that African leaders are disposed to mobilise resources from their relationship with the external environment in order to legitimise their own authority and enhance their social status. [See African Affairs, No. 395 (2000): 231-237.]  External connections, therefore, are indispensable to African societies. The Church of England and the Episcopal Church have acted as chief reference points for African churches. Does not then the perceived Western decadence provoke a deep identity crisis? Can African churches in fact use the present crisis as an opportunity to rediscover the sources of their inner security? Which means African churches need to develop a more coherent understanding of their ecclesiology
  2. Is GAFCON the only valid expression of Anglican evangelicalism, especially the only way to keep faith to John Stott‘s legacy in today’s world? Arguably, John Stott created evangelical structures and helped to shape most of the present leadership in the southern continents. The formation of many top Anglican leaders worldwide can be traced to EFAC, Langham Trust and related networks. GAFCON organisers Chris Sugden, Michael Nazir-Ali and Vinay Samuel merely inherited the infrastructures that John Stott left behind. At the same time, does not John Stott offer a more generous ecclesial vision, and a more charitable way to speak the truth in love, than what GAFCON offers? The deeply-divided evangelical Anglican fraternity worldwide –across the GAFCON and Global South networks – needs to come together to sort out their internal wars. They owe this to their fellow Anglicans – and to John Stott.
  3. Is American Christianity in fact using the churches worldwide to be theatres for its domestic religious wars?  In what ways should American Christians moderate their imperialist ambitions to set standards and offer solutions to the rest of the world? From the end of the 1940s, American Christianity has been exporting their religious quarrels overseas. The conflict between two Princetonians in the 1940s and 1950s – Carl McIntire of the International Council of Christian Churches and John McKay of the World Council of Churches – is a case in point. Since then, ecumenicals and evangelicals have fought turf wars in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Do patriotic American Christians – with huge suspicion on what is ‘un-American’ – really want to come under foreign church leadership? Or are many of the present ecclesiastical arrangements matters of marriage of convenience?

Clearly, these three undercurrents are not the only shaping forces at work. But they are a starting point. Such lurking movements of thought need to be brought to light, articulated, and confronted in public discussions. This reality check may well help polemicists from all sides to identify key issues and work out the way forward. What is clear is that, Christians worldwide need one another “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3: 18). Appeals to historic prerogatives and century-old traditions no longer work. Anglicans worldwide need to let go of rhetoric, put matters on the table, and see one another and the world with fresh eyes. We owe this to one another as fellow citizens and members of God’s household.

The alternative is bleak. Breakups will be messy, and will certainly lead to huge membership loss. To lead the Anglican faithful in a continuing internal conflict that promises no resolution is a grievous sin. In this world that is in desperate human need, there are greater causes for sensitive souls and bright minds to devote their lives.


The Revd Dr Michael Nai Chiu Poon is Director and Asian Christianity Coordinator of the Centre for the Study of Christianty in Asia (CSCA) at Trinity Theological College (TTC) in Singapore.

_________________________________________________________________

When I first began to log onto the original ‘Glocal South Anglican’ web-site, some years ago, I noted one voice among the contributors  (of a theologian from Singapore) – to be that of Fr. Michael Poon, whose article we have here on the ‘Reform’ web-site today. To my mind, Michael Poon was then one of the more eirenic voices coming out of the Global South network – often contradicting those of the more belligerent Provincial Leaders in what eventually became known as the GAFCON sodality in the Communion.

Whatever our opinion about affairs in the Communion today, I believe that Michael Poon is still a basically ‘Anglican’ theological mind in that part of the Church now known as the ‘Global South’ – which seems, as an entity, to be rather less concerned with building its own empire within the Communion than it’s constituent parts around the more conservative African Churches. From this article, it is obvious that Michael sees the ‘Covenant’ process as the only viable way to bind together a divided Communion – bearing in mind the seemingly self-promotional ethos of GAFCON, and the determinative inclusivity of TEC and the more liberal Provinces of the Communion. The intention of TEC and others to open up the Church to Gays and Women has reinforced the conservatism of those Third World Provinces that mostly see openness to women and gays as akin to heresy.

Considering Poon’s position, in  the actual geographical situation of his home Province of Singapore – which has aligned itself with the ‘Global South’ while not necessarily agreeing to GAFCON’s stand-off from the Western Churches of the Communion – one can perhaps understand his point of view on the need for Provinces of the Communion to find a via media for continuing ecclesial connection as ‘Anglicans’.

However, Poon’s reference to people like  ‘GAFCON organisers Chris Sugden, Michael Nazir-Ali and Vinay Samuel’ as inheritors of the legacy of the late Evangelical Preacher John Stott, is probably to show too much deference to their intention or ability to inspire any unifying influence within the Provinces of the world-wide Communion. Messrs. Sugden and Samuel, for instance, have already made their gafcon influence felt in their encouragement of the Archbishop of Kenya to ordain local clergy into the underground quasi-Anglican Church in the U.K., which they are pleased to call The ‘Anglican Mission in England’ (AMiE), which seems to be a clone of other invasive plantings of African Churches into North America. These para-churches are already associating themselves with the schismatic body of ACNA. in the U.S. and Canada.

This movement into other Provinces by the GAFCON Churches is a divisive, rather than a unifying influence in the world-wide Anglican Communion – a point which Dr.Michael Poon seems not to refer to in his latest plea for Unity in the Communion. I respectfully submit to Dr. Poon that the recent visit of Global South Primates to the nationalist ‘Christian Church’ in China, without reference to the rest of the Provinces of the Communion is a deliberate act of separation from the rest of the Churches in the Communion.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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