Jerusalem bishop calls GAFCON participants to reconciliation, not division
By Matthew Davies, June 22, 2008
[Episcopal News Service] Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem Suheil Dawani has called on participants of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) to approach their summit in a spirit of "peace, reconciliation and goodwill," saying that "it is crucial to the Anglican witness here in Jerusalem and to the wider world that this is so."
Dawani, who has expressed concerns that the June 22-29 conference would import "inter-Anglican conflict" into his diocese and made earlier calls for it to be moved, addressed GAFCON participants during a June 22 service of Evening Prayer at St. George's Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem.
Describing the Anglican community in the Holy Land as "orthodox," Dawani told ENS: "We do not agree with recent developments in the Episcopal Church concerning sexuality, but that is not going to divide us. Unity is at the heart of the gospel and we as indigenous Christians in this Holy Land are committed to the work of peace, justice and reconciliation."
Expected to draw more than 1,000 conservative Anglicans, including some 280 bishops, the GAFCON summit is viewed by some critics as a "divisive event" and a rival to the 2008 Lambeth Conference, but is described by its organizers as an opportunity to develop a "renewed understanding of our identity as Anglican Christians."
Among GAFCON's participants are Episcopal Church bishops Keith Ackerman of Quincy, Jack Iker of Fort Worth, Peter Beckwith of Springfield, Bob Duncan of Pittsburgh, five Anglican primates and several former Episcopalians, some of whom have been consecrated as bishops in other Anglican provinces but are not officially recognized as such by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
GAFCON also brings together several Anglican breakaway groups that have formed in recent years.
Refuting claims that GAFCON is about schism, Iker told ENS that the conference is "all about a renewal of confidence in Anglicanism."
Ackerman told ENS that some of the bishops at GAFCON will also be attending the Lambeth Conference. "If this is a rival to Lambeth, nobody told us," he said.
During his address, Dawani underscored his commitment to the Lambeth Conference, emphasizing that the once-a-decade gathering of bishops, set for July 16-August 3 in Canterbury, England, "is so important to our ongoing life together and for the mission of the church."
Since its inception in 1867, the Lambeth Conference "has been the setting for invaluable dialogue about many aspects of our church's life," he added. "Throughout its history, the Lambeth Conference has dealt with many difficult issues. At times these issues looked as if they might divide us, but they did not because we persevered in prayer and fellowship, together with respect and patience. It is in that same spirit that I welcome you here to this Cathedral Church."
Bishop Robert O'Neill of the Diocese of Colorado, who is visiting Jerusalem at Dawani's invitation, told media following the service that "the witness of the church in this region is the embodiment of Anglicanism itself -- a Christian community grounded in the historical faith and able to build bridges of reconciliation across all the lines that divide and separate us."
On June 19, GAFCON's organizers released a document, "The Way, The Truth and the Life," which, according to a news release on the conference website, "sets out to define authentic Anglicanism, discuss what is at stake in the conflict, and what the future holds for orthodox Anglicans."
In the document, which is critical of recent developments in the Episcopal Church, Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria writes: "We have made enormous efforts since 1997 in seeking to avoid this crisis, but without success. Now we confront a moment of decision."
"There is no longer any hope, therefore, for a unified Communion," he adds.
GAFCON officially opens the evening of June 22 with an address by Akinola, one of the Anglican Communion's leading critics of the Episcopal Church, who has two bodyguards protecting him while in Jerusalem. Akinola also addressed the congregation at the Evening Prayer service about the importance of GAFCON and the Apostolic Nuncio in Israel, His Eminence Archbishop Antonio Franco, brought greetings and called the church to unity, "that me may all be one."
Throughout the week, GAFCON pilgrims will attend plenary sessions and workshops and visit historic sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Galilee.
GAFCON identifies its goals for the conference as providing "an opportunity for fellowship as well as to continue to experience and proclaim the transforming love of Christ"; developing "a renewed understanding of our identity as Anglican Christians"; and preparing "for an Anglican future in which the Gospel is uncompromised and Christ-centered mission a top priority."
Pittsburgh Bishop Bob Duncan, in an address released to the media June 20, titled Anglicanism Come of Age, said: "We who are gathered here recognize that we are at a turning point in Anglican history, a place where two roads diverge. One road is faithful to Jesus' story. The other road is about some other story…Which road will the Anglican Communion take?"
Participants are expected to release a statement at the conclusion of the conference.
Ackerman said he hopes that GAFCON will enable participants "to see the needs of Palestinian Christians" as well as "return to our Christian roots."
Both Ackerman and Iker confirmed that they will be attending the Lambeth Conference, while Akinola and the primates of Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda have said they intend to boycott the gathering.
In his address, Dawani described the Diocese of Jerusalem's relationships across the Anglican Communion as "a crucial network of bridges on the international scene that bring together Anglicans of 164 countries and 38 provinces worldwide, all of which support and strengthen our witness and mission. We are grateful for our relationships across the breadth of the Anglican Communion, and we have the utmost respect for the Archbishop of Canterbury in his role as our spiritual leader."
As a Christian community in the Holy Land, "we are a voice of moderation in a region of turmoil," Dawani told GAFCON participants. "We are a people who know what it is to live faithfully and with humility in a pluralistic society, facing many challenges, without losing our hold on the biblical faith 'once delivered to the Saints.'
"In a region marked by division and conflict we work for peace and unity. We do so not for the sake of appearance but so that the image of the one God, the God of peace, may be revealed to the world."
The Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem's 37 institutions throughout the Holy Land include hospitals, clinics, kindergartens and schools, vocational training programs, and provide services for the deaf, the disabled and the elderly.
"Our work here is the very presence of Christ among the needy, offered without differentiation based on religion, gender, or nationality," Dawani said.
Earlier in the day, GAFCON participants attended services at St. George's Cathedral and the Rev. Canon Samir Habiby, Dawani's special assistant, preached.
"It is critically important for new life to begin with each one of us so that here in Jerusalem the historical community, which is anchored in the biblical faith, continues to witness today as it did at Pentecost," he said. "Arab Christians feel at home in the Anglican Communion because it remains anchored in biblical faith but at the same time allows for meeting contemporary society's issues, whether they are political or religious, with an open mind and incorporates different faith families within that context.
"As pilgrims we should come with an open mind allowing the Holy Spirit to teach each one of us not to build new walls that separate us. The Holy Spirit will and can open new avenues for understanding the issues that impact the church in today's pluralistic society," he added.
-- Matthew Davies is editor of Episcopal Life Online and Episcopal Life Media correspondent for the Anglican Communion.