You’d think, wouldn’t you, that you could trust the news reports which emanate from the official Office of the Worldwide Anglican Communion. You’d hope, wouldn’t you, that the Anglican Communion News Service (ACNS) might issue factual statements of reliable and verifiable truth, as all good reporting should be, instead of tinted opinion with a tainted political agenda, as all journalism so often is.
A few days ago, the ACNS carried an account of the Primates’ Meeting in Canterbury Cathedral, entitled: ‘Archbishop Welby “taken aback” by Las Vegas prayer criticism‘. It was shocking in its content – that, basically, conservative Anglican Primates were “put.. in a difficult spot” when Bishop Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the US Episcopal Church (currently under discipline for permitting same-sex marriage), had been asked to lead them in a prayer at Evensong following the Las Vegas shooting atrocity. Speaking at a press conference, the media spokesman for the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), the Rev’d Canon Andrew Gross, who also speaks on behalf of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), was reported to have said that the GAFCON Primates were “forced to look like they are walking together when they are not walking together”.
So trustworthy and reliable was this report deemed to be that it circled the Worldwide Anglican Twittersphere and Blogosphere in 40 minutes: ‘Las Vegas shooting: Anglican Primates complain about having to pray together‘. Tweet after condemnatory tweet after incredulous Facebook post followed. What petty, narrow-minded, not to say bigoted and self-righteous pharisees these GAFCON Primates must be. And what a piece of uncharitable work the Rev’d Canon Andrew Gross must be, totally devoid of grace, mercy or compassion.
At some point the next day (and certainly after this blog had published its comments on the matter) the Anglican Communion News Service issued a correction, or, rather, a clarification:
This article was amended on 4 October, to make clear that Canon Gross was not thought to be speaking on behalf of any Anglican primates and that his church, the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) is not part of the Anglican Communion or involved in the Primates’ Meeting.
Not thought to be…?
Didn’t they bother checking?
Setting aside the status of the ACNA, how can the official Press Officer @Gafconference & Director of Communications @The_ACNA speaking at an official press conference not be speaking on behalf GAFCON Primates, on whose behalf he speaks?
It is interesting, is it not, that while the ACNS was eager to correct the impression (which they certainly gave) that GAFCON Primates had objected to being ambushed by Bishop Michael Curry’s prayer, they were content to leave the Rev’d Canon Andrew Gross hanging out for the crows and vultures to peck and pick at his Christian sincerity and character integrity. And so they did: “What a marvellous model of mission he must have. What a vision of visible unity he must possess. What an inspirational witness to the world his purity must be…”
For which comment this post is an unequivocal apology to the Rev’d Canon Andrew Gross, and a sincere attempt to set the record straight.
And doing so must begin with the observation that the Anglican Communion News Service is not merely an Anglican news service, but a journalistic enterprise with a theo-political bent and a distinctly smeary mission to defame Anglicans whose moral worldview it doesn’t particularly like.
In fact, it is not beyond the wit of the ACNS to propagate Anglican Fake News to tarnish ACNA/GAFCON Primates (and other members) for holding their divisive orthodox Anglican views. The article ‘Archbishop Welby “taken aback” by Las Vegas prayer criticism‘ is a misleading story which has propagated a number of falsehoods. It appears that the Rev’d Canon Andrew Gross was, in fact, set-up and has been unjustly accused.
Long before this Primates’ Meeting, the leaders of GAFCON recognised the difficulty (but necessity) of keeping church politics out of worship at such gatherings. For them, divisions in the Anglican Communion are perceived to be very serious indeed, and they are of the view that the Communion’s entire future demands honesty about this lack of unity. For others, the issues are secondary theological matters which do not affect the fundamental Anglican koinonia. At a Primates’ Meeting, notwithstanding some notable absentees, there is a temptation to convey a unity – “walking together” – which not all feel is remotely near the truth.
The agreement that was put in place at the 2016 Primates’ Meetings was that no act of worship would be publicised, precisely because such publicity could be improperly used (or at least be perceived to be used) for political gain. GAFCON Primates assumed that the same agreement would obtain in 2017, by which their members might come to Canterbury and worship without distraction (or fear of being ‘used’).
Unfortunately, pictures and reports about Bishop Michael Curry’s leading prayer dominated the front page of the ACNS website, publicising what should have remained a private moment among the Primates. This was perceived as a breach of trust. GAFCON Primates had no problem with his prayer, or any objection to praying with him: what they found difficult was the politicisation of the praying.
On Tuesday, GAFCON held one of their regularly scheduled press briefings which covered a range of topics. An ACNS representative, Gavin Drake, arrived at this press conference without accreditation, and without agreement. There was some discussion about whether he ought to be asked to follow agreed procedures and withdraw, but generosity of spirit was considered the nobler course of action, so he was permitted to stay. After all, neither the ACNA nor GAFCON have anything to hide.
Although they were not happy with the ACNS publicising the worship in Canterbury Cathedral, the GAFCON comms team had no intention of bringing the matter up. But the Rev’d Canon Andrew Gross was asked directly by a Times journalist whether it was difficult for GAFCON to have the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church preside over worship at Evensong. Canon Gross, hearing that key word ‘preside’, said that it puts those Primates in a difficult spot because it can portray a false sense of unity. It was a straightforward answer to a direct question which simply reiterated the 2016 agreement. It was certainly not said with any animus, but was merely the re-stating of a fact. The conversation swiftly moved on.
Gavin Drake, who is also staffing the official Primates’ Meeting communications team, used their official press conference later that afternoon to ask the Archbishop of Canterbury about Canon Gross’s answer, giving Justin Welby an impression which was some distance from Canon Gross’s intention and meaning: the context was transported from the Primates’ 2016 agreement and the question of TEC’s bishop presiding at Evensong to an issue about the TEC’s bishop praying at Evensong about the Las Vegas atrocity. Mr Drake then turned the Archbishop’s “taken aback” reply into the next front-page story on the ACNS website. It was not accurate: it was a smear. It was fake news at its Anglican worst.
The Times journalist was perfectly free to ask a leading question: the task of the Christian press officer (and certainly of a Christian director of communications) is to respond factually and truthfully, mindful of the questioner’s motive. It appears that Gavin Drake took Canon Gross’s response, manipulated it, and planted it at another press conference for the Archbishop of Canterbury to condemn.
Indeed, the Archbishop could do nothing but condemn it.
If all he had to respond to was a terse oral extract from the ACNS report, he would be wholly justified in castigating Canon Gross for his grossly insensitive remarks.
But the purpose of putting the question to Justin Welby (presumably without warning) was to slander the ACNA and the GAFCON coalition of Primates. And to that end, it appears to have been successful. They have been universally scorned and derided (including on this blog).
It helps to know some of the relational history.
At the 2003 Primates’ Meeting, the Archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, and two others, refused to participate in a service of Holy Communion with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev’d Frank Griswold. The Very Rev’d George Conger broke that story for the Church of England Newspaper (which the ACNS said was a lie, but he had the account first-hand from Archbishop Akinola himself). That fissure in communion has evolved over the years so that the Primates as a collegial body have not worshipped together at the Eucharist since.
George Conger writes:
At the beginning, Archbishop Rowan Williams would hold communion services, which the conservatives would not attend. By the end of his tenure Williams gave up corporate Eucharists for daily Evensong services. Welby continued this practice – but for many years the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has not presided at one of these services due to the scandal his church’s actions have caused.
Hence the agreement in 2016 that acts of worship would not be publicised, so couldn’t be politicised.
When Canon Gross was asked by a journalist to comment on the matter of Bishop Michael Curry presiding at Evensong, the context was not linked to the Las Vegas shooting. Only later, in fact, was it learned that the Primates had asked Bishop Curry to lead them in prayer for Las Vegas, but he had not presided over anything, as Canon Gross had been led to believe.
When Gavin Drake (who, you must remember, is editor of the Anglican Communion News Service) put his question to the Archbishop of Canterbury (his ultimate boss), it was not a casual query to elicit grace and enlightenment, but a pointed attempt to score a hit against GAFCON. It was not only premeditated slander wholly lacking in Christian virtue and professional journalistic integrity, but an egregious manipulation to elicit outrage from the Archbishop of Canterbury who was asked to respond to a false accusation that GAFCON had said it was wrong for Bishop Curry to lead prayers in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting.
They had said no such thing.
The Rev’d Canon Andrew Gross had never said any such thing.
Apologies to him, once again, for simply trusting the ACNS story, which was, in fact, nothing but Anglican fake news.