SEA CHANGE IN THE ANGLICAN COMMUNION: GAFCON and Communion Governance, with an Afterword from the Conference

By the Rev. Prof. Stephen Noll

There has been a sea change in the Anglican Communion over the past two decades. The vestments may be the same, the assorted “reverend” titles untouched, the website still showing smiling Global South Anglican faces. The reality is far different. The foundation of Anglican identity has been shaken, and with the Psalmist, many rightly wonder: “if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:3).

The presenting cause of this sea change, as is widely known, is the acceptance and promotion of homosexuality and the redefinition of marriage. For 350 years, Anglican weddings in England and abroad have begun with these words:

Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church

When this doctrine of Holy Matrimony was challenged in the 1990s by gay-rights advocates in two Anglican Provinces – The Episcopal Church USA (TEC) and the Anglican Church of Canada (ACoC) – the Lambeth Conference of bishops answered decisively that

This Conference, in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage. (Resolution I.10)

The Lambeth Resolution led to a decade of strife within the Communion as the North Americans flatly rejected its norm and now are on the brink of providing official same-sex marriage rites. In the UK, same-sex marriage has now been signed into law by the Queen, and the Prime Minister vows to export it to the  Commonwealth partners. While the Church of England has not approved same-sex marriage, the Archbishop of Canterbury argues that same-sex civil unions are a neglected moral obligation: “It is clearly essential that stable and faithful same sex relationships should, where those involved want it, be recognised and supported with as much dignity and the same legal effect as marriage” (Speech in House of Lords, 3 June 2013).

But isn’t sex outside marriage “incompatible with Scripture” (1998 Lambeth Resolution I.10; cf. Resolutions III.1 and III.5)? Indeed the larger question underlying the sexuality debate entails the authority of the Bible. To which question Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori replies, channeling her inner Humpty Dumpty: “When I use the Word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Or so it seems, as Bishop Schori interprets St. Paul’s exorcism of a slave girl, oppressed by demonic and human masters (Acts 16:16-18):

Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison. That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so!

Permit me, as a biblical scholar and defrocked (by TEC) priest, to protest: that an apostolic leader can twist the text of Scripture and rebuke St. Paul as she does is emblematic of the false Gospel rampant in her church, and that she remains unrebuked by and in good standing with her elders in the Communion is emblematic of the utter dysfunction of that body. In what sense can one call it a “Communion” when such denial of the faith passes for normal?


Communion Governance

This essay is not about hermeneutics or sexuality but about “ecclesiastical polity,” how the Church constitutes and organizes its common life. But the two topics are linked; indeed the sea change in theology has caused a sea change in Communion governance as well.

In classical political theory, there are only so many models of polity: rule by one, rule by the few, and rule by the many. Aristotle commended a mixed polity as the most feasible of regimes, but a mixed regime is not the same as a mixed-up regime; it must have a coherent rationale, as in the instance of constitutional republics.

Classical theorists were doubtful about how far genuine polity could extend beyond a particular city or nation, into what we now call international relations. The Church, however, is by its mission charter a worldwide institution, stretching to the ends of the earth, and the Anglican Communion, with churches “locally adapted” to their regions, reflects that global character better than many other church bodies.

I will argue that there are three basic models of Communion governance: a loose association of purely autonomous Provinces, a conciliar communion of churches, and an executive bureaucracy.


First Model: Pure Autonomy

One could argue that pure autonomy is the starting point of Anglican polity, going back to Henry VIII’s detaching the national church from the Roman See. “Provincial” autonomy, usually following national boundaries, is a bedrock principle of the Anglican Communion. It was not always so. When the English began founding overseas colonies, the Church of England maintained control from afar. This policy weakened the Anglican church in the American colonies and led to the formation of independent Methodist and Episcopal churches there. Other colonial churches remained formally tethered to the Mother Church, which eventually awarded them missionary bishops and provincial synods.

The calling of the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 was precipitated by a theological and political crisis in South Africa – the so-called Colenso affair. The meeting of 76 bishops established two precedents: that “provinces” would be organized on a one-per-region basis as recognized by the Archbishop of Canterbury; and that the “conference” of bishops would have no legal authority within England or other jurisdictions. Both these precedents continue to this day. Although there are a few anomalous overlapping jurisdictions, the 38 listed provinces are the only “official” churches of the Communion. And while there have been proposals for structuring the Communion more formally – e.g., in 1930, more of which below,  , these proposals have been stillborn.

Once a geographical province is recognized, are there any limits on its autonomy in terms of doctrine, discipline and worship? The answer is, theoretically, yes. The American Prayer Book (1789) states that liturgical alterations are acceptable “provided the substance of the Faith be kept entire.” The first Lambeth Conference took a similar stance: while allowing for liturgical adaptation, it stated that “it is necessary that [provinces] receive and maintain without alteration the standards of the faith and doctrine as now in use in that [the Mother] Church” (Resolution 8).

The 1930 Report on the Anglican Communion poses the nightmare scenario of a church exercising its freedom and departing the faith:

This freedom naturally and necessarily carries with it the risk of divergence to the point even of disruption. In case any such risk should actually arise, it is clear that the Lambeth Conference as such could not take any disciplinary action. Formal action would belong to the several Churches of the Anglican Communion individually; but the advice of the Lambeth Conference, sought before action is taken by the constituent Churches, would carry very great moral weight. And we believe in the Holy Spirit. We trust in His power working in every part of His Church to hold us together.

The conclusion from 1930 is that the Anglican Communion per se has no authority to deal with heresy and schism and leaves any action to each autonomous province. Nevertheless, the “moral weight” of Christian unity did indeed work as hoped – until recently.


The Episcopal Church USA and Anglican Church of Canada are the nightmare come true. Repeatedly boasting of their provincial autonomy, the North Americans obstructed the will of the larger Communion with little more than insincere expressions of “regret” and porous “moratoria” which expire whenever the next bishop or diocese decides to take “prophetic” action, e.g. in adding “transgender rights” to marriage and ordination.

Given their functional autonomy, one might ask why these churches care to remain in the Communion. The truth is, their radical agenda is transnational and they believe they can eventually infiltrate the official structures and divide and conquer the poorer churches of the Communion. If the Communion bodies were somehow to fight back and exercise discipline in such a way that these churches had to choose between conforming to its standards and “walking apart,” they would separate and take some of their client churches with them.

While the crisis of the last decade has in some ways united churches of the Global South, they too are tempted to throw up their hands in frustration and operate autonomously. These churches have their own independent constitutions and have been growing without significant help from the West. They do not have funds, unless lured from the Western coffers, to travel worldwide to international meetings. The radical agenda has been, at least until recently, foreign to their culture, and they face greater challenges from Islam and Pentecostalism. “No more meetings,” some say, “let’s just mind the church here at home.” Ironically, this attitude opens the door for TEC and ACoC to enter the Global South, bribing weaker members with “development aid.”

The sea change in theology has weakened the ties that bind Anglicans around the world and raised the question whether “Communion” is not an empty label. There is nothing inherently wrong with autonomous governance of a church so long it preserves the faith intact. Many Protestant and free church bodies operate this way. Such autonomy does, however, fall short of the ideal of a worldwide Communion expressed in Ellerton’s famous hymn:

As o’er each continent and island
The dawn leads on another day,
The voice of prayer is never silent,
Nor dies the strain of praise away.


Second Model: The Conciliar Authority of Bishops

The model of ecclesiastical polity which I think best reflects the role of the historic episcopate in Anglicanism, is rule by bishops in council. “Conciliarity” can mean a variety of things. It does not mean the absolute authority of bishops, either independently or collegially. Bishops are responsible to the whole church through their diocesan synods of clergy and laity, and Primates are responsible to their provincial synods. Nevertheless, the historic tradition of the church has always granted bishops a special role in matters of doctrine and discipline. In terms of ecclesiology, the idea of the church being guided by bishops begins with the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 and proceeds to the ecumenical councils of the undivided church.

The Great Schism in 1054 and the rise of papalism in the late Middle Ages introduced an alternative form of church order among Roman Catholics, although recollections of conciliar governance surfaced briefly at the Council of Constance (1414-1418). The Reformers, including Thomas Cranmer, held out some hope for a Protestant general council, but dominance of the autonomous state church model in Europe prevented its implementation.

The advent of the Anglican Communion in the mid-19th century necessitated a rethinking of authority in Anglicanism. Several promoters of the first Lambeth Conference hoped to convene a council of bishops that would deal with specific concerns for doctrine and discipline raised by Bishop Colenso’s attack on biblical authority. While Archbishop Longley certainly accepted that bishops were the proper invitees, he steered the meeting clear of being considered a council by declaring it a “conference” only, with no authority over the autonomous churches, especially the Church of England. Hence as Paul Valliere notes, “the Lambeth Conference is a living monument to Anglican ambivalence about conciliarism. The gatherings at Lambeth look like episcopal councils, yet they are not. In fact, they were purposely designed not to be councils.”

There were periodic attempts by Anglicans to identify the Anglican Communion as conciliar in character, the most important of those coming to the Lambeth Conference in 1930. Lambeth 1930 is best known for its adoption of the definition of the Communion as “a fellowship, within the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted Dioceses, Provinces or Regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury” (Resolution 49). The Resolution was accompanied by a Report on The Anglican Communion, which was commended but not formally adopted by the Conference.

The Report attempts to describe the essence of Anglican Communion governance thus:

  1. The Anglican Communion sees itself as part of the wider catholic, apostolic and missionary church, which has arisen out of the historical accidents of the divisions within Christendom but which is ecumenical in its hope of final reunion.

  2. The Communion’s identity as “Anglican” is an accident of its derivation from the British Isles, but the flourishing young churches of the Communion have now become autonomous. This statement, in my view, demystifies the idea of churches being “in communion with the See of Canterbury.” It is the historical connection, the “jurisdiction of honor,” that binds the churches of the Communion together with Canterbury.

  3. Of the two available paradigms – Rome and Orthodoxy – the Communion is likened to the latter, which is seen to be the more ancient, as “the first four centuries were bound together by no administrative bond.”

  4. Conciliarity is not inconsistent with regional autonomy in matters of governance, because the churches are bound together spiritually by a common faith and practice.



So what differentiates conciliarism as a form of governance from a confederation of purely autonomous Provinces? The answer, it seems to me, is that conciliar governance involves common consent to an agreed upon deposit of faith and worship and mutual submission of elders in the Spirit. The common faith of the church involves a “concordant” reading of Scripture – “the rule of faith” – epitomized in the ecumenical creeds and historic confessions. The ecumenical Creeds carry the weight of the ages and the authority of the undivided church; the confessions reflect the more particular reading of that deposit within a particular historic tradition.

In the case of the Anglican Communion, the common deposit of faith is summarized in the Lambeth Quadrilateral (looking outward to other traditions) and the Thirty-Nine Articles and Book of Common Prayer (looking inward to those in our own tradition). The 1662 Prayer Book and the Articles carry the weight of having stood the test of time in an historical tradition. Occasions arise, however, where the church must address new issues either with a one-off injunction like the Lambeth Resolution I.10 of 1998 on Human Sexuality or with a new statement of faith, like the Jerusalem Declaration of GAFCON 2008. And all are to be continually tested for their conformity to the Scripture (Acts 17:11).

The proper instruments of conciliar governance in Anglicanism have been the Lambeth Conference of bishops and the Primates’ “Meeting.” The role of the former body is well-established. Despite the ambiguities of its start, the Lambeth Conference has functioned as a moral and spiritual authority for a century and a half. It is the very rejection of that authority following 1998 that has thrown the Communion into disarray. The Primates’ Meeting had a murky beginning, but a series of Lambeth resolutions from 1978 to 1998 speak of the “enhanced role” of the Primates in Communion governance. According to the Virginia Report (§6.32 [1995]) and the Windsor Report (§65 [2005]), the Primates have an inherent authority grounded in the role of bishops as successors of the apostles. This authority is not merely a matter of institutional power but of, the truth of the apostolic gospel transmitted through the Scripture and the offices of the Church.

In my opinion, the conciliar model has the strongest claim among others as the foundation for Anglican Communion governance in a post-colonial era and has roots in the development of the Anglican Communion. However a different model has grown up in the past few years that undermines true conciliarity.


Third Model: The Lambeth Bureaucracy

The third model, the executive bureaucracy, is the most common secular regime today, from totalitarian versions in the former Soviet Union and China to soft-power versions in Europe and North America. In an executive bureaucracy, it is often difficult to discern who exercises the greater power, the chief executive or the bureaucrats. In fact, when running well, the executive and the bureaucracy operate hand in glove.

In the case of the Anglican Communion, I use the phrase “Lambeth bureaucracy” because it combines two elements: the historical (and colonial) role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as first bishop among equals, with the American project of building a centralized bureaucracy. The key component of the bureaucracy is the Anglican Communion Office (ACO) and its chief administrator, the Secretary General. The wheels of the bureaucracy are greased with money, coming primarily from the United States and the UK.

Like any of its secular counterparts, the Lambeth bureaucracy pretends to be a broadly representative servant ministry. It is not. One striking feature of the ACO is the overwhelmingly lily-white complexion of its staff, which is probably less a matter of overt racism than a reflection of the old-boy network that requires purebred bureaucrats to come from the Anglo-American stable. Many contemporary bureaucracies employ methods of manipulation to maintain power and achieve their ends. In the case of the Lambeth bureaucracy, the official method is called “indaba.” Despite its African etymology with an aura of communal wisdom, indaba is in practice a means to manipulate opinion and results. The preparation of agenda, the writing of reports, the control of media all require careful oversight by “professionals,” who happen also to be committed to the bureaucratic status quo.

One may wonder whether the primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury might be a check against the Communion Office. Theoretically yes perhaps, but actually not. Even the Bishop of Rome, whose primacy is theologically grounded, has difficulty overcoming the Vatican bureaucracy. The Archbishop of Canterbury is as enmeshed in the Lambeth bureaucracy as he is in the British Establishment, which explains why the recent change of Archbishops has resulted in no change in policies at the top.

Can executive bureaucracy be an authentic form of Communion governance? Certainly: the Pope and Vatican have functioned successfully for half a millennium. But the Vatican, unlike Lambeth, makes no pretense that its worldwide churches are autonomous or that there is no central authority in its ecclesiastical governance. Equally important, the Roman bureaucracy has resisted letting the forces of revisionism spin out of control. The current Lambeth bureaucracy, by contrast, has been protecting its liberal constituencies over the past decade and has done so at a high cost: alienation of a huge bloc of churches. Finally, for all the mystery of insider politics, Rome has found a way to elect pontiffs who are non-Italian and represent genuinely global concerns, whereas the Lambeth bureaucracy is still legally, politically, and ideologically tied to England and the secular West. It is significant that in 2012, the Primate chosen to represent the wider Anglican Communion  on the Crown Nominations Commission, the body that nominated the current Archbishop of Canterbury, was Dr Barry Morgan, Primate of The Church in Wales, whose theological views are greatly at odds with the Global South churches.


The Ebb and Flow of Communion Power 1998-2008

Lambeth Resolution I.10 represented not only a theological watershed in Anglican history but a political one as well. The Lambeth Conference of bishops by a wide majority had expressed itself on a central matter of Christian faith and morality. The two churches most directly affected exercised their autonomy to reject that authority. Indeed, in 2003, the Episcopal Church authorized and its Primate presided at the consecration of a practicing homosexual bishop, V. Gene Robinson. For the first time in its history – at least since its formation in 1867 – the Communion faced a critical question: could it discipline a member church that openly violated Communion and biblical norms?

The burden of this question fell on the Primates, who met in 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2007 to respond to the reaction, inaction and provocative action of The Episcopal Church. The Lambeth bureaucracy ran interference for TEC, turning aside a concrete proposal for discipline (“To Mend the Net”) and setting up a “Windsor Process” that delayed action by the Primates for four years. Meeting in Dar es Salaam in 2007, the Primates, led by Abp. Peter Akinola, finally issued a communique with concrete conditions and an ultimate sanction of exclusion from Communion bodies. Although he was a signatory to the communique, the Archbishop of Canterbury reneged on applying the key sanctions. In particular, he proceeded to invite all the TEC bishops (except Gene Robinson) to attend Lambeth 2008 as full members – and this in spite of warnings from Global South churches that they would boycott the meeting if he did so.

The die was cast. The Lambeth bureaucracy proceeded to smother the Lambeth Conference – minus 280 bishops – with meaningless indaba interspersed by primatial addresses from Canterbury. The Archbishop made it clear that the Primates had overstepped their authority and would subsequently be confined to the plantation of friendly conversation. On the other side, the Primates and bishops of seven Provinces attended the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem in 2008 and have attended Communion functions sporadically in the years since.

The tide of conciliar governance had flowed to the full at Lambeth 1998. By 2008, one could hear its long, withdrawing roar from the shores of Albion, soon to break anew on the coasts of the Levant and Africa.


GAFCON and the Future of the Anglican Communion

It is my contention that in the past fifteen years, a sea change has come to the Anglican Communion, which has moved from conflict to crisis to dissolution. The Anglican Communion of Ellerton’s hymn is no more. Yeats’s vision is closer to reality: “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” The tide of postmodern skepticism has undermined the sea-wall of Anglican collegiality and deference to tradition and has flooded some of the most prestigious churches, even as a new tide of the Spirit has been rising in the Global South. The “Instruments of Unity” have failed to guard the faith and unity of the Church and in many cases have collaborated in promoting a false gospel. It is not possible to go back. Hence the importance of the GAFCON movement.

GAFCON 2008 was remarkable in many ways. Organized on short notice and a modest budget, it drew more than 1,000 bishops, clergy and laypeople from 35 countries to the historic birthplace of the church, Jerusalem. The Conference included inter-cultural fellowship, various topical seminars, lively worship, and pilgrimages to the holy places of Jesus and the apostles.

GAFCON 2008 was not merely a conference. Whereas the 2008 Lambeth Conference carefully avoided any decision making, GAFCON acted ‘synodally’, to borrow a term from Bishop Michael Nazir Ali, and produced a succinct Statement, which did the following:

  • It judged that the Anglican Communion was threatened by a departure from the truth of the Gospel and that the existing “Instruments” had proved unable or unwilling to deal this crisis.

  • It claimed not to depart from the Anglican Communion but “to reform, heal and revitalise the Anglican Communion and expand its mission to the world.”

  • It grounded its authority on the primary authority of Scripture, the creeds and councils of the ancient church, the Reformation Articles of Religion, and a contemporary statement of faith, the Jerusalem Declaration.

  • It formed a GAFCON Primates’ Council and invited the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) to seek official recognition and membership on the Council.

  • It formed a network, known as the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans.



The GAFCON Statement and Jerusalem Declaration were developed under the supervision of the seven Primates present and in collaboration with bishops, scholars and other church leaders present. It was joyfully affirmed in a plenary session of 1200 participants on the last day of the Conference.

The Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (GFCA) is still a fledgling body, and the Lambeth establishment has studiously ignored its existence. Nevertheless, its Primates Council has met semi-annually for the past five years. In 2010, the Council recognized the Anglican Church in North America as a legitimate member of the Communion and welcomed its Archbishop, Robert Duncan, as a full member of the Council. Some additional Global South leaders have attended GFCA functions as observers, and many have legitimated the orders of clergy from ACNA who had been defrocked (the present writer included) and thrown out of their churches. GFCA has also authorized the ordination of four deacons (in Kenya) to serve the “Anglican Mission in England.”

The burden of my argument is that the GFCA holds the key – and the only key – to a genuinely conciliar form of Communion governance and the only possible alternative to the Lambeth bureaucracy. The upcoming GAFCON 2013 meeting in Nairobi will be the occasion whereby the movement goes forward, or possibly stalls.

In my view, the next crucial step to take is for GFCA churches to differentiate themselves from the Lambeth “Instruments” and re-form an Anglican polity along these lines:

  1. GFCA understands itself not as departing from the Anglican Communion but rather reconstituting Anglican polity on a theological, missional, and post-colonial basis. God has given and empowered a vision of the global Anglican future in the rise of evangelical, Spirit-led Christianity among Anglicans in the Global South over the past half-century. The GAFCON movement is a response to that vision and is a truly global fellowship.

  2. GFCA proclaims that true Anglican identity is based on the “faith once for all delivered to the saints.” This faith is grounded in the Scriptures, preserved in the Church’s creeds, formularies and liturgies, and adapted locally in the various contexts of mission. GFCA has offered the Jerusalem Statement and Declaration as a statement of the faith relevant to the future development of the Anglican Communion and normative for its members.

  3. GFCA churches and bishops will build internal solidarity and loyalty to the GAFCON movement and the Jerusalem Declaration. One practical step will be for a majority of bishops and other key representatives from each member Province to meet at GAFCON 2013. In particular, a bishops’ assembly should begin to see itself as a deliberative body.

  4. GFCA member churches will look to its Primates Council as the ecclesiastical authority in matters of doctrine, discipline, and worship, even if some Primates continue to attend the Lambeth Primates’ Meeting.

  5. GFCA will establish networks and most likely a representative body of members of different ranks and ages to meet its collective mission. Much of the collaborative work will be accomplished through networks addressing specific needs, such as education (at all levels), evangelism, development, and public policy.

  6. GFCA Primates Council will identify a presiding primate, as it has been doing, on the basis of seniority and giftedness, rather than being rooted in a particular see. It will commit adequate funds and manpower to an effective secretariat to carry forward the work of the Fellowship.

  7. GFCA will continue to accord the Archbishop of Canterbury a “primacy of honour” and work with him, where possible, for the renewal of the Christian faith in England and its daughter churches. GFCA will seek to build authentic ecumenical relations inside and outside the Anglican fold, including the existing Anglican “Instruments” and non-GFCA provinces. While the Archbishop has not to date publicly recognized the fact that a second polity has emerged under the aegis of the Communion, it would be a bold and welcome step out of the institutional boat if he did.



This agenda expresses my own personal aspiration for the polity of the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. Rome was not built in a day, and no doubt a reformed and renewed Communion will emerge over time, under the mercy of God, from the prayers and wisdom of many others. The upcoming GAFCON 2013 Conference will set many different matters before its membership. It is my conviction that reconstituting the Communion, which was begun dramatically at the first Conference in 2008, will be a piece of its ongoing work, fulfilling its high calling to be “not just a moment in time, but a movement in the Spirit.”


Afterword: Did GAFCON 2013 Fulfill My Hopes?

28 October 2013

The Conference is now over. It ended, as do many conferences, on a spiritual high, with the Holy Communion in the august Anglican Cathedral in Nairobi, followed by the reading and acclamation of the Nairobi Communique, the many thanks to the organizers and Kenyan hosts, farewells to friends from many countries, and flight home.

I do not intend to report on all my encounters at the Conference nor my privilege in leading a “mini-conference” on the subject of “The Ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church.” Rather I shall focus on those outcomes of GAFCON 2013 that relate directly to Communion governance and the hopes expressed in my essay.

My first observation is that the Conference was conducted with a sense of authority. We were greeted by the Archbishop of Kenya, who is also the Chairman of the Primates’ Council. The Archbishop is soft-spoken and kindly, but he has also shown his mettle in standing up for the GAFCON movement on many occasions. The Primates met each lunch-time for fellowship and counsel. The Statement Committee, on which I served, was chaired by a bishop and included an archbishop who participated fully in the stresses of writing and revising. The 331 bishops in attendance processed in festive regalia at the opening Eucharist. Later they met in camera and discussed current matters. One of their resolutions is cited in the Nairobi Communique:  

‘to affirm and endorse the position of the Primates’ Council in providing oversight in cases where provinces and dioceses compromise biblical faith, including the affirmation of a duly discerned call to ministry. This may involve ordination and consecration if the situation requires.’ 2013 resolved ‘to affirm and endorse the position of the Primates’ Council in providing oversight in cases where provinces and dioceses compromise biblical faith, including the affirmation of a duly discerned call to ministry. This may involve ordination and consecration if the situation requires.’ (Commitment 4)



The Nairobi meeting qualifies, in my opinion, as a conciliar gathering of bishops. Of course, they were not the only participants. Other delegates included clergy and laity chosen by each Province to represent it. This was not a “come one, come all” gathering. Each delegate was required to affirm the Jerusalem Declaration and Statement as a condition of participation. Hence the make-up of GAFCON 2013 involved common consent to an agreed upon deposit of faith and worship and mutual submission of elders in the Spirit.

The reception of the Archbishop of Canterbury bespeaks the authority of GFCA. He came, at his own request, to meet with the GAFCON Primates and later expressed the desire to show solidarity with the victims of the terror attack in Nairobi. He did meet with the Primates informally prior to the Conference. He sent video greetings to conference participants, which were received with polite applause. He offered to pray for the meeting, and the meeting returned that wish and prayed for him on the final day of the Conference. He gave no public indication on either of these occasions that he recognized GFCA as a political entity. Indeed, his reference to his visits to “the 37 provinces” of the Communion presumably refers to the list in London and excludes the Anglican Church in North America, which is recognized as a full member of the GFCA Primates’ Council. Throughout the Conference, respect was paid to Canterbury, but there was no sense that the actions taken in Nairobi required his advice and consent.

The crucial ecclesiological principle in the Nairobi Communique is stated in the Introduction:

In our gathering, we reaffirmed our view that we are a global fellowship of confessing Anglicans, engaged in a movement of the Holy Spirit which is both personal and ecclesial…. We believe we have acted as an important and effective instrument of Communion during a period in which other instruments of Communion have failed both to uphold gospel priorities in the Church, and to heal the divisions among us.


First, the Communique reaffirms the understanding from 2008 that GAFCON is “not a moment in time but a movement of the Spirit.” This phrase is not flight of rhetoric but a claim that GFCA is among other things a God-ordained “ecclesial” entity. Secondly, the Conference identifies itself as an “instrument of Communion” called into being because of the failure of other Instruments of Communion. I suppose some will take this claim as an open rebuke of the existing organs of the Lambeth bureaucracy. It is that, and my essays on Communion governance stand as testimony as to why such a rebuke is justified. But it is more than that: it is a positive declaration that the GFCA plans to be a vehicle of God’s grace to reform and revitalize the Anglican Communion.

Some may ask by what right the GFCA appoints itself an instrument. In an early draft, the Statement Committee proposed saying that “we are conscious that we have become an instrument of Communion.” I think that wording is revealing, even if the final form moves consciousness into conviction. What I mean is that the GAFCON movement did not start out intentionally to overturn existing authorities but rather over a period of fifteen years came to realize that no other option was workable and that God had indeed formed new bonds of affection among its members during the times of trial.

So is the GFCA laying the groundwork for a separate Communion? Absolutely not! At the first GAFCON virtually all the delegates were adamant that they were not leaving the Anglican Communion, because “we are the Anglican Communion!” Some may think this is verbal trickery. It is not. There is nothing sacrosanct about the so-called Instruments of Communion. To be sure, the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lambeth Conference carry the weight of almost 150 years’ continuance. However, for good or ill, Archbishop Longley refused to grant the first Lambeth Conference ecclesial authority as a council and by so doing he built in a weakness that has been a major reason for the recent crisis. During the past decade, whenever the Primates proposed more authoritative action – e.g., “To Mend the Net” proposal or the Dar es Salaam Communique – Canterbury squelched the attempt.


How will the GFCA model being an instrument of Communion? I think many features are already clear. First of all, it will be “confessional,” i.e., the essentials of the Christian faith in the Anglican tradition will be at the heart of its identity. Secondly, it will be evangelistic and committed to mission. Thirdly, its leadership will come from the Global South, and it will call on special talents from the West. Finally, it will have a form of mixed polity, similar to that of the two Conferences in 2008 and 2013. Finally, the GFCA’s “Commitment” is “to meet again at the next GAFCON” (Commitment 9). This is not a threat but a promise that the movement has a future, indeed that it represents the global Anglican future.

There is much work ahead to turn aspiration into an enduring reality. The GFCA has been more successful at planning conferences than at designing the interim bodies and networks to give life to the movement. The flow of support from Africa to the West and back again has taken new shape as many North American churches have been forced to rebuild their structures from the ground up. The Communique faces this problem in the section titled “Strengthening the GFCA.” I think there are good reasons to think that our leadership is up to the task of building a necessary central infrastructure to serve the movement while retaining its conciliar form of government.

Did GAFCON 2013 fulfill my hopes? Eminently so! Of course, the question is not whether I am satisfied but whether God has been at work. The bishop’s consecration service of the American Prayer Book contains the following collect:

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


I have always been suspicious of this collect, as it was frequently intoned by various “apostolic pioneers” and doctrinal innovators. Now I have come to think that this collect, prayed in the right way, may well express the hopes and confidence of the GAFCON movement. Perhaps indeed “God has chosen what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:28).

The Rev. Prof. Stephen Noll is the retired Vice Chancellor of Uganda Christian University and Emeritus Professor at Trinity School for Ministry, where he taught for 21 years. Prof. Noll was a member of the statement committee at GAFCON 2008 and 2013. The original essay was published in The Truth Shall Make Free: Global Anglicanism in the 21st Century, ed. Charles Raven (London: Latimer Trust) pp. 109-121. It is adapted from “Communion Governance: The Role and Future of the Episcopate and the Anglican Communion Covenant” (


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