Common Roots: Ancient Evangelical Future Conference

GAFCON’s letter to the churches – Where did it come from?

Prof. Stephen Noll outlines the preparations of GAFCON III’s letter to the churches

Note: This Commentary, like my earlier analysis of the 1998 Lambeth Resolution I.10 and  of the 2008 Jerusalem Declaration (Essays 6 and 7 of my book), aims to expound the meaning and significance of the “Letter to the Churches” of Gafcon 2018 in Jerusalem. While I was Convener of the Statement Group and include some background information here and in this Anglican TV interview, I do not write as an official spokesman for Gafcon. The Letter to the Churches speaks for itself. 

A day or two prior to the presentation of the Gafcon Letter to the Churches, people would come to me and ask how it was going. “I am not a woman,” I’d reply, “but I think it feels something like the labor pains before delivery. Not pleasant at all when you are in the midst of it, but, one hopes, with a happy issue at the end.” In a larger sense, I believe that through the Gafcon movement, which entails much grief and labor, God is bringing a new heir of the Anglican tradition, to birth.

In this first Part, I want to explain how the Gafcon Statement Group was formed and how we prepared for the Conference.

Forming the Statement Group

The Statement Group was not listed on the pre-Gafcon program and only announced on the penultimate day of the Conference. The reason for this was simply that we saw ourselves as servants of the Conference and did not want to be lobbied by any particular pressure group, inside or outside Gafcon. A core of the Statement Group members were Gafcon veterans going back to the “Theological Resource Group” that had produced the pre-Gafcon book The Way, the Truth and the Life (2008), and the post-Gafcon commentary on the Jerusalem Declaration Being Faithful (2012). This core included myself, Archbishop Laurent Mbanda of Rwanda, Bishop David Onuoha of Nigeria, Dr. John Senyonyi, Vice Chancellor of Uganda Christian University, and Dr. Mark Thompson, Principal of Moore College, Sydney. Several of us – our Chairman Archbishop Glenn Davies, Mark Thompson, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali and myself – had served on the Statement Group in 2008 and 2013. In addition, new members, the Rev. Tim Anderson from Ireland, Canon Alison Barfoot from Uganda, and Bishop Tito Zavala, brought a breadth of experience from around the world. Finally, we were assisted greatly by Bishop Michael Stead (Secretary) and the Rev. Nigel Fortescue (Administrative Assistant), both from Sydney.

Statement Group (minus yours truly)

In early May the team was formed and we began to communicate with each other by email. Once in Jerusalem, we switched to WhatsApp as our constant guide.

The Questionnaire

The Gafcon Statement tradition, announced first by Archbishop Peter Akinola in 2008, has been to have no pre-written text (cf. the predigested 2016 Lambeth Primates’ Communique) but rather to seek the mind of the Conference. This year we decided to begin this process by means of a pre-Conference questionnaire to all delegates, as was done in 2008. However, what difference a decade makes technologically! In 2008, the questionnaire was presented to Conferees as they arrived by paper ballots which were collated by a team of a dozen volunteers. This year the same task was performed by an online “survey monkey” which collected 600 responses before the Conference (a hundred or more paper questionnaires were collected at the Conference). The total response as of the first day of the Conference was 724, or 37% of attendees.

The survey contained three Yes/No questions. The first asks, after summarizing the teaching of 1998 Lambeth Resolution I.10: “Do you believe that this Resolution reflects the unchangeable teaching of the Bible?” The second asks, after quoting the original definition of Gafcon as a fellowship dedicated to reform, heal and revitalize the Anglican Communion: “Do you believe Gafcon should continue to be faithful to this calling? The third asks, after noting the Primates Council’s mandate to authenticate and recognise confessing jurisdictions: “Do you believe that the Gafcon Primates Council should continue to exercise this mandate?”

The Letter to the Churches notes that these questions that were “overwhelmingly affirmed.” In fact, the “overwhelming” was more than 99% Yes. Some may quibble that these were set up for a positive response. In fact, each question relates to important principles of Gafcon: that Lambeth I.10 contains essential Christian doctrine calling for Communion discipline; that Gafcon is a legitimate “Instrument” of the Anglican Communion; and that the Gafcon Primates are authorized to recognize confessing Provinces in North America and Brazil.

The Questionnaire also included an open box for additional comments. We received, collated and read through 354 of these. The results of the survey are mentioned in the Letter to the Churches in the section on “Reforming God’s Church.”

The Tone and Frame of the Statement

In the week prior to the Conference, I circulated to Statement Group members the 2008 Jerusalem Statement and the 2013 Nairobi Communiqué and added a couple “think-pieces.”

The first of these concerned the “tone and spirit” of the Statement:

  • It should be evangelical, that is, framed in terms of the Gospel to be proclaimed to the nations.
  • It should be biblical, honoring Scripture as God’s Word written, with a suggestion to follow the Passion Week readings set for the Conference in Luke 22-24.
  • It should be concise and clear, with no more than 3,000 words, and faithful to St. Paul’s standard that “we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:1).
  • It should be memorable, as was the Jerusalem Declaration and other parts of the 2008 Statement and the reference in 2013 to Gafcon as “an important and effective instrument of Communion during a period in which other instruments of Communion have failed.”
  • It should be bold and humble. I said: “We need not only to condemn the false teaching and practice of our opponents, we also need to confess our own failures of omission and commission.
  • It should be spiritual, expressing spiritual truths and responding to the Spirit speaking through the Conference.
  • It should be edifying, recognizing that the 2,000 people are coming with hopes to reform and build up the church, not just to have a holy jamboree.
  • It should be general in focus but with personal and specific examples. I suggested that like St. Paul’s letters, this statement arises out of a specific crisis but aims to speak more widely to eternal Gospel and the world Christ came to save.

Secondly, I tried out possible framing headings for the sections: various groupings of three, starting with “P” or “C” or “R”; but none of these mnemonic triads seemed apt. So at our first meeting, we settled on framing the Letter in terms of the daily Conference topics: “God’s Gospel,” “God’s Church,” and “God’s World” (we merged the fourth topic “God’s Strategy” into “God’s World”).

Coming to Jerusalem

I for one came to the Conference with considerable fear and trembling. We had not written a single word ahead of time and had a mere three full days before presenting a Draft to the Primates and the Assembly. To be honest, I felt a kind of writer’s block when I looked ahead to the week. Fortunately, as I was working my way through 2 Corinthians, Paul’s words gave me some comfort:

Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:5-6)

And so, I hope, it turned out to be.

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