Commentary on the 2018 GAFCON Letter to the Churches: Coming to One Mind

Part 2 of Prof. Stephen Noll’s examination of the crafting of GAFCON’s Letter to the Churches

“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28). How does a church council go about coming to one mind?” What an awesome task! The role of the Conference Statement, it seems to me, is to speak to those assembled and to speak for them to the wider church and world in the name of God. The role of the Statement Group is to so listen to the Conference Assembly that it can propose words for the Conference to speak. Again, an awesome task.

It is even more complicated than that. Gafcon has discrete hierarchies that properly play a role in any message. The Primates, for one, exercise a particular oversight within the movement. And at Gafcon 2018 two other bodies came into play: the Panel of Advisors and the Synodical Council.

The Panel of Advisors emerged this year from concern that the Primates Council by itself was too “thin” as a governing structure and that a Primate might exercise a kind of “personal prelature,” without support of his Province, which might be overturned by his successor. In 2016, the Primates themselves set up a “Task Force on Structure” to consider this matter, and the Task Force in turn recommended that each Province have a “Panel of Assistors,” now called Panel of Advisors, comprising one bishop, one other clergy member, and one layperson. In addition, as Gafcon has developed non-Provincial Branches, each of them is likewise represented by three Advisors. The Panel of Advisors is a subsidiary body and, as its name indicates, advisory to the Primates Meeting, but in meeting with the Primates at and between Conferences, it can bring a broad perspective on the life of the wider church.

The Primates and the Panel of Advisors held an inaugural meeting on the first full day of the Conference and proposed three Resolutions. The first Resolution constituted the joint body as a Synodical Council, with the Primates holding final approval of any Resolutions. The second and third Resolutions raised two questions of urgent concern to be addressed to the Archbishop of Canterbury with regard to Lambeth 2020. The Statement Group was tasked to convey the substance of these Resolutions in the Conference statement (i.e., the Letter to the Churches) for approval by the Assembly.

A second major moment in seeking the mind of the Spirit came with the preparation of the First Draft of the statement. The Draft was presented to the Primates for review on the evening before its promulgation to the Conference. At that time one Primate, Archbishop Foley Beach, suggested that the statement be called a “Letter to the Churches,” and this suggestion met with immediate assent. Then on Thursday the Statement Group Chairman, Archbishop Davies, read the first draft, as it was projected on-screen, to the entire Assembly, followed immediately with discussion by twenty-two regional groups.

The first reading was met with strong applause but not unanimous approval. It became clear in the regional groups that some members were dissatisfied with its tone. In addition, there were many specific suggestions for improvement some factual (e.g. “billions” instead of “millions” of unreached people), some stylistic (e.g., whether “mankind,” “men and women” or “men, women and children” best represented the whole). The challenge for the Statement Group was to maintain the thrust of the first draft, to modify its tone, and to sharpen its details.

Knowing that we had less than twenty-four hours to come up with the final Statement, most of the Statement Group members missed out on the Conference photo at the Temple steps and set to work, finishing the final draft after midnight. After getting a final Ok from the Chairman of the Primates Council, the Letter to the Churches was read to the Assembly Friday morning by Archbishop Laurent Mbanda. This time there was a virtually universal acclamation, and most who had been concerned on the first reading joined in the celebration.

“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us…” No church gathering can claim the same authority as the Jerusalem Council in Acts. Indeed Councils have erred and do err. However, I would submit that the Gafcon 2018 Letter to the Churches deserves a serious hearing as the mind of the Spirit for the Anglican Communion in our time. The Gafcon Assembly having approved it, we commend it to the wider Church for honest consideration.


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