Commentary on the 2018 GAFCON Letter to the Churches: Introducing the Letter

Prof. Stephen Noll unpacks the text of the GAFCON III Letter to the Churches

As mentioned in the previous post, one of the Primates – in fact, it was Archbishop Foley Beach – proposed the title “Letter to the Churches,” and almost immediately this proposal seemed right to our Statement Group. The 2008 Conference had issued the “Jerusalem Statement,” which included the “Jerusalem Declaration”; the 2013 Conference had followed with the “Nairobi Communiqué,” which included the “Nairobi Commitment.” The Global South Anglican Network had sent out six “Trumpets.” Lambeth Conferences prior to 2008 had been known by their Resolutions; since 2008 it seems they will be known for their “Lambeth Indaba” (ugh!).

A “Letter to the Churches” suggests both the periodic nature of its message and the particular situation of the Anglican Communion at this time. The “Assembly,” though large and diverse, is not a random gathering but was specifically invited, Province by Province and region by region, and it acts as the final confirming body of the Gafcon movement.

The letter form of communication is well-known in the New Testament and is reflected in the Epistle readings in the liturgy.  The most famous letter from a church council comes from Acts 15, where the first ecumenical council in Jerusalem penned a letter to the various mission churches (see discussion in Part Two). The tradition of sending “encyclical” letters from church leaders and councils is well established in church history. Some of the earliest church documents – The Letter of Clement, the Letter to Diognetus, the Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch – use this format and have obtained wide authority apart from their original audiences. Similarly, decisions of church councils, whether epistolary in form or not, have been intended to be circulated and read by the wider church.

As I have argued in the previous post, Gafcon is not claiming some sort of canonical status for its statements. Only the Epistles of the New Testament possess final authority in matters of faith and life (Jerusalem Declaration, clause 2). At the same time, the Letter to the Churches is not a throwaway document. It was the subject of prayer, of genuine consultation and substantial revision. It was read twice over and affirmed in a near unanimous acclamation, and hence can be considered the voice of the Assembly and, we trust, guided by the Holy Spirit. It is continuous with the two previous Gafcon statements in substance if not in name, and more distantly with the Resolutions of the Lambeth Conferences up to 1998. (Unlike Lambeth Resolutions the paragraphs are not numbered. The Statement Group considered whether to number the paragraphs but decided it was best to read it as a whole.)

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)

According to the 2008 Jerusalem Statement, Gafcon is “not just a moment in time, but a movement in the Spirit.” The Gafcon Assembly is an ecclesial body, a confessional body (every attendee subscribed to the Jerusalem Declaration), and a missional body. The banner verse from Acts 1:8 recalls Jesus’ promise to the future church on the Day of Pentecost. It also represents the ongoing “Great Commission” to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, which is the Conference theme: “Proclaiming Christ Faithfully to the Nations”

Greetings from the land of the birth, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. The third Global Anglican Future Conference (Gafcon) was held in Jerusalem in June 2018, a decade after the inaugural Gafcon in 2008. Gafcon 2018, one of the largest global Anglican gatherings, brought together 1,950 representatives from 50 countries, including 316 bishops, 669 other clergy and 965 laity. A unanimity of spirit was reflected throughout the Conference as we met with God in the presence of friends from afar. We celebrated joyful worship, engaged in small group prayer and were inspired by presentations, networks and seminars.

It is easy, I suppose, to pass quickly over the preliminaries of the Letter and get into the substance. However, as I learned living in Africa, greetings and introductions are quite important to establish a relationship and to be heard properly. This seemed true in the ancient world as well, as we can see from the opening sections of St. Paul’s letters to his churches. The Jerusalem Statement in 2008 and Nairobi Communiqué of 2013 also began by noting the place, the participants, and the various activities of the Conference. It reminds future readers that there was a living body of believers who produced the Letter on a specific occasion in history.

Several things in this opening are noteworthy. First of all, the 2018 Conference was held again, after ten years’ time, in Jerusalem. Gafcon does not claim an apostolic see, or even an historic one like Canterbury. Instead, it has found Jerusalem, the mother city of the faith, an apt place to gather periodically. While we enjoyed the conveniences of the modern hotels and International Conference Center, we were “on pilgrimage” to sites reminding us of Jesus’ presence, death, resurrection, and ascension such that our thoughts and minds might thither ascend to the “Jerusalem that is above” where He is seated at the right hand of the Father (Galatians 4:26).

We also could not but be aware that the Holy Land today is a place of political and religious strife as in the first century, symbolized in the “dividing wall” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Ironically, some delegates found Israel a safer place than their home territory, as exemplified by the violence which Archbishop Ben Kwashi experienced on his return from Gafcon to Jos, Nigeria.

Secondly, the movement, it seems, has settled on a brand name. Originally, GAFCON referred to the first Global Anglican Future Conference. Other names were tried over the past ten years – the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans – and these names do convey its character. But through it all “Gafcon,” however awkward, has stuck. So the Conference is upper-case GAFCON and the movement that spans the Conferences and the ongoing structures and relationships that give it life, this is title-case Gafcon. This nomenclature may change some day, but for the present everyone seems content to keep it as is.

Thirdly, as in 2008 and 2013, the Letter to the Churches includes a tally of the numbers attending, the various orders of ministry represented, and the global scope of the churches present. (Unfortunately, the delegation from South Sudan and Bishop Mouneer Anis from Egypt were denied exit visas to attend.) While numbers alone do not guarantee legitimacy, the fact that nearly two thousand Anglican Christians took time and expense to come to Jerusalem speaks strongly for the direction of global Anglicanism today. There was a brief verbal kerfuffle over whether the Conference was the largest global assembly of Anglicans ever, or for the past fifty years. Since much depends on how one defines terms, the Statement Group decided simply to speak of Gafcon as “one of the largest global Anglican gatherings.”

Fourthly, the unanimity of spirit and joyful nature of worship at the Conference can best be understood by viewing the photographic collections and the streaming videos of the Conference.

In the ten years since the first Gafcon (and, before that, Lambeth 1998), global Anglicans have been involved with each other at all levels, not just in formal meetings but in visits back and forth, in joint projects. The Communion Office complained that Gafcon was setting up parallel structures to its machinery, but this is not something new. It has been going on for twenty years, as in God’s providence the crisis of the Communion has birthed new relationships (Miranda Hassettdocumented this phenomenon before 2008, but it has now expanded greatly).

Behind the scenes of teaching, worship and fellowship, the Conference was bathed in prayer. A prayer team was formed earlier in this year and was present at the major events leading up to and throughout the Conference (this ministry will continue as the Intercessors Fellowship, one of the nine Networks set up by Gafcon). In the morning plenaries, delegates were assigned seating so that they might pray in small groups with brothers and sisters from different regions.

While the logistics of bringing two thousand people to Israel involved the tireless work of the Secretariat and the pre-Gafcon team, so many things worked together for good (and a few did not) that one can fairly claim that Gafcon 2018 was an answer to prayer.


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