Common Roots: Ancient Evangelical Future Conference

Commentary on the 2018 GAFCON Letter to the Churches: Reforming the Church

Part 5 of 7 in Prof. Stephen Noll’s analysis of the GAFCON III Letter to the Churches

The second main section of the Letter is titled “Reforming God’s Church.” It should come as no surprise that “Reforming God’s Church” should be the longest section of the Letter to the Churches from a Conference held as a result of a “tear in the fabric” of the church catholic and of the Anglican Communion. For this reason, I shall devote two posts to this section under the headings “Reforming God’s Church” and “Reordering the Anglican Communion.”

Global Anglicans are Great Commission Christians, proclaiming Christ faithfully to the nations in the power of the Spirit (Jerusalem Declaration, clause 1 and 9); they are catholic Christians, committed to the historic creeds, councils and order of the Church (clauses 3 and 7); and they are Reformation Christians, upholding and building on the confessional heritage of the 16th-17th century Church of England (Canon A5, clauses 2,4, 5, and 6). The recent conflict in the churches of the Communion has brought all these aspects of our Anglican identity into play.

The first draft of the Letter to the Churches, presented on the penultimate day of the Conference, began by recalling the two decades of turmoil between Lambeth 1998 and the present. The thought was that many new attendees needed an explanation, an apologia for how we came to Jerusalem in 2008 and again in 2018. Front-loading this corporate history, however, made the Letter seem defensive and sharp-edged and took one’s eyes off the goal of “Proclaiming Christ to the Nations.” So in response to comments from the regional meetings after the first reading, the Statement Group condensed and rearranged the material about Gafcon’s history and identity. It did not, however, step back from its call to reform the church and reorder the Communion.

The gospel of God creates the church of God. Through the invitation of the gospel, God calls all people into fellowship with his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. As the word of the gospel goes forth in the power of the Holy Spirit, they respond through the work of the Holy Spirit to repent, believe and be baptised, and are thereby joined to Christ’s body which is his church (Acts 2:37-44; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13). As members of Christ’s body, they are sanctified in him, called to live lives of holiness and to be salt and light in the world.

This section begins by asserting the organic connection between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Body the Church. All creedal Anglicans – Evangelicals, charismatics and Anglo-Catholics – agree that the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” is an essential of the faith. But the Gospel comes first, mediated in Word and Sacrament. The Church does not create the Gospel; like the Virgin Mary, she receives and bears the Glad Tidings of Jesus to the world.

The Church is the forerunner of the Kingdom of God, and the keys to the Kingdom are repentance and faith sealed in baptism. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter preached Christ crucified and risen in such a way that the hearers asked the apostles: “Brothers, what shall we do?”

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:38-39)

This is the paradigm of the church – proclaiming, repenting, incorporating, reaching out and adding – which Gafcon intends to model for the global Anglican future.

One Conference speaker reminded us: “In the councils of the church, we should not mimic the ways of the world but gather to pray, to praise (i.e., to be eucharistic), to consult, to decide, and if necessary to discipline. These gatherings should be properly conciliar in nature, decisive in moving the church forward in its mission and common life. There should be the will to exercise loving but firm discipline to bring sinners to repentance and restoration.” Likewise at the Communion level, there are times when the leadership must come together to exercise its responsibility to discipline an erring member province.

Anglicans believe in a church ordered in terms of doctrine, discipline and worship. A classic definition in this regard comes from the Book of Homilies (1563):

The true church is an universal congregation or fellowship of God’s faithful and elect people, built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the head corner-stone. And it hath always three notes or marks: Pure and sound doctrine; The sacraments ministered according to Christ’s holy institution; And the right use of ecclesiastical discipline. (Homily for Whitsunday)

Ultimately, one cannot have true doctrine without effective discipline. St. John puts it this way: “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6). Failure to exhort and correct false teaching and teachers is a sign that a church has lost its saltiness and cannot be a light of the world (Matthew 5:13-14).

Gafcon’s concern for church order is not focused on the local church or national churches, important though these are, but on the communion of churches and on how those who call themselves Anglicans take council together. The conciliar role of the Communion, so the Letter asserts, must include corporate discipline on occasions “when the leadership must come together to exercise its responsibility to discipline an erring member province.”

At this point the Letter recalls the history of the past twenty years, which is a litany of false teaching and failure to exercise the necessary communal discipline.

For some time, our Communion has been under threat from leaders who deny the Lordship of Christ and the authority of Scripture. In the late 20th century, human sexuality became the presenting issue.

The 1998 Lambeth Conference by a huge majority (526 to 70) approved Resolution I.10 on Human Sexuality,which affirmed the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 19 that there are only two expressions of faithful sexuality: lifelong marriage between a man and a woman or abstinence. The resolution rightly called for pastoral care for same sex attracted persons. At the same time, it described homosexual practice as “incompatible with Scripture” and rejected both the authorisation of same sex rites by the Church and the ordination of those in same sex unions.

The 2018 Letter is repeating the warning from 2008 that the Anglican Communion is being threatened by

a different ‘gospel’ (cf. Galatians 1:6-8) which is contrary to the apostolic gospel.” This false gospel undermines the authority of God’s Word written and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the author of salvation from sin, death and judgement. Many of its proponents claim that all religions offer equal access to God and that Jesus is only a way, notthe way, the truth and the life.

For those who doubt the extent of this false teaching, please look at this indictment of actions and quotations from the highest leadership of the Episcopal Church. It is not accidental that John Spong, whose “Twelve Theses” of a “New Reformation” deny all the articles of the Creeds, that Charles Bennison, who claims “the Church wrote the Bible, and the Church can rewrite the Bible,” and that Katherine Jefferts Schori, who preaches that when St. Paul exorcised the slave girl in Acts 16, he “put himself in prison” by “depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness” – that these remain bishops in good standing in the Episcopal Church USA; and these references could be multiplied. The proposals brought to the 2018 Episcopal General Convention to rewrite its Prayer Book with “expansive” language for God (see my critique here) aims to deny the exclusive Name of the “one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6).

So the challenge to Anglican orthodoxy is not just about sex. Having said that, human sexuality is the particular battlefield on which we have been called to stand firm. The essential issue in the sexuality debate has to do with God’s good creation of man in His image, male and female (Genesis 1:27) and His intention that “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh (Genesis 1:27; 2:24). The Lord Jesus Christ explicitly upholds this “institution” of two sexes, one flesh when he says: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6), and He goes on to make provision for those who live the single, abstinent life (Matthew 19:12). These are the two exclusive alternatives held out by the 1998 Lambeth Resolution. There is no third way.

Twenty years on, the “LGBTQ” movement is denying the “binary” (male-female) character of human nature in God’s image altogether and replacing it with “gender fluidity.” In so doing, it is not only attempting to undermine marriage but personal identity altogether. And, following the secular culture, the same churches that normalized homosexuality twenty years ago have now normalized “transgendered” persons and relationships as fit examples for the flock of Christ (cf. 1 Peter 5:3).

Lambeth Resolution I.10 reflected the rising influence of the Global South in the Communion. The ground for the Resolution had been prepared by the 1997 Kuala Lumpur Statement of the Global South Anglican Network. Our collaboration with the Global South Network has been ongoing, and its leaders took an active part in this Conference.

The commitment of the Global South churches to Lambeth Resolution I.10 has been consistent and universal, even as more and more Western or Western-influenced churches have followed the path of the Episcopal Church. The Global South Anglican Network stated in 2016:

We are grieved by those provinces and dioceses whose actions violate clear teaching of Scripture in Lambeth Conference 1998 Resolution 1.10… By departing from the historic faith and order of God’s people, they also undermine their moral witness to their own societies, and cause huge confusion among the Anglican faithful in our Churches in this globalising world.

The subsequent rejection of Lambeth I.10 in word and deed by the Episcopal Church USA and later by some other Anglican provinces led to a “tear [in] the fabric of the Communion at its deepest level”, followed by ten years of futile meetings in which the four Instruments of Communion failed to exercise the necessary discipline. The Primates’ Meeting repeatedly called upon these provinces to repent and return to the faith.  Yet their efforts were undermined by other Instruments of Communion, culminating in the failure of the Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury to carry out the clear consensus of the Primates’ Meeting in Dar es Salaam in 2007.

I have documented (see Essay 4 of my book and also here) the rejection of Lambeth I.10 and the failure of the Instruments to discipline the Episcopal Church in the years that followed the 1998 Lambeth Conference, culminating in the consecration of an openly homosexual bishop in 2003. The so-called “Windsor process,” which occupied much time and expense, warned that the actions of the Episcopal Church might “tear the fabric of the Communion at its deepest level” but then did nothing about it. The responsibility for the failure of the Instruments of Communion to discipline those who had violated biblical doctrine and morals is unequally placed: the Primates, especially those from the Global South, called repeatedly for repentance and obedience throughout this period and most clearly in 2007, but their call was undercut and ultimately negated by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Communion Office.

As Lambeth 2008 approached with no resolution of the crisis, Archbishop Peter Akinola commissioned a Statement for the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa (CAPA), titled “The Road to Lambeth,” which warned:

The current situation is a twofold crisis for the Anglican Communion: a crisis of doctrine and a crisis of leadership, in which the failure of the “Instruments” of the Communion to exercise discipline, has called into question the viability of the Anglican Communion as a united Christian body under a common foundation of faith, as is supposed by the Lambeth Quadrilateral. Due to this breakdown of discipline, we are not sure that we can in good conscience continue to spend our time, our money and our prayers on behalf of a body that proclaims two Gospels, the Gospel of Christ and the Gospel of Sexuality.

We must therefore receive assurances from the Primates and the Archbishop of Canterbury that this crisis will be resolved before a Lambeth Conference is convened. There is no point, in our view, in meeting and meeting and not resolving the fundamental crisis of Anglican identity. We will definitely not attend any Lambeth Conference to which the violators of the Lambeth Resolution are also invited as participants or observers.

Archbishop Rowan Williams ignored “The Road to Lambeth” and invited all the bishops of the Episcopal Church except Bishop Gene Robinson (note: the offense was not just Robinson’s example but the teaching of those who elected and consecrated him, as Jesus makes clear in Matthew 5:19 and 18:5-6).

In consequence, the Global Anglican Future Conference met in Jerusalem in June 2008. A reformation had begun.

Latest Articles

Similar articles