Commentary on the 2018 GAFCON Letter to the Churches: Reordering the Communion

Part 6 of 7 of Prof Stephen Noll’s analysis of the GAFCON III Letter to the Churches

This is the sixth post explaining the “Letter to the Churches.” The first five posts can be found here and here and here and here and here. In this sixth entry, I shall explain the second part of the section of the Letter titled “Reforming God’s Church.” I have adopted the heading “Reordering the Communion” from the text of the Letter itself.

… And so, the Global Anglican Future Conference met in Jerusalem in June 2008. A reformation had begun.

Jerusalem 2008

In the Jerusalem Statement and Declaration, the 2008 Global Anglican Future Conference took up the challenge of restoring biblical authority (and the teaching on human sexuality in particular) by affirming the primacy of the Bible as God’s Word written and going back to the other sources of Anglican identity – the Creeds and Councils of the ancient church, the 39 Articles, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal. The Conference also constituted a Primates Council and authorised it to recognise Anglican churches in areas where orthodox Anglicans had been deprived of their church property and deposed from holy orders.

Global Anglicans, as I have argued, are Great Commission Christians, catholic Christians, and Reformation Christians. None of the climactic events or the classic creeds and confessions of church history have occurred without contention and conflict. The first Council of Jerusalem addressed the challenge of Jewish Christians who questioned St. Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles. The Great Councils of the 4th and 5th centuries involved challenges to catholic teaching on the nature of God and Christ. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century involved disputation with Rome over the nature of biblical authority and the Gospel proclamation of salvation by grace through faith alone.

The English Reformers, in upholding the central teaching of the Protestant Reformation, claimed that this doctrine was continuous with the “rule of faith” of the ancient church, which itself was continuous with the apostles. Hence to this day Canon A5 “Of the doctrine of the church of England” asserts:

The doctrine of the Church is grounded in the Holy Scriptures and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular, such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal.

The 2008 Jerusalem Statement is a fresh reaffirmation of this classic Anglican position, with a supplementary Declaration addressing particular issues of our day. As I have argued elsewhere, the question Gafcon was asking the wider Communion is “Who Moved?”

The departures from historic Anglican faith and practice outlined in Part Five have had critical consequences at the local level. In many places in the West one can no longer find a local Anglican congregation where the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered (Article XIX). The rampant heresy in the Episcopal Church USA and other Western jurisdictions has led clergy, congregations, and whole dioceses to “differentiate” themselves for conscience’ sake into networks and finally into independent jurisdictions recognized by Global South provinces. This separation has led in turn to lawsuits which have forced congregations to walk away from their long-cherished property.

At GAFCON 2018, we heard stories of the persecution of believers, some by militant Islamists, some by militant revisionists. It was noted that while those Anglicans on the front line of Islam have testified “even unto death,” those in the West are facing different but no less real threats from political and religious elites who accuse them of “hate speech.” One pastor in the USA and his wife described the eviction of his family and congregation from the church’s property, later  to find a crane removing the cross from the roof because the bishop had leased the building as a Muslim study center.

In 2008, the Primates, bishops and other representatives in Jerusalem concluded that the departure from this classic Anglican standard and the unwillingness of the existing Instruments to exercise discipline necessitated extraordinary action, and hence they took the step of forming a Gafcon Primates Council, with the mandate to admit member churches (Provinces and now “Branches”) not formally recognized by the Instruments.

Heresy and Schism

During the past twenty years, the Instruments of Communion have not only failed to uphold godly discipline but their representatives have refused to recognise our concerns and have chosen instead to demean Gafcon as a one-issue pressure group and accuse it of promoting schism, where in fact the schismatics are those who have departed from the teaching of the Bible and the historic doctrine of the Church. Slogans such as “walking together” and “good disagreement” are dangerously deceptive in seeking to persuade people to accommodate false teaching in the Communion.

The first Gafcon was convened after the Archbishop of Canterbury refused to carry out the resolutions of the Primates and invited Gene Robinson’s Episcopal enablers to Lambeth in 2008. Since that time, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Anglican Communion Office have steadfastly refused to recognize the Gafcon movement’s theological concerns or its Primates Council, despite the fact that Gafcon represents upward of 40% of the world’s Anglicans.

In the run-up to Gafcon 2018, Justin Welby referred to Gafcon as a “ginger group,” which is a British term for a small one-issue pressure group. More significantly, the Anglican Communion Office General Secretary, Bishop Josiah Idowo-Fearon, wroteall the Primates just prior to the Jerusalem Conference, stating that Gafcon “appears to be setting up what clearly looks like a rival structure that is clearly not in conformity with our understanding of what it means to be Anglican.”

The claim that anyone who is not recognized by Canterbury is not Anglican was voiced in the (unsigned) Primates’ Meeting Communique of 2017 and again in a recently released document from the “Archbishop of Canterbury’s Task Group,” which states: “We wish to make clear that those who break communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury have placed themselves outside the Anglican Communion.”

The implication of these statements is that Gafcon is fomenting schism. The charge of dividing Christ’s Church is weighty indeed, one made against the Church of England by Rome at the time of the Reformation. The “judicious” Richard Hooker replied this way:

To [those] by whom we are accused for schism and heresy, we have often made our reasonable and in the sight of God, I trust, allowable answers. For in the way which they call heresy, “we worship the God of our fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and the Prophets” (Acts 24:14). That which they call schism, we know to be our reasonable service unto God and obedience to his voice which crieth shrill in our ears, “Go out of Babylon, my people, that you be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues” (Revelation 18:4). (Hooker, “Sermon on Jude” §15).

For Hooker and his opponents, heresy is intrinsically schismatic. Like Hooker, we in Gafcon deny that we are schismatic, but rather that we are called to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel, come what may.

Unlike Hooker and the Reformers, the Lambeth Establishment today wants to banish the word heresy. “Good disagreement” and “walking together” are buzz-words meant to paper over a classic distinction between essential truths of the faith and secondary matters (“adiaphora”). Gafcon has, on the one hand, welcomed a diversity of Anglican traditions (see page 34-40 of The Way, the Truth and the Life), but it has equally refused to compromise on essentials and has argued that these essentials include obedience to the moral commandments (Article VII). While we do not consider marriage a sacrament, we do see it as an unchangeable institution established by the Creator and reflecting the relationship of Christ to His Church. To welcome the practices of LGBTQ and same-sex marriage as mere lifestyle choices or as “justice” issues is to mock God’s Word and transgress His Way of life.

We grieve for the situation of our global Communion as it has been hindered from fulfilling its God-appointed task of reaching the world for Christ. We repent of our own failures to stand firm in the faith (1 Corinthians 16:13). But we do not lose hope for the future, and note that there is strong support for the reform of our Communion. Prior to Gafcon 2018, delegates overwhelmingly affirmed the following propositions:

  • Lambeth Resolution I.10 reflects the unchangeable teaching of the Bible;
  • the Gafcon movement should continue to be faithful to the Jerusalem Declaration; 
  • the Primates Council should continue to recognise confessing Anglican jurisdictions.

A high price has been paid in the conflict within Anglicanism, resulting in a waste of time and money spent for fruitless meetings and lawsuits, in a loss of members who have been disillusioned and left the church, and in the hindering of mission to the lost, the kind of mission that Anglicans in previous generations took around the world. We in Gafcon own our share in responsibility for this loss, beset as we have been by what one speaker called “pride, prayerlessness, pragmatism, prickly party spirit, and petty politics.”

Through all this, however, the Global Anglican Future Conference relies on this promise for our churches that “I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). The foundation of the Anglican future has now been laid in actions taken over these twenty years and affirmed by our membership toward a reformed, revived and reordered Communion. As noted in Part Two, the Statement Group polled the membership of the Conference beforehand with three questions that epitomize the direction of the Gafcon movement. The response was virtually unanimous: move forward with reforming God’s Church.

Reforming, Restoring, Reordering

Over the past twenty years, we have seen the hand of God leading us toward a reordering of the Anglican Communion. Gafcon has claimed from the beginning: “We are not leaving the Anglican Communion; we are the majority of the Anglican Communion seeking to remain faithful to our Anglican heritage.” As Archbishop Nicholas Okoh stated in the inaugural Synodical Council: “We are merely doing what the Communion leadership should have done to uphold its own resolution in 1998.”

The above paragraph, it seems to me, best speaks for Gafcon’s vision for the future of the Anglican Communion.

  • It sees God’s providential hand at work in the crisis of the past twenty years. From its beginning Gafcon has seen itself as “a movement of the Spirit, not a moment in time.” Of course, this claim can be challenged and has been, but as each successive Conference demonstrates, the Gafcon movement is not going away.
  • It denies that it is leaving the Anglican Communion. It sees itself as an instrument in calling the Communion to its true identity in Christ and the Gospel. The Nairobi Communique states: “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.”
  • It claims to represent the majority of the Communion. Statisticians may quibble over this claim, but the reality is that Gafcon, along with the Global South Anglican Network, speaks from the vital center of world Christianity.
  • It is restoring the doctrine, discipline, and order to the Communion which the “Instruments of Communion” failed to do. One cannot move forward until one has returned to the point of divergence in 1998. Having said that, Gafcon is not living in the past but moving into the future.

Gafcon believes that it has a historic vocation to reform, restore and reorder the Anglican Communion, as was said by the first council in Jerusalem: “And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’ “(Acts 15:15-18).

We give thanks for the godly courage of our Gafcon Primates in contending for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.  We applaud their decision to authenticate and recognise the provinces of the Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Church in Brazil, to recognise the Anglican Mission in England and to consecrate a Missionary Bishop for Europe. This has become necessary because of the departure from the faith by The Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church of Brazil and the Scottish Episcopal Church.  At Gafcon 2018, we heard many testimonies of faithful Anglicans who have been persecuted by those holding office in their respective provinces, merely because they would not surrender to, nor be compromised by, the false gospel that these leaders profess and promote. We also recognise the Gafcon Primates’ willingness to assist faithful Anglicans in New Zealand where the Anglican Church has recently agreed to allow bishops to authorise the blessing of same sex unions.

As the Gafcon movement matures, it has also seen the need for a more conciliar structure of governance. We endorse the formation of Gafcon Branches where necessary and of a Panel of Advisors, comprising bishops, clergy and lay representatives from each Gafcon Province and Branch, to provide counsel and advice to the Primates Council. Together with the Primates, the Panel of Advisors form a Synodical Council to bring recommendations to the Gafcon Assembly. The Synodical Council met for the first time at this Conference.

Recalling the Communion to its true identity requires leaders who put on the whole armor of God, with offensive and defensive weapons, to proclaim and defend the Gospel (Ephesians 6:14-20). Gafcon has been blessed with a sequence of courageous Primates from Peter Akinola to Eliud Wabukala to Nicholas Okoh. With the appointment of Archbishop Foley Beach as Chairman, the Gafcon Primates Council has made clear that its leadership can be represented by a man who is, in the eyes of the Lambeth Establishment, not even an Anglican! Similarly, Archbishop Miguel Uchoa, the new Primate of the Anglican Church of Brazil, also a “non-Anglican,” has been seated on the Primates Council, along with various Branches in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, and Europe, all “non-Anglicans.”

Could it be that “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:28)? Could it be that raising up this new generation of leaders is actually a sign of the maturing of the Gafcon movement? In a sense this new leadership has already moved beyond the battles of the last twenty years and is preparing the Communion to move on.

Some structures of Gafcon are reminiscent of the “Instruments” – a periodic plenary Assembly, a Primates Council, and a Synodical Council with representatives of different orders of ministry – but these formal resemblances can be misleading. I have argued (Essay 8 of my book and here) that the Lambeth Instruments have become a monolithic executive bureaucracy, with power concentrated in the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion Office. By contrast, Gafcon is aiming to be a mixed polity, with Primatial leadership, representative consultation, and general assent from its Assemblies. As noted in the Letter, this polity is “maturing,” not finished. In Gafcon 2013, a bishops’ convocation was held, and given the historic role of responsibility of bishops as teachers and defenders of the faith, this body may meet again in the future.

Questions for Canterbury

In light of the recommendations of the Synodical Council, we respectfully urge the Archbishop of Canterbury

  • to invite as full members to Lambeth 2020 bishops of the Province of the Anglican Church in North America and the Province of the Anglican Church in Brazil; and
  • not to invite bishops of those Provinces which have endorsed by word or deed sexual practices which are in contradiction to the teaching of Scripture and Resolution I.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, unless they have repented of their actions and reversed their decisions.

In the event that this does not occur, we urge Gafcon members to decline the invitation to attend Lambeth 2020 and all other meetings of the Instruments of Communion. 

One thing is lacking in Gafcon’s emerging order: the role of a “mother church” and a primatial see. We grieve for the divided state of the Communion because we love and honor our heritage from the Church of England (see Jerusalem Declaration, clauses 4,6, and 7). In the 2008 Jerusalem Statement, Gafcon acknowledged the nature of Canterbury as an historic see, and throughout the twenty years since Lambeth 1998, Global South leaders have been appealing to the Archbishop of Canterbury to exercise his historic role as “first among equals” on their behalf.

The appeal in the Letter to the Churches is genuine. Gafcon is urging the Archbishop to take the necessary steps to return the Communion to the right path. If any of the Archbishops from 1998 to the present had adopted a disciplinary process like that suggested by Archbishops Gomez and Sinclair in 2001 (“To Mend the Net”), the current crisis might have been averted.

There is of course a doctrinal principle undergirding this appeal, which is that the bishops at Lambeth 1998 enunciated an essential biblical truth about human sexuality. I think it likely that the previous and current Archbishops of Canterbury simply do not believe this or feel constrained by politics in England not to say so. For this reason, it seems unlikely that Justin Welby will respond to this appeal affirmatively, or at all. But perhaps he might reread his Enthronement sermon and step out of the Establishment boat.

The entire Assembly in Jerusalem, 2000-strong, is appealing to Canterbury to rethink its stance since 1998. The entire Assembly is also urging its bishops not to attend the Lambeth Conference in 2020 and other official Communion bodies if he does not. I have argued that there is an inherent inconsistency for Primates and bishops to sit in council with Foley Beach and others who have been defrocked by the Episcopal Church and then to go to Canterbury and sit in council with those like Michael Curry who have defrocked them.

Will all the bishops at Gafcon 2018 absent themselves from Lambeth 2020? Perhaps not. Before they do decide, they should at least ponder seriously the appeal approved with great conviction and joy in Jerusalem this year.

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