Thoughts on the Jerusalem Declaration: Pt 1: Gafcon and the Church

GAFCON Bishops Jerusalem 2008.jpg

The Jerusalem Declaration has been one of the best and enduring fruits of the Gafcon movement. I was a member of the Statement Group in 2008 that drafted the Declaration and have written a commentary on it (see Essay 7 of my book). In the next three essays I shall share further thoughts on what the Declaration says and what it does not say.

From the very beginning, the question “Is Gafcon a Church?” has roiled the reputedly placid sea (or is it “See”?) of Anglicanism. In a recent Q&A session in Parliament, when Archbishop Justin Welby was asked about his commitment to the Jerusalem Statement from GAFCON 2008, he (through a Lambeth spokeswoman) referred to an 800-word piece by the previous Archbishop Rowan Williams, posted immediately following the Conference. To my knowledge this is the long and the short of what Canterbury has ever said about the substance of the Statement, and it appears Justin Welby sees no need to expound on it further.

In this piece Rowan Williams speaks positively of the “tenets of orthodoxy” expressed by “those who met for prayer and pilgrimage,” noting that these tenets were “shared by the vast majority of Anglicans worldwide, even if there may be differences of emphasis and perspective on some issues.” (Issues like whether God ordained marriage exclusively between a man and a woman? – Archbishop Welby now assures us that the “Living in Love and Faith” consultative process will sort all that out.)

After this moment of positivity, Williams moves on to the question of “by what authority” the Conference set up a “self-selected” Primates Council, creating overlapping and competing jurisdictions within the Communion. This is a serious question indeed, and many within the Gafcon movement and its sympathizers continue to wrestle with it. It touches on deep-seated loyalties, personal relationships, and a host of practical matters. The churches of the Reformation faced the same kind of challenge – often with life at (the) stake – from Rome: “by what authority do you claim to be a member of the one holy catholic and apostolic church?”

My purpose in this essay is to contend that in the Jerusalem Statement and Declaration, the Gafcon movement is claiming to have an “ecclesial” identity, that is, the marks of a church. The Gafcon fellowship, to be sure, is not a church but a communion of churches that God raised up when the official Communion abdicated its authority to maintain doctrine and discipline in central matters of Christian faith and life.

I should perhaps begin by identifying my stance. I would call myself a high-church Anglican Evangelical with openness to the sovereign working of the Holy Spirit. Writing on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, Evangelical theologian Kevin Vanhoozer (Biblical Authority after Babel) has called for a retrieval of the Reformers’ doctrine of the catholicity of the church – what he calls “a virtual sixth sola: sola ecclesia (church alone).” Anglicans, as I see it, have an honor roll of teachers on the nature of the church – from Thomas Cranmer’s reformed national church to Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity to Henry Venn’s missionary model of self-propagating, self-financing, self-governing indigenous churches to Michael Ramsey’s The Gospel and the Catholic Church.

In the spirit of Vanhoozer’s claim to “retrieve” a “mere Protestant Christianity,” I shall argue that the Gafcon movement is seeking to retrieve the biblical, catholic and Evangelical doctrine and discipline of the church. From this perspective, I shall briefly comment on the Jerusalem Declaration.

The Jerusalem Declaration

In the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit:

The church is founded in the Name of the Triune God, that divine community (koinonia) of Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and we participate in the Triune God as members of the Body of Christ, the Son of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father (2 Corinthians 13:14). It is in the fellowship of the church that believers find fellowship with God (John 15:1-17).

We, the participants in the Global Anglican Future Conference, have met in the land of Jesus’ birth.

What is meant by “We, the participants…”? This introductory language links the principles in the Declaration with the actions of the Conference, which launched a “movement in the Spirit.” The Gafcon movement has an ecclesial shape, with its own Primates Council that claims the authority to recognize or not recognize churches in the wider Anglican Communion. In fact, it is “we the participants” who acted as a constituent Assembly to approve the Jerusalem Statement (2008) and also met to approve the Nairobi Communique and Commitment (2013) and the Letter to the Churches (2018). This claim to speak and act in the name of the church is what distressed Rowan Williams and what the Lambeth establishment has assiduously avoided dealing with.

We express our loyalty as disciples to the King of kings, the Lord Jesus. We joyfully embrace his command to proclaim the reality of his kingdom which he first announced in this land. The gospel of the kingdom is the good news of salvation, liberation and transformation for all. In light of the above, we agree to chart a way forward together that promotes and protects the biblical gospel and mission to the world, solemnly declaring the following tenets of orthodoxy which underpin our Anglican identity.

The church is the forerunner of the Kingdom of God, prophesied in the Old Testament, proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth, manifested in His Death, Resurrection and Ascension, and to be consummated when He comes to deliver the Kingdom to His Father. The church’s primary call is to witness to this Kingdom by preaching repentance and manifesting healing works of love and mercy (Matthew 10:7-8).

  1. We rejoice in the gospel of God through which we have been saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because God first loved us, we love him and as believers bring forth fruits of love, ongoing repentance, lively hope and thanksgiving to God in all things.

The Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone is the heart of the church’s message (Romans 1:16-17; Ephesians 2:8). The recovery of the fullness of the Gospel is a central gift of the Protestant Reformation, of which the Church of England and its daughter churches are a part. Anglican missionaries of both high and low churchmanship delivered this Gospel throughout the British empire. The recipients of the Gospel have expanded that work through revivals and evangelism, even as the Anglican churches in the West have declined in zeal. It is these self-governing churches that have spearheaded the Gafcon movement.

  1. We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God written and to contain all things necessary for salvation. The Bible is to be translated, read, preached, taught and obeyed in its plain and canonical sense, respectful of the church’s historic and consensual reading.

Reformation Anglicans shared in the recovery of the centrality of Scripture, with a prime contribution being the translation of the English Bible and its incorporation in readings and biblical theology in the Book of Common Prayer. As stated in the Thirty-nine Articles (VI and XX) and in the Scripture Collect, the Bible is the word of God written, inspired by God for proclamation and for discipleship. It is the ultimate measure and test of the church’s doctrine and discipline.

The Bible must be interpreted, and the Declaration gives three guidelines in this regard. The first is the plain sense of Scripture, which includes its grammar and literary genres, its historical setting, and its theological aim, pointing to salvation in Christ. The plain sense includes the external clarity of the text and the inner working of the Spirit, opening the eyes and ears of believers to hear and heed God’s voice. To honor the plain sense of Scripture is to honor the church as a community of Bible readers “equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

The second guideline is the canonical sense of Scripture, recognizing that God spoke in many and various ways to the authors and editors of the Scriptures (Hebrews 1:1). In particular, the two Testaments of the divine drama prepare for and witness to the coming of Christ. I have described the canon as the tapestry of Scripture. To honor the canonical sense is to believe that God’s word is coherent, “scripture interpreting scripture.”

Finally, there is respect for the historical and communal tradition of biblical interpretation. Scholars in recent decades have been rediscovering the rich heritage of biblical commentary from the patristic age and the Reformation, which had been arrogantly dismissed by the dominant “historical-critical” method. Evangelicals today in particular have developed a new sense of interpreting the Bible as a communal exercise along with the great expositors of the past.

  1. We uphold the four Ecumenical Councils and the three historic Creeds as expressing the rule of faith of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

A “rule of faith” arose in the early church as a guide for interpreting Scripture and combating heresy. This informal rule was later embodied in various creeds, three of which are mentioned in this clause. The Protestant Reformers argued that their teaching and practice were in agreement with the early church over against the Roman Catholicism of their day. Anglicans in particular, e.g., Bishop John Jewell, claimed to be heirs of the patristic church. Article VIII states that the three Creeds “ought thoroughly to be received and believed, for they may be approved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture.” Similarly, the Lambeth Quadrilateral approves the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds as “the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.”

Clause 3 specifically affirms the creedal “marks” of the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. These are marks, first of all, of the “invisible” church, i.e., the whole body of God’s elect, but they also serve to identify visible churches as opposed to cults. By affirming these marks, Gafcon here is filling in a gap left open in Article XIX (see below).

  1. We uphold the Thirty-nine Articles as containing the true doctrine of the Church agreeing with God’s Word and as authoritative for Anglicans today.

The Thirty-nine Articles contains a major section on the Church (Articles XIX-XXXVI), including ministry, sacraments and discipline. The introductory Article XIX “Of the Church” states:

The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.

This Article turns directly to the visible church and defines it as “a congregation of faithful men” (“men” here includes women). But what does “congregation” mean? Recently, William Taylor, a prominent English Evangelical pastor, has argued that biblically there are only two “churches”: the “universal,” i.e., the invisible church, and the local congregation. But is that what “congregation” meant in the 16th century? Historian Ashley Null comments: “it is a common Anglican evangelical misunderstanding to interpret ‘congregation’ by its later, rather than its proper Reformation, meaning, which is ‘the whole body of the faithful’” (private communication). Bishop John Rodgers has captured the fuller sense in his commentary on the Articles:

In the New Testament, the Church is described as a local congregation, as a regional group of congregations, and sometimes as all Christians past, present, and future. In principle, it can refer to all of the congregations of the visible Church world-wide. (Essential Truths for Christians, page 372).

The continuation of Article XIX confirms the broader sense when it refers to the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch and Rome. Such a view of regional churches is particularly relevant today for the Anglican Communion although it was not applicable in the 16th century. The original Article envisaged the “congregation” of the parishes of the Established Church in England. Today each autonomous Province of the Anglican Communion is organized with its own constitution and canons. The Gafcon fellowship has adopted this same structure of regional churches in communion with each other. The apparently anomalous “Branches” have been set up in existing Anglican provinces which the Gafcon Primates have judged to have denied the orthodox faith in word and deed.

  1. We gladly proclaim and submit to the unique and universal Lordship of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, humanity’s only Saviour from sin, judgement and hell, who lived the life we could not live and died the death that we deserve. By his atoning death and glorious resurrection, he secured the redemption of all who come to him in repentance and faith.

As with clause 1, clause 5 affirms the Reformation “solas,” in this case solus Christus: on Christ alone our hope is founded. The church’s confession is upheld on two great pillars: Jesus’ atoning death for our sins and His glorious victory over death for our justification (Matthew 16:13-19; Romans 4:25). Justification, this clause makes clear, is met by the obedience of faith. One might wish for a further statement to the effect that redemption is incorporation into the Body of Christ and fellowship with one another (Romans 12:5).

  1. We rejoice in our Anglican sacramental and liturgical heritage as an expression of the gospel, and we uphold the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as a true and authoritative standard of worship and prayer, to be translated and locally adapted for each culture.

To be in the church is to be joined together with other believers in worship, hearing the Word preached and receiving the sacraments celebrated. The Book of Common Prayer has been widely acknowledged as a classic expression of Christian piety and worship, and Gafcon acknowledges that standard, even as it is locally adapted in contemporary modes of prayer and praise.

  1. We recognise that God has called and gifted bishops, priests and deacons in historic succession to equip all the people of God for their ministry in the world. We uphold the classic Anglican Ordinal as an authoritative standard of clerical orders.

While this clause focuses on holy orders, it makes clear that the purpose of the clergy is to equip the people of God for their royal priestly ministry in the world. At the same time, it recognizes a special calling and gifting for those in ordained ministry. The clause states an historic lineage of the threefold order of bishops, priests and deacons but it does not insist on a biblical or sacramental requirement of this order, hence leaving open the possibility of ecumenical fellowship with non-episcopal churches.

In Clauses 8-10 Gafcon addresses contemporary threats to the church: militant secularism and militant religious fundamentalism (Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist). These are the very issues which the Communion Establishment has failed to engage or has even colluded with. The recent “G19” meeting in Dubai called for “a new network to provide fellowship, advocacy and intentional prayer for those in restricted situations.”

Clauses 11-13 have to do with church unity, legitimate diversity, and discipline. I shall deal more extensively with these clauses in my third essay.

  1. We rejoice at the prospect of Jesus’ coming again in glory, and while we await this final event of history, we praise him for the way he builds up his church through his Spirit by miraculously changing lives.

Clause 14 concludes the Declaration, connecting the work of the Church Militant in this age with the hope of the Church Triumphant, Jesus’ Coming to gather His elect into the Kingdom (Matthew 13:27).


The goal of this brief survey of the Jerusalem Declaration has been to demonstrate that the Gafcon movement intends to serve as an “ecclesiastical polity,” not a “golf club” (a la William Taylor) or a “ginger group” (a la Justin Welby). The Gafcon fellowship is not seeking to be a church but a communion of churches in the Anglican tradition.

It should not be surprising that this church order resembles the historic Anglican Communion. Gafcon’s dispute has not been so much about the skeletal structure of the Communion as with the life of the Communion. “Can these bones live?” the prophet asks. Only if the Spirit breathes life into them. Gafcon will ultimately be judged not by the correctness of its founding statements but by the life and love which flow from its churches:

Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16)