Reflections on GAFCON 2 by Andrew Atherstone

The second Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) met in Nairobi from Monday 21st to Saturday 26th October 2013, at the invitation of Archbishop Eliud Wabukala of Kenya, chairman of the GAFCON Primates’ Council. It gathered at All Saints cathedral and the impressive new conference centre (opened 2011) which forms part of the cathedral complex. At the first GAFCON in Jerusalem in 2008 there were 1138 delegates from 19 provinces; in Nairobi this increased to 1358 delegates from 27 provinces and over 40 countries. By far the largest contingent was Nigeria with 470 delegates, including 150 bishops who were under a three line whip to attend. Second in size was Uganda with 176 delegates. There were 102 from the Church England (3 from the diocese of Europe), 19 from the Church of Ireland, only one from the Church in Wales, and zero from the Episcopal Church of Scotland. GAFCON was likened to ‘a taste of heaven’, with believers from many nations, races, colours and languages worshipping the one Lord together.

The daily pattern was praise and prayer, a morning Bible exposition from the book of Ephesians, followed by plenary lectures and seminars. The bulk of the conference, over the best part of two and a half days was spent in a choice of nine streams:

  • The Challenge of Islam
  • The Work of the Holy Spirit
  • Marriage and Family
  • Children and Youth
  • Gospel and Culture (subtitled ‘How can we re-evangelize the West?’)
  • Being Women of God (for women only)
  • Aid and Development
  • Theological Education
  • Episcopal Ministry.

At first there was remarkably little polemic or reference to ecclesiastical politics. Instead the keynotes were evangelism, discipleship, education, family life and socio-political engagement. There were insights from the suffering church, with testimonies from Archbishop Deng Bul of South Sudan and Archbishop Benjamin Kwashi of Jos, and a warm welcome to Archbishop Ignatius Kattey and his wife, Beatrice, recently kidnapped in the Niger Delta. This broad perspective was quite deliberate. While GAFCON 1 was reactive, GAFCON 2 sought to establish a calmer atmosphere, build friendships and edify Christian leaders for their ministry in the local church. The conference aimed to set a positive agenda rather than merely responding negatively to the agenda of others. It was easy to forget all about talk of ‘crisis’ in the Anglican Communion, until a sudden change of gear in the last 24 hours when the Nairobi communiqué came into view.

Delegates testified to the conference being a place of spiritual refreshment. At the same time it presented some puzzling and paradoxical questions, with significance for the future viability and vitality of the GAFCON movement. This paper offers personal reflections on some of these issues.

Repentance and Renewal

The key theme of GAFCON 2, from beginning to end, was our need for repentance and renewal. Gathering in Nairobi is was natural to focus upon the East African revival, a renewal movement within Anglicanism which swept through the region from the 1930s to the 1970s. Speakers from Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda testified to the impact of the revival spirituality in shaping their Christian lives and Anglican identities. Bishop Samson Mwaluda, for example, described how his mother had been a committed Christian, but his father had been a churchgoer whose lifestyle did not match his profession. His father often came home drunk and abusive, but one day was suddenly a changed man, repentant, and announced, ‘I have met the Lord’. As a teenager Samson was brought to faith by his father’s witness.

The revivalists, GAFCON was told, had ministered in an East African church which was deeply compromised with sins like syncretism, theft, drunkenness, violence and sexual immorality. Communicant members had one foot in the church but the other foot in the world. The revival brought to African Anglicanism a focus on personal transformation, confession and restoration of wrong, close unity with fellow believers, serious Bible study and evangelism. It laid a high premium upon conviction by the power of the Holy Spirit, and no sin was too small to be repented. John Senyonyi (vice-chancellor of Uganda Christian University) insisted that when the Bible says something is a sin, then it is a sin, ‘case closed’. He proclaimed that the East African revival was ‘not a relic of history, it’s a living experience that many of us enjoy day to day’. The revival also prioritised spiritual brokenness, the willingness to be corrected by others and to be challenged, ‘Brother, I think the way you are walking does not please the Lord.’ But before calling upon others to repent, their focus was, ‘Lord, begin with me’. Another emphasis, of special relevance to GAFCON, was the call to remain within the denomination after conversion, not to jump ship for greener pastures. Wabukala suggested that just as the revival has brought renewal to East Africa, so GAFCON would bring renewal to global Anglicanism, not seeking to establish a new church or communion, but a spiritual blessing within the church calling Anglicans to whole-hearted discipleship and confident evangelism in commitment to Christ.

The need for true repentance was also the thrust of the keynote address by Mike Ovey (principal of Oak Hill College), a tour de force. He showed how the early Christians, following the model of their Saviour, consistently preached ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins’ in the name of Jesus (Luke 24.47), an emphasis also evident in the Anglican spirituality of the Book of Common Prayer and the Homilies. But many contemporary Anglican preachers, in Ovey’s analysis, proclaim ‘cheap grace’, shorn of repentance, which thereby distorts the gospel. He acknowledged that the church in the West does repent over racism, colonial legacy and social injustice, but these are all recognised by the world as sin, so ‘is it really turning to God, or acknowledging the world?’ What about the sins which the world enjoys and applauds? In a rousing peroration he urged the Anglican Communion to preach not cheap grace but ‘costly grace’.

GAFCON has a reputation in the media for self-righteousness and a ‘holier than thou’ attitude, more Pharisee than Publican. Although the conference did hear denunciation of the sins of the Anglican Communion, personal repentance was a central focus. William Taylor (rector of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate), expounding Paul’s teaching on marriage, spoke not only against same-sex unions but equally strongly against polygamy, and against bullying, coercion and violence in marriage. He called for ‘deep deep repentance’ by husbands who had abused their wives. Before the draft communiqué was considered, provincials delegations were instructed to repent of their sins. At the final communion service, Bishop Joseph Kanuku of Machakos took as his text 2 Chronicles 7.14: ‘if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin, and heal their land’. In response the congregation spent an extended period in personal and corporate repentance, for a wide variety of sins including greed, tribalism and racism. GAFCON also has an unfortunate reputation for being obsessed by homosexuality, but the Nairobi communiqué tried to widen this vision by calling also for repentance of the sins of economic oppression, the marginalization of women and children, domestic violence, sexual abuse, polygamy, people trafficking and abortion. Unfortunately the revival emphasis on ‘Lord, begin with me’, was not as central to the communiqué as it should have been, a missed opportunity.


In Nairobi it is hard to avoid the fact that 2013 is Kenya’s golden jubilee, fifty years since independence from Britain. GAFCON 2 began on Heroes Day (formerly called Kenyatta Day), a public holiday celebrating the throwing off of the colonial yoke. These cultural tensions, especially concerning authority and self-determination, were frequently apparent at the conference. The rejection of Western church teaching is easily elided with a rejection of English and American imperialism.

All Saints cathedral, built between the 1910s and 1950s, is a visual reminder of the colonial past. Its walls are covered with memorials to British soldiers and administrators. An impressive piped organ led the delegates in eighteenth-century English hymnody, though sung with African accents and more gustily than in a typical English cathedral. The cathedral choir wear red and mauve cassocks, compete with ruffs. African bishops processed in rochet and chimere, not out of place in Victorian England, while ancient English ecclesiastical titles, ‘Lord Bishop’ and ‘Your Grace’, were used liberally on the platform. But from an African perspective, GAFCON 2 was hailed as a triumph – as Archbishop Kwashi observed, in a continent with a reputation for HIV/AIDS, violence, disorder and corruption, here was a good news story from Africa. President Kenyatta sent GAFCON his personal greetings, and a memorial plaque is to be erected in the conference centre, recording the visit of GAFCON for posterity, a feather in the cap for the Anglican Church of Kenya.

The interrelation between GAFCON leaders from the West and the Global South is complex. The GAFCON Primates’ Council currently comprises the archbishops of Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda, the Southern Cone and North America. The new Archbishop of Tanzania is expected to join, as his predecessor did, though he was absent from Nairobi. It is also likely that the Archbishop of Burundi, who did attend GAFCON 2, will soon join the council. Thus the principal leaders of the movement are mostly African, though the secretariat (led by Bishops Peter Jensen and Martyn Minns) is predominantly Anglo-Saxon. English bishops, Michael Nazir-Ali and Wallace Benn, also advise the primates. This partnership was evident in Nairobi. The smooth running of the event was assured by the work of a hundred Kenyan volunteers, but Jensen also brought a crack team from Sydney to take charge of the organizational logistics and public relations. The MCs were both from Nairobi and other African leaders frequently spoke on the platform, including an important keynote by Dr Senyonyi. The main teaching on Ephesians was given in turn by a Nigerian, an Australian (of Sri Lankan heritage), an America, an Englishman and a Brazilian. The relationship between African and non-African leaders is of key significance if the GAFCON movement is to flourish.

That deceptive phrase ‘The West’ was sometimes heard at GAFCON 2 as a catch-all for any manner of idiocy or iniquity. The draft communiqué had to be toned down, to show that it is not only the West which needs to be evangelized, and it is not only Western governments which have passed foolish legislation. There were also hints that the West’s hostile and patronising treatment of conservative Christians is rooted in racism. GAFCON delegates enjoyed an afternoon watching wildlife in Nairobi National Park, and Archbishop Wabukala offered this as a picture of what is happening in the Anglican Communion – liberal Anglicans do not want to see conservatives completely exterminated, but simply allotted their own ‘reserves’ in which to stay. Wabukala retorted that traditional Christians are not ‘an endangered species’ but a global faith. He did not make the connection, but the image was resonant of the treatment of Native Americans pushed into ‘reserves’ by European settlers, and of Africans assigned to ‘Bantustans’ in apartheid South Africa.

Theological Diversity

GAFCON is not Reform in African dress. It is a broad coalition of theologies and church cultures, which can sometimes be an awkward friendship. Music was led by an exuberant Kenyan praise band, ‘The Divine Voices’, with many songs in African languages, and delegates were encouraged to clap, stomp, raise arms and face in different directions. When we were ‘dancing round and round the throne of glory’ some of the British delegation kept their hands firmly in their pockets. National liturgies also revealed local contextualisation of the gospel story.

Evangelical Anglicanism is more catholicised in Africa than in Britain. Some of the small rituals in Nairobi cathedral would bring objections from conscientious English Protestants if introduced in their parishes at home – like calling the Lord’s Table an ‘altar’, wearing stoles, turning east to recite the Nicene Creed, and kneeling before the consecrated sacrament for the angus dei. The hymnody during the administration of communion, in the service led by the Church of Nigeria, included several lines which raised Protestant eyebrows, about ‘tasting Christ’ and being delivered from illness and evil ‘by the food, so awful and so sweet’. As the service drew to a close, the congregation was cheerfully singing the revivalist classic, Trust and Obey, but after just one verse it was cancelled on the orders of Archbishop Nicholas Okoh and replaced by the hymn in the original order of service: F.W. Faber’s Faith of our Fathers. The hymn is much loved amongst African Anglicans, with its passionate refrain, ‘Faith of our Fathers, holy faith! We will be true to thee in death!’ But it was, of course, originally composed as a battle hymn of the catholic resistance, celebrating the testimony of England’s catholic martyrs. Unbeknown to most GAFCON delegates, the faith they were promising to defend was the mass and the pope. Robert Parsons and Edmund Campion would have been proud!

Theological tensions were further exposed in a seminar on the complementary charisms of catholicism and evangelicalism by Gavin Ashenden (former chaplain of Sussex University, trained at both Oak Hill and Heythrop), an entertaining but provocative speaker whose comments demonstrated the chasm between the two movements. This is one of the biggest dilemmas for GAFCON – although overwhelming evangelical, how serious is it about bringing Catholic Anglicans on board? The North American contingent, in particular, is largely catholic, since so many evangelicals left the Episcopal Church in the nineteenth century. The Nairobi communiqué welcomes ‘all our different traditions’ (misleadingly caricatured as Evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics, and Charismatics) as all committed to ‘a renewed Anglican orthodoxy’. But what does this mean in practice? Is it just a temporary alliance, co-belligerence against the common enemy of radical liberalism, or something more? The Jerusalem Declaration of 2008 famously affirms ‘justification by faith’ (as did the Council of Trent) but not ‘justification by faith alone’. Some Anglo-Catholics at Nairobi were unhappy that the public worship was not more catholic in flavour; but they admitted there are only two viable options as they face an insecure future, GAFCON or the Ordinariate.

Evangelicals are traditionally much happier relating to non-Anglican evangelicals than to non-evangelical Anglicans. Another theological legacy from Kenya to the Anglican Communion is the Kikuyu Missionary Conference of 1913, where Bishop Willis of Uganda and Bishop Peel of Mombasa (both evangelicals) enjoyed fellowship with Nonconformist friends. Willis and Peel were determined to put evangelical faith before catholic order, for the sake of united evangelism, for which they were denounced as heretics by Bishop Weston of Zanzibar (an Anglo-Catholic). Their ecclesiologies were incompatible. Although the Kikuyu conference is now in its centenary year, an ideal moment to celebrate its impact, it was passed over in silence by GAFCON 2. There was no obvious rapprochement at Nairobi. The convergence between these rival Anglican traditions was merely sartorial: bishops at GAFCON dispensed with their mitres for the sake of evangelical sensibilities, while some conservative evangelical clergy from England and Sydney were spotted in dog-collars, which they would be embarrassed to be caught wearing at home.

Another obvious area of theological diversity is GAFCON’s attitude to the ordination and consecration of women. Contradictory viewpoints are encompassed by the movement. There was a good supply of women in dog-collars, some white, most black, but few stood on the platform. Clergywomen from North American and Uganda led intercessions and read the Bible, but none preached or lectured. The Nairobi communiqué now for the first time acknowledges these differences of opinion. Nevertheless, GAFCON will need to work harder to recruit and retain egalitarians if it is to enhance its appeal as a broad coalition.

The Global Anglican Future

Justin Welby has begun his archiepiscopate by seeking to build good personal friendships with Anglican leaders across the world. He preached in Nairobi cathedral the day before the conference began, and sat down to lunch between Archbishop Wabukala and Archbishop Bob Duncan (Anglican Church in North America). He also sent video greetings, saying he was ‘so thrilled’ and ‘so glad’ that GAFCON 2 was taking place, because it was ‘essential’. He exhorted delegates to be confident in the gospel and to pursue holiness in the midst of rapid cultural change, but also hinted that different contexts might require different responses. He emphasised the importance of Christian unity and called upon GAFCON to express disagreement ‘graciously but with powerful truth’. It was a carefully worded greeting, if somewhat ambiguous, and met a muted response.

Several speakers offered stark diagnoses of the ills of the Anglican Communion. William Taylor hammered home the apostolic command when faced by false teaching, ‘Do not be partners with them’ (Ephesians 5.7). ‘If you sleepwalk into deception’, he warned, ‘they will eat you up like a crocodile.’ Miguel Ochoa (Bishop of Recife in Brazil) complained that Anglican liberals are all ‘talk, talk talk ... listen, listen, listen, indaba, indaba’. He exclaimed that ‘new wine cannot be placed in old wineskins’, ‘never forget that too much caution – Anglican caution – is the reason why we are here’. Surveying the English scene Paul Perkin (vicar of St Mark’s, Battersea Rise) spoke passionately about the great opportunities for church growth and the flourishing of gospel ministries. But he also lamented the tragedy when the world invades the church, especially its central institutions. Perkin asked, ‘How can faithful ministers submit to unfaithful leaders?’ He suggested that in future the Church of England will need a mixed economy, some evangelicals within the old structures and some working ‘beyond the structures’. Wabukala similarly warned that there are powerful and well-funded institutions seeking to make sure Africa adopts the culture of the West. He acknowledged that some churches had been taken captive by the world, but urged GAFCON not to flinch because ‘we cannot stand by passively as the cross of Christ is attacked and denied’. Wabukala exclaimed, ‘we’re in a spiritual battle for the future, not just of Anglicanism, but of the entire Christian faith’, and called on GAFCON to take decisive action.

This call to action was summarised in the Nairobi communiqué and commitments. These were drafted during the conference itself, not written in advance, with material provided from the nine mini-conference streams. The writing group was drawn from Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, the Southern Cone, Australia, England and North America, and laboured day and night to produce the text. Their intention was not to redo the work of GAFCON 1, and the chairman of the drafters, Bishop John Guernsey, called the Jerusalem Declaration ‘a once in a generation document’. What was now needed, he explained, was for GAFCON to put its shoulder to the wheel. The draft was read to the conference on the last afternoon; provincial groups then had one rushed hour to suggest revisions, before the text was tweaked over night, and the final version was presented the next morning, some delegates already having left for their airport. But the auditorium was full, and when the communiqué and commitments were read they received a standing ovation and extended enthusiastic applause. It was a moving moment. Before Secretary Jensen could speak, the Africans broke out spontaneously into Tukutendereza Yesu (‘We praise you Jesus’), the anthem of the East African revival. The communiqué and commitments were formally endorsed with the acclamation ‘Amen! Hallelujah!’ Some of the North American delegates at the back were heard to call out, ‘No!’, but their voices were drowned out by the evangelical majority.

The Nairobi communiqué sketches out GAFCON’s evolving structures in the next phase of its development. To date it has operated on a shoestring and relied on personal friendships and energetic individuals. Wabukala likened being chairman of GAFCON to leading ‘an amorphous something’. Now there will be an executive committee, a board of trustees, and regional liaison officers to coordinate the work of provincial groups, plus a call for financial support (perhaps to the detriment of the Anglican Consultative Council). GAFCON also affirmed the intention of the Anglican Mission in England to appoint a general secretary, initially to support isolated congregations who feel pushed out by the Church of England and excluded from the Anglican family, but also in a proactive attempt to be ready if the worst should happen even in England.

But GAFCON structures are not the key issue. There are three other major questions facing the movement that need to be answered in the next few years. First, in what sense can it claim to be a truly ‘global’ movement within Anglicanism? The Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FCA) has now been rebranded the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (GFCA). Wabukala announced in his presidential address, ‘the world has come to Kenya’. But had it? There was an obvious lack of Asian faces in Nairobi. For example, only one Pakistani delegate was present, a church planter trained at Moore College in Sydney. Visa restrictions notwithstanding, this representation is not good enough. What about the booming Anglican churches in China and Singapore, or Arab Anglicans from North Africa and the Middle East? A clash of style and personality between the African primates and Mouneer Anis (Bishop of Egypt) and John Chew (former Archbishop of South East Asia) has restricted GAFCON’s reach. If it is to flourish as a truly global renewal movement within the Anglican Communion, more provinces must catch the vision and come on board.

Second, in what sense do the GAFCON bishops represent their congregations? What voice will GAFCON give to the millions of lay people under its umbrella? The East African revival was predominantly a lay movement, and stress was laid on this in the conference presentations, calling the laity to take a lead in evangelism and discipleship. But the very next morning a behemothian procession entered the cathedral, ranks of bishops and archbishops in their flowing convocation robes – they sat separate from the clergy and laity, were the first to receive communion and then gathered for their own photograph on the lawn (in imitation of the classic Lambeth Conference photographs). Throughout the week, purple shirts and right reverends were everywhere to be seen. The irony could not be missed. Of the 1358 delegates, 331 were bishops (including 30 archbishops), 482 clergy and 545 laity – but the number of bishops was a key GAFCON headline. While emphasising lay leadership, and trying to break free from old hierarchical models, GAFCON remains bishop heavy. It is a political game, in recognition that these numbers count at Lambeth and in the councils of the church. When in England or Australia, many evangelicals have scant regard for bishops, as if Anglicanism could manage perfectly well without them: but their attitude mysteriously changes when they reach East Africa, where they enthusiastically embrace the episcopate as of key significance for the mission and purity of the church. How will lay voices be heard?

Third, the participants in Nairobi committed ‘to meet again at the next GAFCON’. Perhaps GAFCON 3 will be summoned in 2018 to Sydney or Recife? There is unlikely to be a Lambeth Conference that year to distract from it. But from where will the future GAFCON leadership arise? The grandfathers of the movement were in attendance at Nairobi – former primates Peter Akinola of Nigeria, Emmanuel Kolini of Rwanda, and Benjamin Nzimbi of Kenya – who have passed on the baton to the current generation. But the baton soon needs to be passed on again. Peter Jensen is now a retired septuagenarian and promised he would not be organizing the next GAFCON. The primates’ other Western advisers are likewise elderly statesmen who cannot continue forever. It is probably to the younger African leaders that GAFCON will need to look next, in the first instance, as the movement’s momentum continues to shift away from Britain and North America. GAFCON needs a truly global reach, full lay participation, and an emerging younger leadership. On these three questions the future viability and vitality of the movement depends.

andrewatherstoneAndrew Atherstone was part of the UK delegation to GAFCON 2, representing the Latimer Trust, an Anglican evangelical research institute,

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