The GAFCON Movement and the Anglican Communion

The GAFCON Movement and

The Anglican Communion

by Andrew Goddard

Although much remains unclear, there is no doubt that the Statement on the Global Anglican Future issued last weekend and its 14-point Jerusalem Declaration mark a significant development in Anglicanism. For some people the response to this is obvious – either unquestioning elation and talk of a new Reformation (the Guardian claimed one person present at the reading in Jerusalem said “he thought the skies were about to open so the delegates could ascend to heaven”!) or ridicule and dismissal of un-Anglican fundamentalist schismatics. A quick read of comments on Stand Firm or Thinking Anglicans will provide plenty of such sound bite gut reactions. For many, however, particularly many evangelicals in the Church of England, emotions are probably more mixed and minds more cautious or confused. There is uncertainty about what exactly has happened, what is going to develop in the short to medium term and how best to relate to the major new initiative of an international fellowship of confessing Anglicans aimed at reforming the Communion.
In beginning to work out my own response, I’ve found myself wrestling with the following four simple questions for which the answers are far from simple: Who? Why? What? How?
The introduction to the statement makes clear it comes from a global body of over 1,000 Anglicans (bishops, clergy and laity) including, significantly, about a third of the bishops of the Communion. These people are described as “representing millions of faithful Anglican Christians”, probably the majority of Anglicans in the Communion, although the failure to publish a full attendance list makes it difficult to assess this claim and it is clear that some were not in the Communion (e.g. those from REC in the US and from the CofE in South Africa) and others (e.g. from the Church of England) were not at all representative even of orthodox Anglicans in their provinces.
There can be little doubt – despite the outrage and rejection of many Western liberals – that much of the statement represents the theological and missional heart of 21st century Anglicanism. Its theological outlook and vision of mission give us a sense of what a truly global Anglican future will look like. The fact that this voice is now being clearly expressed can only be welcomed. The question is whether or not others in the Communion are really willing to listen and to learn (and it is encouraging that the Church Times has called for GAFCON to be treated with respect and described its meeting as “a good thing”).
However, it is also clear that the prime movers in GAFCON are a particular sub-section of this majority global Anglicanism. They primarily come from those among that wider group who have charted their own consistent and developing path through the recent ecclesial disturbances that have torn apart the Communion. This is evident from the fact that
· five of the seven Primates present (Rwanda, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and Southern Cone) already have North American bishops in their province serving in the US or Canada
· there were primates from only six of the twelve CAPA provinces and
· many primates of the wider Global South movement were absent (including such significant leaders as John Chew of SE Asia, Mouneer Anis of Jerusalem and the Middle East, Drexel Gomez of the West Indies and Ian Ernest of the Indian Ocean and Chair of CAPA).
GAFCON is clearly the bringing together of a particular number of key groupings into a wider movement. Although some others were invited and present, those selected and “summoned by the Primates’ leadership team to Jerusalem” and especially those crucial in the framing of the statement were (along with a significant constituency from the Diocese of Sydney) those behind four crucial earlier political developments to the crisis in North America and the wider Communion.
1. The decision to create the Common Cause Partnership in North America. This formed a Council of Bishops in Sept 2007 after growing out of (but also creating divisions within) the original Anglican Communion Network founded in 2003-4. It is related to the distinction between Essentials Network (part of Common Cause and present in strength at GAFCON) and Essentials Federation in Canada (which has observer status in Common Cause and at GAFCON).
2. The decision in 2005 to amend the Nigerian church’s constitution and to replace its references to being in communion with the see of Canterbury with a confessional basis for communion.
3. The 2006 CAPA-sponsored document The Road to Lambeth
4. The December 2006 Covenant for the Church of England.
Some of what has come out of Jerusalem is the bringing together of these into a movement now clearly addressing the Communion as a whole. Inevitably, therefore, responses to these earlier initiatives will shape each person’s initial reactions to the GAFCON statement. However, it is important to discern what is new and different here and consider whether it opens up possibilities for constructively reconfiguring some of the divisions of the past.
The statement’s first major section – “The Global Anglican Context” – succinctly outlines why GAFCON met and has acted as it has. Its central claim is that Western secularism and pluralism are not only damaging society but have infiltrated the churches, leading to a false gospel being propagated. Although many in the Communion have resisted this, leading to an unfolding realignment in North America, the Instruments of Communion have failed to act and new relationships have developed apart from them.
The broad-brush picture and central concerns captured here sadly have much truth. However, as in any relatively short statement from a large gathering (especially one including and directed by many of the most disenchanted and distressed among orthodox Anglicans) some elements are problematic and need to be critiqued and counter-balanced:
· some of its key claims are asserted rather than argued;
· its rhetoric can be undiscriminating and polemical;
· its description of recent events is (inevitably) selective;
· it lacks critical self-awareness of how those at GAFCON have contributed to the chaos;
· it fails to examine why the Instruments have failed and how they are seeking to rectify this.
Nevertheless, there is widespread concern over growing heterodoxy in the Western church (particularly in North America) and the inability (institutional as much as volitional) of the Communion as a whole through its Instruments either to discipline the heterodox or provide adequate support to the orthodox. That this is the situation is to a significant degree recognised across the Communion including by the Instruments of Communion that GAFCON judges to have failed –
· The Windsor Report itself acknowledged that “the overwhelming response from other Christians both inside and outside the Anglican family has been to regard these developments [in the USA and Canada] as departures from genuine, apostolic Christian faith” (para 28).
· The Archbishop of Canterbury, in Challenge & Hope, stated “There is no way in which the Anglican Communion can remain unchanged by what is happening at the moment…. it is not going to look exactly like anything we have known so far….”.
· The Archbishop of Canterbury, in an interview in the CEN on 9th May this year, further explained – “What the debate has revealed is how ill-equipped to deal with such matters are the structures which have evolved in the Communion. There have to be clearing houses where people representative of different views in the Provinces can decide what is a fundamental matter. At the Lambeth Conference we need to think about how we put that clearing mechanism in place and get something that commands trust”.
In short, while there are dangers in a broad-brush analysis and areas which need nuancing or correcting, much of the diagnosis offered by GAFCON has widespread sympathy and support. The key questions therefore are
(1) how do those who share these concerns discuss where there is disagreement?
(2) how do we find a response together to the challenges of false teaching and to the task of renewing and reforming Instruments that are not fit for purpose?
Only by engaging together with these questions is there any hope of discerning and developing new ways of being a communion that can seek a common mind and then act on it.
The substantive content of GAFCON’s response to this crisis is a commitment “to reform, heal and revitalise the Anglican Communion and expand its mission to the world” in the belief that “the Anglican Communion should and will be reformed around the biblical gospel and mandate to go into all the world and present Christ to the nations”. That this — rather than an abandonment of the Communion — is the central message from GAFCON is another very encouraging sign.
At the heart of this response is a confessing stance which holds that “the doctrinal foundation of Anglicanism… defines our core identity as Anglicans”. The primary expression of this is taken from canon A5 of the Church of England and this foundation is then expanded into the 14-point Jerusalem Declaration. A secondary corollary of this doctrinal/confessional understanding of Anglican identity is the important statement that “while acknowledging the nature of Canterbury as an historic see, we do not accept that Anglican identity is determined necessarily through recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury”.
In relation to the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the key issue is the significance of the word “necessarily” in this crucial sentence of the statement. Is this refusal to accept a perfect correlation between “being Anglican” and “being in communion with Canterbury” simply in order to uphold the Anglican identity of those African-consecrated bishops not invited to Lambeth and to deny that of some in North America still recognised by Canterbury? Or does this represent a more fundamental rejection of the Anglican Communion as classically defined in the 1930 Lambeth resolution:
The Anglican Communion is a fellowship, within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted dioceses, provinces or regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, which have the following characteristics in common:
i. they uphold and propagate the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order as they are generally set forth in the Book of Common Prayer as authorised in their several Churches;
ii. they are particular or national Churches, and, as such, promote within each of their territories a national expression of Christian faith, life and worship; and
iii. they are bound together not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference.
In relation to the Declaration itself, a whole host of questions could legitimately be raised. These relate to its details, wording, inclusions (and exclusions), ordering and intended use (which some fear, in the light of various comments, will be as a litmus text of ‘orthodoxy’ and grounds for exclusion from fellowship). There are also concerns as to whether Anglican identity is here being reduced and restricted to a doctrinal definition. However, all evangelicals and most other Anglicans should be able to give a generally positive response to this reassertion of a doctrinal core to Anglican identity. In particular the articulation of it is not overly prescriptive or narrow in its content. Nor is it partisan in its terminology (many evangelical shibboleths are missing; e.g. no reference to infallibility or inerrancy of Scripture, no explicit insistence on a particular, penal substitutionary, doctrine of atonement). In fact, it is fully in conformity with the teaching of the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has said in his initial response – “The 'tenets of orthodoxy' spelled out in the document will be acceptable to and shared by the vast majority of Anglicans in every province, even if there may be differences of emphasis and perspective on some issues”.
The GAFCON statement not only offers a diagnosis and general call for reform based on fundamental doctrine. It also launches a reforming renewal movement through the formation of a fellowship of confessing Anglicans based on the Jerusalem Declaration and headed by a Primates’ Council. This is, unsurprisingly given the history of the prime movers and shakers of GAFCON, where there is likely to be most tension with many who would otherwise embrace the statement. It is also, thankfully, where the Statement’s authors appear to recognise the need for “more time, prayer and deliberation” and “cooperation with the Global South and CAPA”. A number of areas in particular remain unclear and the value and significance of the fellowship and GAFCON will be determined by how they are filled out.
First, the most fundamental of these unresolved questions is how does a confessing fellowship within a Communion that is already undergoing reform best advance its vision in the wider body?
Sadly, this area is where there is little or no evidence of how GAFCON envisages its task. In particular, the most notable omission from the whole statement, the ‘dog that did not bark’, is the Anglican Covenant and the work of the Covenant Design Group where two significant Global South primates not at GAFCON (Drexel Gomez and John Chew) have a crucial role. The question is whether silence here signals an abandonment of the covenant project. Although such abandonment has been suggested in some subsequent statements by GAFCON leaders, this would represent a betrayal of the Global South statement of March this year in which 3 leading GAFCON Primates (Akinola, Kolini and Venables) joined with Archbishops Chew and Anis to state
The Global South remains committed and encourage all Provinces to actively participate in the study and requested feedback on the St Andrew’s Draft of the Anglican Covenant, its substance and spirit to be in line with our common classical Anglican heritage of biblical, historical and reformed formularies of faith and ecclesiology. In particular, we strongly urge the presentation of a definitive text to the Provinces by ACC 14th (May 2009) to begin the urgent and timely process of official adoption and ratification for the Communion.
It may well be the case that the majority of Anglicans would be willing to subscribe to both the Jerusalem Declaration and a covenant similar to the current St Andrew’s Draft. What is unclear is what the authors of the Jerusalem Declaration find unacceptable about that draft, whether and how they will encourage those in the fellowship of confessing Anglicans to engage with the covenant process, and to what extent the covenant’s implementation would represent the advancement of their agenda of reformation. The reality is that if such a covenant can proceed according to the planned timetable (and a final text be approved by ACC next year and sent for agreement by provinces) then there is hope for real reform by this means.
If GAFCON is truly committed to reform of the Communion and working in a collegial manner then it must not simply call on everyone to join it. Rather, it needs rapidly to focus its energy on constructive dialogue with others in the covenant process and in any further developments that might arise from the Lambeth Conference’s discussions about Anglican identity and structures.
Second, what is the ecclesial character of the fellowship that has been established and how does it relate to those outside it?
The fellowship is currently headed by the small number of Primates who initiated it and seeks to embrace everything from Anglican provinces to individual Anglican Christians as well as para-church organisations. It is, therefore, setting out to be quite different in composition and purpose from any existing body, even those most like it such as voluntary missionary societies (eg CMS), political pressure groups (eg Anglican Mainstream International) or existing fellowships within the Communion (eg EFAC, the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion). Major questions therefore inevitably arise about the legal, political and relational structures of authority, ecclesial accountability and mutual submission in the body of Christ. These concerns are even more pressing when the Primates’ Council are given tasks in relation to churches and the recognition of orders, being urged to “authenticate and recognise confessing Anglican jurisdictions, clergy and congregations” and implicitly encouraged to offer “orthodox oversight to churches under false leadership” by “offering help around the world”. This latter aspect of the agenda for reform raises a set of wider questions:
1. How (and on what basis and with what authority) will those in the fellowship and those leading it view those who do not join them?
2. What distinctions will it draw within this group between those who object to being asked to sign up to this initiative but share its core beliefs and goals and those whom GAFCON view as preachers of a false gospel?
3. On what basis – given these structures and stated tasks – is it being claimed that this is not a “political” movement?
4. Is it in reality “a church within a church” even though it has not described itself in these terms?
More widely but related to this is
Third, what are the implications of the fellowship’s ecumenical commitment?
Section 11 of the Jerusalem Declaration encouragingly reads “We are committed to the unity of all those who know and love Christ and to building authentic ecumenical relationships”. This invalidates the “schismatic” accusation but it remains to be seen what it means in practice and what stance those in the fellowship will take to the various ecumenical agreements Anglicans have entered into in recent decades.
Fourth, what is the vision for a reformed Communion?
The welcome emphasis on reform of the Communion rather than departure from it is clear. However, the vision of what a reformed Communion would look like remains sketchy. The means are obviously expressed in the commitments and character of the new fellowship of confessing Anglicans. The end in view is left unstated.
Some will therefore undoubtedly conclude that what appear to be the means are in fact the end – that the fellowship is a new proto-Communion ultimately designed to break away and form an alternative Communion and only those who join it will be recognised as genuine Anglicans. But if that is indeed the end of the plan then all of the language of reform and renewal is simply duplicitous and this is simply a power-play masquerading as a spiritual movement. There needs, therefore, to be a clearer account of what GAFCON is working for in terms of realistic changes to the existing Communion and how the fellowship will constructively participate in this wider work of reform and renewal alongside those outside the fellowship. Once again, this will require serious and respectful engagement with those already working for such changes not least through the covenant and whatever emerges from the Lambeth conference.
The gathering at GAFCON was clearly experienced by those present as a powerful movement of the Spirit. However, as the experience of the American church shows, a claim that the Spirit has led a large body of laity, clergy and bishops to act in a certain way does not in itself validate their actions.
There are already positive results and hopeful signs in terms of GAFCON’s commitment to the Anglican Communion and its reform, its desire to work together with others committed to traditional Anglican doctrine, and its passion for holistic global mission. These are great gifts it is offering to the wider church but gifts which it needs to recognise are found across the Communion. It is this failure to recognise that GAFCON shares some of the failings of the wider Communion and the wider Communion shares some of the strengths of GAFCON that is undoubtedly behind concerns that reform might only be acceptable on its own terms and that people will be excluded if they are critical of aspects of GAFCON’s working.
The next crucial stage in the movement is clearly the outworking of the new fellowship – both internally as regards its structures and in its relationship to those Anglicans who will not join it even though most of them share its passions and concerns.
Many of those at GAFCON have sadly decided they cannot in conscience participate in the Lambeth Conference or had that decision taken by others and imposed on them. Nevertheless, continued conversations between GAFCON and the wider Communion are vital. Thankfully, some GAFCON bishops will be there. They will hopefully be encouraged and able to share with their fellow bishops some of their own hopes and fears and listen and respond to others’ reactions to GAFCON.
The answers the fellowship develops to the practical questions raised above in relation to the “how?” question are vital. They will also likely in large part depend on the actions of Lambeth and the Instruments. The ball is therefore now in the court of Lambeth and the Archbishop of Canterbury. They must consider how they will relate to GAFCON and whether they can offer a more constructive and truly conciliar way of addressing the questions we face. In particular these are the urgent questions concerning reform of the Instruments, the need for an Anglican Covenant, and the necessity (perhaps the fruit of the Windsor Continuation Group) for a clearer and more decisive Communion response to those bishops and churches who continue determinedly to reject the Communion’s repeated requests for restraint and repentance since the last Lambeth conference.
Instant reactions to GAFCON are, sadly, in our day and age necessary and inevitable. This is especially so when its proponents, warning against delay, call on people and congregations to take a stand and make what they describe as fundamental choices in the face of what they portray as a false gospel. There are, however, high levels of fear, anger and past hurts on all sides in the current climate and the power of the existing political alliances and prejudices surrounding GAFCON cannot be denied. These factors – together with the complexity of the current situation - mean it is vitally important that GAFCON’s proposals and reactions to them do not get so fixed that they fuel further breaches in bonds of affection. All of us—from individuals and parishes being urged to sign up in support of GAFCON to the hundreds of Anglican bishops gathering later this month at Lambeth—need time for prayerful discernment as to what God is saying and doing in these tumultuous times and what part GAFCON plays in his reshaping of Anglicanism.
2000 years ago, there were various movements for the renewal of God’s people which appeared in the Holy Land and caused quite a storm. Many more such movements – some still celebrated, others long-forgotten — have arisen there and in other places in the centuries since. Whatever our instant reactions to GAFCON — whether positive or negative or simply confused — we may do well in coming weeks and months not to rush to definitive judgment. We perhaps could do best at this stage to recall the cautionary words of a leading teacher of the law in response to one such strange movement of the first-century – “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men” Why? Because “if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God”.

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