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By Ted Lewis
Special to Virtueonline
December 5, 2013

The second GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference), held in Nairobi from October 21 to 26 and following from GAFCON I in Jerusalem in 2008, marked a milestone in the evolution of the Anglican Communion. At it the tradition-oriented Global South churches and their allies in the West decisively defined their position vis-à-vis the liberal churches of West.

In particular, they undertook to act independently of Canterbury and the other instruments of Communion, if need be. GAFCON 2 is likely to affect the Church of England more immediately than the American church. But its actions have major implications for the Anglican Communion as a whole. Specifically, it allowed for a supersession by GAFCON of the present instruments of Communion—the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates Meeting in addition to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Further, it pointed to a confessional Communion, one based on common belief rather than recognition by Canterbury. In these ways it significantly furthered the shift in the Communion’s centre of gravity from the West to the Global South. (Note: I was not present at GAFCON 2 but subsequent to it, in Nairobi and also in Britain, I spoke with persons closely involved with it.)

First, a word about GAFCON I. It likewise was comprised of churches of the Global South, mainly Africa but also Asia and Latin America, and their western allies. Taking place only weeks before the Lambeth Conference of 2008, it was intended to set out a doctrinal position distinct from the liberalism ascendant in the West and culminating in the 2003 consecration of an active homosexual as Bishop of New Hampshire—a liberalism seen as failing to acknowledge Jesus as the one way, truth, and life. This it did in the form of its Jerusalem Declaration (http://GAFCON.org/the-jerusalem-declaration), an affirmation of biblical authority couched, significantly, in terms of the traditional Anglican formularies of the Thirty-nine Articles, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the classic Anglican Ordinal.

As for its actions, it formed a GAFCON Primates Council, which in turn invited the formation of the Anglican Church of North America. Further, it instituted the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (“Confessing” harks back to the Barmen Declaration of 1934, authored by Karl Barth, in which the German confessing churches stood against Nazi encroachments.) But otherwise, perhaps to some extent because of a rudimentary infrastructure, it remained largely quiescent. GAFCON 2 evidently was in part a response to a felt need to regain momentum.

GAFCON 2 was attended by some 1,358 delegates from 38 countries, a somewhat larger number than at GAFCON 1. Again they represented the considerable majority of the members, particularly the active members, of the Anglican Communion. Included among them were 331 bishops, 482 other clergy, and 545 laity. As reflected in its communiqué (www.GAFCON.org/news/nairobi-communique-and-commitment), notable among its themes was the East Africa Revival, originating in Rwanda in the late 1920s and spreading to nearby countries with its emphasis on repentance and forgiveness of sins. The revival revitalized the churches in the region.

GAFCON sees it as a model for its own revitalization of the Anglican Communion, through its calls to the adherents of secular and cultural values to return to the true gospel, which “alone has the power to transform lives,” and through its own modelling of biblical obedience. And it addressed its need for a more adequate institutional structure.

To this end it undertook to organize around the GAFCON Primates’ Council, currently chaired by Archbishop Eliud Wabukala of Kenya, a Board of Trustees, an Executive Committee, and regional liaison officers who would be points of contact in their respective provinces. Thereby it would be equipped for the more active role which it now contemplates.

Major implications are to be seen in the communiqué’s treatment of leading extra-GAFCON Anglican entities: the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other instruments of Communion, the Church of England, and the non-GAFCON provinces.

Regarding the Archbishop, Justin Welby, some background is in order. On account of his association with Holy Trinity Brompton Church, a London bastion of evangelical Anglicanism, his selection last year as successor to Rowan Williams was generally welcomed by traditionalists, including GAFCON’s member churches.

His speech in the House of Lords earlier this year on the same-sex marriage bill promoted by the British government caused them misgivings, however. He spoke against same-sex marriage but at the same time approved of same-sex “civil partnerships,” amounting essentially to marriage. And in the eyes of the GAFCON churches this meant countenancing behaviour which the Bible regards as sinful. He did attend not GAFCON 2, but neither did he ignore it as his predecessor had ignored GAFCON l. Instead he sent a video of greeting. And he came to Nairobi, although ostensibly in connection with the Westgate Mall terrorist attack, and attended a lunch of the GAFCON Primates, who met just prior to the conference. But in his remarks there he appeared to equate GAFCON morally with those elements of the Communion to which it is opposed, leaving Canterbury as the arbitrator between them. And his visit coincided with the Kenyan Heroes Day, celebrating the country’s hard-won independence from British rule, of which he himself is a reminder. Thus he did not win many GAFCON hearts and minds.

The counterpart of this background is to be seen in two consecutive sentences from the communiqué’s introduction, the juxtaposition of which may be taken as intentional.

We appreciated that the Archbishop of Canterbury sent personal greetings via video and gave us the assurance of his prayers, and we likewise pray for him. We believe we have acted as an important and effective instrument of Communion during a period in which the other instruments of Communion have failed both to uphold gospel priorities in the Church, and to heal the divisions among us.

Canterbury is of course one of these “failed” instruments of Communion, along with the others (see paragraph 2 above). And by asserting GAFCON’s effectiveness as an instrument of Communion in the face of his and their failure, the communiqué claims, at least implicitly, a further supersession of them as GAFCON’s prerogative.

This prerogative might be asserted relatively soon, not in America but in Britain. The communiqué in its “Nairobi Commitment” section recognizes the Anglican Mission in England (AMiE). Unlike the Anglican Mission in America, which broke entirely with TEC, the AMiE does not envisage withdrawal from the Church of England. Instead it undertakes to support traditionalist congregations at odds with their liberal bishops and to provide for the ordination of candidates who, though otherwise qualified, have been denied it on account of their evangelical convictions. It has operated so far without serious conflict with ecclesiastical authority.

But this situation may now change.

The just-released Pilling Report, which was commissioned by the Church of England to examine its responses to sexuality issues, provides for the blessing by the Church of same-sex unions, thereby following on the path taken in America by The Episcopal Church. If some such measure is adopted, the number of traditionalist congregations dissenting from it could be considerable.

The AMiE would then undertake to support them, involving itself and by extension GAFCON in confrontation with the Church of England. (The Bishop of Birkenhead, the Rt. Rev. Keith Sinclair, a member of the Pilling Group, has however written a dissent from the Report which for its measured and thoughtful approach is well worth reading: http://www.anglican-mainstream.net/2013/11/28/pilling-–-bishop-of-birkenhead’s-dissenting-statement/

The communiqué asserts a GAFCON prerogative also with regard to the crossing of extra-GAFCON provincial boundaries. In the past GAFCON provinces, notably those of Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda, have extended recognition to congregations “taking a stand for biblical faithfulness” in America and leaving their liberal dioceses. In this way it has allowed them to continue as Anglican entities. The diocese of Recife also received this recognition on leaving the liberal province of Brazil. Instead of desisting from the practice, GAFCON intends continue it where warranted, not because it does not value order but because it values gospel truth more. Such border crossings will now however be undertaken by decision of the GAFCON Primates Council, not that of an individual GAFCON province. And with the establishment of the Anglican Church in North America, the occasion for them on that continent appears to have diminished.

Conclusion: The GAFCON movement is worth following closely whether one is in sympathy with its aims, as I am, or not. It has undertaken a major role in the Anglican Communion and is likely to continue playing for some years. As harbingers of this, it has moved towards a more adequate organizational structure and, further, the delegates at GAFCON 2 committed themselves to meeting again in five years. As for its longer-term prospects, one of its senior advisors, evidently harking back to the enabling of the spread of early Christianity by the existence of the Roman Empire, spoke of the British Empire as providing a basis for global as distinct from national Anglicanism by enabling the establishment of Anglican churches in its colonies. But now, with its centre shifting from England to the formerly colonial churches, Anglicanism is entering a third phase, in which the centralizing Lambeth bureaucracy will be replaced by the conciliarism represented by the GAFCON Primates Council, allowing Anglicanism’s genius, its distinctive charisma, to come to flower. Such an outcome indeed seems a possibility.

A more sober assessment is also possible. To tell of it, I must speak in personal terms. While in Nairobi I was taken by one of his staff to meet Archbishop Wabukala at Bishopsbourne, his residence. As Chairman of the GAFCON Primates Council as well as Primate of Kenya, he is at the centre of the GAFCON movement. While we were with him he gave us tea. He impressed me as a man who not only is at peace within himself but whose peace overflows to those around him. And despite his record of effective dealing with crises of the gravest sort—and despite being constantly addressed as “Your grace”—he was utterly without pretension. For the most part he did not speak of GAFCON, his comprehension of its promises and risks being already well known. But he did remark, “We do not know what the future will bring.”

The Revd Ted Lewis is Resident Theologian at a church located in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington

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