If GAFCON Is Merely A Conference, What Is The Point?
09/21/2021By The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey
In his report from the GAFCON Primates meeting, Archbishop Foley Beach declared that “GAFCON is not an ecclesial jurisdiction; it is a conference.” He commented in response to the deep disappointment that many have been feeling since a GAFCON Province has consecrated two women as bishops of the Church despite a moratorium on such consecrations. Although a spokesperson for GAFCON is reputed to have stated that this moratorium among GAFCON Provinces had expired, this is clearly not the case.
- The GAFCON Primates authorized a Task Force on Women in the Episcopate in 2015. That Task Force consisted of 19 Bishops and theologians from Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, North America, Chile, Myanmar, Sydney (Australia) and the UK.
- In 2017, the GAFCON Primates authorized a representative of the Task Force to consult with a “Panel of Advisors”—a bishop, clergy, and lay representative from each Gafcon Province or Branch. The Rev. Dr. Stephen Noll did so.
- In 2018, the GAFCON Primates received the Interim Report of the Task Force and approved its primary recommendation:
“that the provinces of GAFCON should retain the historic practice of the consecration only of men as bishops until and unless a strong consensus to change emerges after prayer, consultation and continued study of Scripture among the GAFCON Fellowship.” (emphasis added)
- The GAFCON Primates reaffirmed this recommendation in their 2019 Communique from Sydney.
So, where is the evidence of “a strong consensus to change” emerging from the GAFCON Fellowship? In fact, where is there any evidence of prayer, consultation, and continued study of Scripture among the GAFCON Fellowship? Were there any subsequent meetings of the Task Force in 2019? 2020? 2021? Or of the Panel of Advisors?
If GAFCON were acting in a truly conciliar way, we would expect to find such evidence of a strong consensus to change by a strong majority of the GAFCON fellowship after sustained prayer, consultation, and continued study of the Scriptures together. This is the nature of conciliar governance as Dr. Steve Noll observes in his essay on Women Bishops and Reception:
“True development of doctrine and practice requires time, careful testing, and consensus at the highest levels, as was the case at the apostolic council in Acts 15. This has not yet happened in the churches of the Anglican Communion and/or among the churches of the GAFCON fellowship. The Primates’ existing moratorium on ordaining a woman bishop recognizes the need for lengthy consideration and the danger of premature and unilateral action by one member church.”
Instead, the only evidence we have is the premature and unilateral consecration of two women bishops by one GAFCON member church, Kenya.
The GAFCON Primates were not able to speak with a united voice on this matter. So, they conceded the matter as adiaphora. They did not do the hard, sustained, time intensive and lengthy work that Anglican Conciliarism requires. Instead, they opted for “open reception” … This seems to fly in the face of GAFCON’s aspirations to be both confessional and conciliar.
Perhaps GAFCON’s aspiration to be conciliar is a bridge too far. The Jerusalem Statement (2008) launched the GAFCON movement as a “Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans.” The Jerusalem Declaration (2008) formed the GAFCON Primates Council “to authenticate and recognize confessing Anglican jurisdictions, clergy and congregations and to encourage all Anglicans to promote the gospel and defend the faith.”
Is it time for GAFCON to return to its roots, to this original charism which authenticated, recognized, and helped birth biblically faithful Anglican Churches in North America, Brazil, and New Zealand?
The majority of the GAFCON Primates and Provinces lie in the Global South. As I have written extensively elsewhere, the Cairo Covenant of the Global South Anglican Fellowship (October 2019) provides truly conciliar structures for a Global Anglican Communion based upon a biblical and apostolic confession of doctrine, discipline, and worship. What might happen if GAFCON, true to its calling, focused its efforts on “authenticating and recognizing confessing Anglican jurisdictions” by actively bringing them to the Global South for membership on the terms of the Cairo Covenant?
It would almost be like Paul bringing uncircumcised Gentile Christians to Jerusalem for membership in Christ’s one body, his Church.
“Oh what a good and wonderful thing it is, brethren, to dwell together in unity” This message from the New Testament is a reminder to ALL Christians, that our basic unity is in Christ alone, not in any one of our individualistic understandings of what we consider to be ‘The Bottom Line’ for a community of Faith. Jesus, in his earthly ministry, warned his fellow Jews that God would not be confined by their narrow, sectarian understanding of how God’s infinite mercy works in the world God has created.
When God’s Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ encountered the judgmentalism and hypocrisy of the religious scene into which he entered as a human being – yet also divine – He was able to discern the results of human sin and waywardness and, especially, its effect on the poor and disadvantaged of the times. He saw the naked ambition and legalistic casuistry of some of the Leaders of the Sanhedrin, which in the end was to condemn him to death – but, before that happened, Jesus was able to gather around Himself a small band of disciples, whose willingness to drop everything and follow his leadership enabled the first stirrings of the small community which, in time, grew into the Christian Church we have today.
During his lifetime; Jesus’ ministry of healing, restoration and forgiveness – demonstrating in His own person the Love and Mercy of God – bore testimony to God the Father, assisted by the work of the Holy Spirit present in Jesus and his ministry – revealing a much larger and more comprehensive and loving understanding of the Divine Purpose for the whole of creation and for those human beings created in God’s Image. One of the reasons for the Sanhedrin’s suspicion of Jesus, was that he seemed to prefer the company of known ‘sinners’ over their own cultivation of the privileged and religious among themselves. It was this seeming disregard for the strict observation of the LAW and Jesus’ preference for the charisms of Mercy and Forgiveness – towards the people who knew their need of them – that sparked the anger and opposition of the Scribes and the Pharisees. It was this spirit of hypocritical cultic judgmentalism that Jesus was wont to criticise, and for which, eventually after three years of ministry, Jesus was sentenced to death and crucified.
One of the greatest problems in the religious life is that we who profess religion are sometimes guilty of proclaiming our own standard of ‘holiness’ as being more ‘spiritual’ than that of another. In his parable of the Publican and The Pharisee; Jesus made this point: “Who went away justified?” Was it the self-aware and repentant sinner, or the self-righteous one judging him? The Realisation of the FACT that ALL are sinners, and that ALL, in recognition of Christ, are forgiven, is perhaps the most important lesson we can learn!
In the light of this, we have to look at the recent formation in parts of the Anglican Communion of the GAFCON Movement, which has set itself apart from the rest of us in the Communion as being more ‘holy and righteous’ in terms of ‘Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy’ in the living out of the Gospel message.
Originally separating themselves out from other Churches of the Anglican Communion – on the issue of gender and sexuality, where Same-Sex Relationships were considered by the GAFCON affiliates as being contrary to the message of The Scriptures, and therefore unacceptable to them as members of the Anglican Communion – GAFCON/ACNA has now found that the Ordination of Women has become a point on which it finds a not dis-similar problem of contention:
Here is the paragraph in the statement (above) from the GAFCON-friendly A.C.C. in North America, pointing to the conundrum facing GAFCON:
“Perhaps GAFCON’s aspiration to be conciliar is a bridge too far. The Jerusalem Statement (2008) launched the GAFCON movement as a “Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans.” The Jerusalem Declaration (2008) formed the GAFCON Primates Council “to authenticate and recognize confessing Anglican jurisdictions, clergy and congregations and to encourage all Anglicans to promote the gospel and defend the faith.” Is it time for GAFCON to return to its roots, to this original charism which authenticated, recognized, and helped birth biblically faithful Anglican Churches in North America, Brazil, and New Zealand?”
Has GAFCON/ACNA fulfilled its promise to be the sole example of ‘Orthodox Anglicanism’ it set out to be at its first formation? If so, then how come it has already experienced conflict within its borders?
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand