The consecration of the Rt. Rev. Elizabeth Awut Ngor on Dec. 31, 2016, as assistant bishop of the Diocese of Rumbek, South Sudan, has stirred conflict within the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON).

GAFCON had set a voluntary moratorium on consecrating women as bishops. There are implications for GAFCON’s holdover member provinces. There are questions, too, about communication.

A hard-hitting letter to the GAFCON Primates by Bishop Jack Iker of the Diocese of Fort Worth, and the Rev. Christopher Culpepper, president of the diocese’s standing committee, has expressed “our deepest concerns” about the consecration. It questioned why GAFCON said nothing despite knowing about the consecration for more than a year and disputed explanations offered by the GAFCON leadership.

Rumors began to circulate in 2017 about the consecration of a woman in South Sudan. Time marched on without formal confirmation. Attempts to obtain information from the South Sudan provincial office or the chief consecrator, Archbishop Daniel Deng, proved fruitless. Likewise, nothing was forthcoming from the Anglican Communion Office, which keeps a master list of bishops.

Eventually a photograph from a bishops’ meeting in South Sudan showed Ngor wearing purple. Archbishop Deng, by then recently retired, confirmed news of the consecration in a radio interview. “It was in my dream to ordain a woman as bishop in the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan before I leave.”

Regarding communication: Where does responsibility rest for sharing news of a consecration, especially when it is a mold-breaking event? In normal times it falls to the relevant province.

Why didn’t the Province of South Sudan say anything? At this stage no one knows for sure, but South Sudan is engulfed in civil war. Several of its bishops are out of the country and resident with their people in refugee camps. With its provincial systems under great stress or even non-operative, a communication breakdown is a plausible reason.

Bishop Iker, as well as questioning why GAFCON did not make known the consecration, said it sent mixed messages in its explanations. Bishop Iker points out GAFCON said the consecration was a “wartime contingency” but also reported Archbishop Deng’s expressed wish to consecrate a woman before he retired. “Indeed it is difficult to maintain that both sentiments can be true,” the letter said.

Regarding GAFCON’s role: Press officer Andrew Goss disputes theories about a conspiracy of silence. “GAFCON knew that South Sudan’s news would become public knowledge, but it was South Sudan’s news to break, not ours.”

He added: “In hindsight, perhaps GAFCON could have encouraged the South Sudanese Provincial office to make a statement proactively, but, because the situation in South Sudan is so messy and the pressures so huge, we waited.”

A statement from the Rt. Rev. Peter Jensen, GAFCON’s general secretary, confirmed that a GAFCON moratorium on women in the episcopate has been in place since 2014. A report by a theological task force on women in the episcopate was heard at last year’s meeting of the GAFCON Primates Council. Archbishop Deng was present.

Jensen’s statement presents the South Sudan consecration as “an anomaly” and a personal decision by Deng. It was, the statement said, “an extraordinary action taken in the midst of civil unrest in a part of his country where most of the men were engaged in armed conflict.”

Indeed, many will recall that Anglicanism’s first ordination of a woman to the priesthood — the Rev. Li Tim-Oi in Macau by the Bishop of Hong Kong in 1944 — was in response to a messy war.

The statement concludes, “Our hope is that the newly elected Primate of South Sudan will join us in these discussions as we seek to find a common mind, looking to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Whatever the circumstances, GAFCON has a woman serving as a bishop in a member province. The question arises: are other East African provinces that have ordained women as priests likely to follow suit in the episcopate?

One issue at stake is the nature of GAFCON. Is it a loose movement for renewal or are decisions of its Primates’ Council binding on member churches? Another issue: since the canonical consecration of a bishop is permanent, it is hard to see how South Sudan could backtrack.

John Martin

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