By Mark Michael
The Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA) has declared its conviction that the Church of England’s decision to allow the blessing of same-sex unions has departed from orthodox Christian teaching on marriage — and, as a result, that its communion with the mother church has been broken, and the Archbishop of Canterbury has forfeited his leadership role within Anglicanism.
The group’s February 20 statement is signed by 10 primates of Global South provinces, plus Archbishop Foley Beach of the Anglican Church in North America and the primate of the GAFCON-affiliated Anglican Church in Brazil.
Lambeth Palace and the Anglican Communion’s secretary-general have contested the description of the Church of England’s recent decision on blessings for same-sex couples. It comes amid the GSFA’s reconfiguration, as provinces gradually adopt its covenantal structure, which aims “to reset the Communion on its biblical foundation.”
The GSFA Statement
The Church of England, the GSFA statement said, “has departed from the historic faith passed down from the apostles by this innovation in the liturgies of the Church and her pastoral practice [and] has disqualified herself from leading the Communion as the historic ‘Mother’ Church. Indeed, the Church of England has chosen to break communion with those provinces who remain faithful to the historic biblical faith expressed in the Anglican formularies … and applied to the matter of marriage and sexuality in Lambeth Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference.
“The GSFA is no longer able to recognize the present Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt Hon & Most Revd Justin Welby, as the ‘first among equals’ leader of the global Communion,” the archbishops continue, adding that they believe leadership of the communion has now passed to “the orthodox primates.” The GSFA pledges “to provide primatial and episcopal oversight to orthodox dioceses and networks of Anglican churches who indicate their need and who consult with us.”
The statement rejects as too little, too late a multi-year project on “good differentiation” that the Anglican Consultative Council commissioned February 14 from the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith, and Order (IASCUFO), the communion’s main doctrinal working group. “We believe it is no longer possible to continue in the way the Communion is,” they said. “We do not accept the view that we can still ‘walk together’ with the revisionist provinces.”
The GSFA move had been signaled by a statement issued by Archbishop Justin Badi, GSFA chairman and primate of South Sudan, just after the Church of England General Synod’s February 9 vote, which said that the decision had impaired communion between the Church of England and orthodox provinces, and that Archbishop Justin Welby’s role in advocating for the motion caused the group “to question his fitness to lead what is still a largely orthodox worldwide communion.”
The 2019 Covenantal Structure document’s first appendix had identified the Church of England’s wavering commitment to traditional teaching as a serious issue creating an “ecclesial deficit” in the Anglican Communion’s life: “We are gravely concerned that the [Church of England] is not giving confidence that it would uphold the primacy and authority of Holy Scripture as captured in its historic Anglican formularies. This leads us to ask what would be the basis of the Anglican Communion should the Church of England depart from the orthodox and historic teaching of the Church on marriage and sexual ethics?”
Responses from London
Perhaps because Archbishop Welby was returning from the Anglican Consultative Council’s meeting in Ghana, Lambeth Palace issued a response that quotes an unnamed “Lambeth Palace spokesperson.” The response referred to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s statement in his presidential address to the ACC that the Anglican Communion’s “structures are always able to change with the times,” but no “changes to the formal structures of the Anglican Communion can be made unless they are agreed upon by the Instruments of Communion.”
The Lambeth Palace statement suggested that the GSFA’s plan ignored the importance of provincial autonomy in the communion’s life: “It is a fundamental principle of the Anglican Communion that no province can bind another province, and no Instrument of Communion has any jurisdictional authority over any province.” It concluded, “In a world of conflict, suffering and uncertainty, we must remember that more unites us than divides us.”
The Rt. Rev. Anthony Poggo, who was appointed the Anglican Communion’s secretary general just after the Lambeth Conference in 2022, engaged the GSFA primates’ points in greater depth, although saying he considered it “necessary to correct” them on two points involving the interpretation of two words: blessings and prescribed.
“The leadership of the Church of England has assured us that they have not changed their doctrine of marriage, nor have they introduced liturgy to bless same-sex relationships,” Poggo said, reminding the primates that the liturgical text is not yet authorized (it is expected to be in use by the summer). He affirmed General Synod’s contention that a decision to bless same-sex unions does not constitute a denial of traditional marriage.
The GSFA primates, instead, based their statement on Lambeth 1.10, in which the bishops gathered at the 1998 Lambeth Conference said that they “cannot advise the legitimizing or blessing of same-sex unions” on the basis of affirming “faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union” and rejecting “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture.” The GSFA were not permitted to bring an affirmation of Lambeth 1.10 forward for consideration by the bishops at last summer’s Lambeth Conference. Neither of the London statements mentions Lambeth 1.10.
Poggo criticized the GSFA statement’s assertion that the IASCUFO project was prescribed for the communion by his office. “The commitment of Anglicans to walking together was not, and is not, ‘prescribed by the Anglican Communion Office,’” Poggo said. “The commitment to walk together was made by the Primates at their meeting in 2016,” the last communion-wide gathering in which all provinces participated, and that it had been reiterated by the primates and the ACC since then.
Poggo said he was “glad to read the pledge of the primates in their letter that they ‘will not walk away from the Communion that has so richly blessed us and for whose faithfulness to God and His word our forebears have paid a costly price,’” and promised to contact them soon for further conversation. Poggo added that the Archbishop of Canterbury had requested that he organize a Primates’ Meeting “in the near future,” with an agenda to include “discussing the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Communion.”
What Is the GSFA?
The GSFA primates’ statement emerges during a time of transition within the GSFA, and the leaders of some large and significant Global South provinces have declined to endorse its contention that the Church of England’s decision has broken communion and removed the Archbishop of Canterbury from his leadership role. The statement’s signatories include all seven members of the GSFA’s Standing Committee.
Founded in 1994, the GSFA has traditionally been a fairly big tent, uniting up to 25 Anglican provinces based in the Global South that share a commitment to historic orthodoxy. It has often claimed to represent 75 percent of the Anglican Communion’s membership, and has included provinces that actively participate in the Instruments of Communion, as well as the three African provinces that have boycotted most gatherings in the last 15 years (Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda), as well as the Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Church in Brazil.
In 2021, the GSFA redefined its membership as being constituted by churches that have endorsed and adopted its covenantal structure. Provinces whose primate and highest synodical authority have adopted the covenantal structure are considered full members, and associate membership can be granted to dioceses or networks committed to orthodoxy within progressive provinces that have made a similar commitment.
The GSFA website lists 14 churches that have initiated or completed the steps of full membership (Alexandria, Bangladesh, the Anglican Church in Brazil, Chile, Congo, Indian Ocean, Melanesia, Myanmar, ACNA, Papua New Guinea, South East Asia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Uganda). The Diocese of Sydney is listed as an associate member.
The Province of South East Asia’s dissent from the decision is especially striking, because the GSFA has long been headquartered in the large and influential Diocese of Singapore within that province, and the GSFA’s director, the Rt. Rev. Rennis Ponniah, is the former bishop of the diocese.
The South East Asian bishops issued a pastoral letter on February 18, which criticized the Church of England’s decision and contested its claim that its doctrine of marriage had not changed. However, the bishops said that “despite our grave reservations regarding the Church of England’s decision, we believe that the unity of the Anglican Communion should not be lightly abandoned. Hence, we will remain in communion with the Church of England while praying fervently for her and speaking boldly for God’s truth.”
Another 10 provinces that have been affiliated with the GSFA in the past (Burundi, Central Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rwanda, South America, Southern Africa, Tanzania, and West Africa), and whose collective membership is significantly larger than the 14 members, are simply listed on the GSFA’s website as “Other Global South Provinces.”
The leaders of several of these provinces have issued pastoral letters and statements condemning the Church of England’s decision, but none has said that it constitutes a crucial breaking point for the communion (though the Nigerian primate urged conservative Church of England members to distance themselves from their church).
It remains uncertain how the GSFA statement will affect the work of the Instruments of Communion. Delegates from 11 of the 14 GSFA-member provinces participated in the recent ACC Meeting, and three of them (Bishop Mugenyi William Bahemuka of Congo, Canon Andrew Khoo Chin Hock of South East Asia, and Aishi Sama Drong of Bangladesh) were elected as members of the Anglican Communion’s Standing Committee on February 18. That body has a larger preponderance of members from conservative provinces than has been the case for many years.
At least one bishop from a GSFA-member province, the Rt. Rev. Titus Chung of Singapore, is serving on IASCUFO, the body charged with taking up the “good differentiation” project. The paper that proposed the project to the ACC singled out the GSFA covenantal structure for “careful consideration” as a possible model for restructuring the communion.
The secretary general announced on February 13 that the next Primates’ Meeting was scheduled for the spring of 2024 in Rome. It’s not clear if this remains the plan or if the meeting will occur earlier, based on Poggo’s later statement about it being held “in the near future.” It’s not clear if the 10 GSFA primates who signed the statement would attend such a meeting if the Archbishop of Canterbury remains its chairman.
Eyes now turn to the next GAFCON Assembly, scheduled for April 17 in Kigali, Rwanda, a gathering expected to draw over 1,000 conservative leaders from across the Global South. In the past, the more moderate GSFA has distanced itself from GAFCON, which has created parallel jurisdictions like the ACNA in several Global North provinces.
While GAFCON has a looser affiliation structure, all of GSFA’s current full and associate member churches have been active GAFCON participants in the past, raising the possibility of a more explicit form of cooperation between the two groups in a common effort “to reset the Communion on its biblical foundation.”