Impressions from a Theological Liberal at GAFCON

Archbishop of Nigeria Henry Ndukuba addresses the GAFCON conference | Kirk Petersen photo


By Kirk Petersen

I was both excited and nervous about the assignment to cover the fourth GAFCON conference in April in Kigali, Rwanda.

Excited because it was my first trip to Africa, but even more so because I knew it would be a historically important event. GAFCON is one of two major conservative movements in the Anglican Communion, and it seemed clear the 1,300 delegates would use the five-day meeting to file for divorce from the Archbishop of Canterbury. (They did.)

I was nervous because of the professional and emotional challenge of writing in a nonpartisan way about an immersive experience involving people with whom I profoundly disagree.

I want this essay also to be nonpartisan, or at least fair to all parties. But I can’t give a personal account about my impressions of GAFCON without describing how my own beliefs are different.

Human sexuality has animated the ongoing schism in the Anglican Communion and Episcopal Church more than any other issue. The ordination of women is a very distant second, and that topic was not on the agenda in Kigali. (If it had been, there would have been nothing close to a consensus in the room.)

Underlying both topics is the principle of biblical authority, and the discussion was most often framed that way. But clearly the straw that broke the camel’s back was the February decision by the Church of England to permit blessings for same-sex unions. “It grieves the Holy Spirit and us that the leadership of the Church of England is determined to bless sin,” said the Kigali Commitment, adopted at the end of the conference.

The Episcopal Church has gone much further, by authorizing same-sex couples to be married in the church. But the Church of England is the mother church. Conservatives saw the Archbishop of Canterbury’s acceptance of the blessings as a betrayal of the gospel that England first delivered to the shores of Anglican provinces throughout the world.

Cultural differences are stark. A Gallup poll found last year that 71 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage. The Anglican Archbishop of Uganda supported pending national legislation that would impose the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality” and long prison terms for advocating for gay rights, and would create a duty to report people suspected of homosexual acts. (On the last day of GAFCON, the Ugandan president sent the measure back to parliament for unspecified changes. Parliament has since approved it a second time with minor changes and sent it back to the president.)

I always want to be sensitive to cultural differences. When I asked about the Ugandan legislation, two people separately explained that many Ugandans equate homosexuality with rape. This hearkens back to the Martyrs of Uganda (Episcopal feast day June 3) — young men who were put to death in the 19th century for refusing to have sexual relations with the king.

I get it, and while it does not affect my opinion of the legislation, it slightly tempers my disapproval of the people who passed it. But criminalizing consensual homosexuality among adults is unacceptable in any culture, and assuming that Ugandans can never understand that is the soft bigotry of low expectations.

My late sister was a lesbian. Her sexuality was an intrinsic part of her personhood, not a “lifestyle choice.” She took her own life in 1983, and I can’t help wondering if she could have fought off her mental demons in today’s more affirming America.

As a child, I was no less homophobic than many of my peers. I was in college when my sister came out, and while I never rejected her, I wasn’t comfortable about it.

More happily, I’ve now worshiped for two decades in a gay-friendly Episcopal parish. I know, and cherish, queer people who serve on church committees, pay taxes, mow their lawns, and buy groceries at Stop & Shop.

I was raised as a Lutheran, and after a few years of militant atheism, I was drawn to the Episcopal Church. I love the Episcopal concept of a three-legged stool — a faith based on Scripture, tradition, and reason. The way it was explained to me, the metaphor implies that the three legs are equally important, which gives me a framework for coming to terms with biblical passages that I find nonsensical or repugnant.

It quickly became clear to me in Kigali that GAFCON doesn’t have that kind of three-legged stool. In the words of the Kigali Commitment: “The Bible is God’s Word written, breathed out by God as it was written by his faithful messengers (2 Timothy 3:16). It carries God’s own authority, is its own interpreter, and it does not need to be supplemented, nor can it ever be overturned by human wisdom.”

In the eyes of GAFCON, there’s room in the mix for tradition (consistent with Scripture) and reason (consistent with tradition and Scripture), but Scripture reigns supreme.

Except when it doesn’t. The Bible tells us: “The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church” (1 Cor. 14:34-35).

That’s pretty unambiguous. And yet, there were a handful of female delegates in Kigali wearing clerical collars. The conservative provinces have a variety of policies on the ordination of women. In the Church of Nigeria, women can become deacons, but not priests. The Anglican Church of Kenya, on the other hand, has two female bishops. The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) — a mashup of several conservative movements that broke off from the Episcopal Church or other Anglican churches — provides in its constitution that each diocese will make its own decision about whether to ordain women. This is the biggest source of conflict within ACNA. The dioceses are united, however, that ACNA’s bishops must be men.

Certain other biblical dictates are routinely violated without a second thought. I didn’t take a poll, but I’m confident that multiple delegates in Kigali cheerfully eat shrimp (Lev. 11:9-12), bacon (Deut. 14:8), or cheeseburgers (Ex. 34:26). Of the 1,300 delegates, no doubt at least a few were wearing clothing made of mixed fibers (Lev. 19:19). Jesus himself said remarriage after divorce is adultery (Matt. 19:19), but I’m sure I was not the only divorced and remarried person in the room.

And of course, Jesus overruled the Old Testament on several matters, including working on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1-14; cf. Num. 15:32-36); eye-for-an-eye retribution (Matt. 5:38-39; cf. Ex. 21:23-27); stoning people for adultery (John 8:3-8; cf. Lev. 20:10); and more. Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. There are other passages in the New Testament that appear to denounce it (1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Tim. 1:10), although there are disagreements about the translation from the Greek.

None of these arguments are original to me, and they may not change any minds. But I believe every Kigali delegate has applied “human wisdom” to overcome certain indefensible passages of Scripture. Once the chains of scriptural infallibility are broken, “the Bible says it’s wrong” is no longer a sufficient reason to disqualify gay people from intimate relationships.

Without exception, I enjoyed the company of the people I spoke with at the GAFCON conference. This was not a seething caldron of bigotry. I found common ground with many delegates, and even when I cringed at certain statements, I knew I was looking at a fellow child of God. Nobody recoiled when I expressed my views. I was moved by the joy and passion of some of the worship services.

Since returning to my liberal parish in the Diocese of Newark, I’ve wrestled with how to describe my trip in a sentence or two, and with how to explain the significance. Many of my fellow parishioners had never heard of GAFCON, and some are surprised to learn that a majority of the world’s Anglicans live in Africa or in other theologically conservative parts of the Global South.

In one conversation, someone described GAFCON as “the people who hate us.” Well, no — or at least, it’s more complicated than that. Opposition to homosexuality can sometimes be based on hatred — I’m looking at you, Uganda — but it also can be based on the words of Scripture, at least as commonly translated. I’ve (gingerly) said to some of my queer friends that if one starts from the belief that the Bible is the Word of God and the translation is correct, it then is not irrational to conclude that homosexuality is sinful. Like many Christians, I start from a different place.

Officially — and in the hearts of many of the people I met in Kigali — GAFCON considers “same-sex attraction” to be a temptation to sin, not an indelible marker of evil. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and GAFCON speakers repeatedly exhorted their colleagues to repent of their own sinfulness. “Aware of our own sin and frailty, we commit ourselves to providing appropriate pastoral care to all people in our churches,” the Kigali Commitment says. “We oppose the vilification or demeaning of any person including those who do not follow God’s ways, since all human beings are created in God’s image.” If you set aside the whiff of smugness, it’s a sentiment any Christian can endorse.

I need to make clear that I’m expressing my opinions, not writing on behalf of The Living Church. This is more than just a pro forma disclaimer.

Throughout its 146-year history, TLC has been known as a theologically conservative institution. In earlier eras it has sometimes been strident, judgmental, and hostile. These days, the magazine I love takes on a humbler tone.

But to some degree, I’m out of step with my employer. The leadership of TLC is closely affiliated with Communion Partners, a movement of conservatives who have stayed in the Episcopal Church despite aligning more closely with ACNA on matters of theology.

Depending on how you count, TLC has about a dozen employees, many of them part time. I have deep respect for every one of my colleagues, and the ones I know best are valued friends. A couple of them attend ACNA parishes, and I doubt any of them would endorse everything I’ve said here.

Nearly seven years ago, I stumbled into a freelance assignment for the magazine, covering a meeting of the Executive Council in New Brunswick, New Jersey, an hour’s drive from my home. I knew nothing about TLC at the time, and my editors knew only that I was a professional writer and active Episcopalian.

Other freelance assignments followed. My focus was always news rather than theology, but of course there’s some overlap at a religious publication. I butted heads with editors a few times, and learned how to express myself with language that respected both my values and theirs. In 2019 a couple of key employees left at about the same time, and I landed a position on the staff.

Nobody has ever quite come out and asked how a person with my views can work at The Living Church. If they do, I’ll tell them that TLC has taught me to be more empathetic toward people who disagree with me. I’m also proud to say the institution is committed heart and soul to the concept of “communion across difference.” My boss is on the General Convention task force of that name, as was his boss before him.

Which brings me back to the Kigali Commitment. “Communion across difference” is not a “thing” in the GAFCON world. “We cannot ‘walk together’ in good disagreement with those who have deliberately chosen to walk away from the ‘faith once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3),” the statement says, adding, “we do not walk in Christian fellowship with those in darkness.”

These issues may never be resolved in my lifetime — or in anyone’s lifetime on Earth. One exchange at a post-meeting news conference illustrates the chasm that separates the two sides.

Foley Beach, the ACNA archbishop who was concluding a term as chair of the GAFCON Primates Council, said he believes GAFCON will elect a rival “first among equals” to chair a global Anglican primates council, “which will not include Canterbury.”

How about the Episcopal Church, I asked, knowing the answer but wanting it on the record.

“Not unless they repent,” he replied.

Of all the opinions I’m expressing here, I’m most confident of this one: The Episcopal Church will not “repent” of what it considers an important advancement for social justice. To be brutally frank, for many Episcopalians GAFCON has no relevance whatsoever — if they’ve even heard of it. To the extent that GAFCON adherents can have a positive impact outside the sexual realm in the lives of some Christians, I wish them well and honor their faith.

While one side prays the other will repent, the other side prays its counterparts will evolve. Evolution is a much lighter lift. The 71 percent American support for same-sex marriage I referenced above is up from 27 percent in 1996, the first year the question was asked. Young people are more supportive than their elders, so there’s no reason to expect a reversal of the trend.

Thanks be to God.



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