By Esau McCaulley
In the world of scholarship, authors who earn the most respect are those who represent the views of their opponents well. This means that even when someone is critiquing you, your beliefs (not those of a strawman) are critiqued. One struggle that continues to plague the Anglican Communion is the inability of various parties to see and articulate other people’s beliefs. This is particularly true when it comes to GAFCON and its opponents. Do GAFCON’s opponents really know who or what it is, and does GAFCON understand the portions of the Communion it opposes?
How does GAFCON see itself?
This is the third meeting of the Global Anglican Future Conference. In 2008 it met in Jerusalem, and in 2013 in Nairobi; for 2018 it has returned to Jerusalem. GAFCON describes its mission as laboring
to guard and proclaim the unchanging, transforming Gospel through biblically faithful preaching and teaching which frees our churches to make disciples by clear and certain witness to Jesus Christ in all the world.
Given this definition, it would seem that few Anglicans or Christians would find fault in this mission. What makes GAFCON controversial is at least threefold. First, it affirms the Church’s teaching on marriage at a time when it is contested in the Anglican Communion. Second, GAFCON believe this contested teaching is a church-dividing issue. But this alone isn’t sufficient to make GAFCON unique. Other parts of the Communion oppose redefining marriage, and are not a part of GAFCON.
What makes GAFCON stand out is that it sees the issue of changing the definition of marriage as part of a larger denial of biblical faithfulness in certain parts of the Communion. For that reason GAFCON has blessed the formation of new provinces in those parts of the Communion. The act of forming new provinces sets GAFCON apart.
One is tempted, then, to understand GAFCON as a radical or extreme right of the Anglican Communion with portions of the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, and others being the extreme left. But GAFCON does not see itself that way. It sees itself as the mainstream.
One of the first things that the press received at GAFCON 2018 was a handout with the demographics of the Communion. It claims that the eight provinces of GAFCON (not counting ACNA) make up roughly 71 percent of the Communion. If this is true, it seems fair to say that whatever GAFCON is, its views are by definition the views of a significant majority of the Communion. We can ignore GAFCON or dismiss it as extreme, but that would be a disservice to the Communion. What GAFCON has to say matters to the future of the Anglican Communion and perhaps the broader Church. (There may be questions about the degree to which GAFCON represents the provinces that participate in its activities, but the same can be said about how much any official province’s activities reflects the views of its membership. I may address this issue at a later point.)
The question then is what GAFCON has to say to the church in 2018. What are its views? The theme of the conference is “Proclaiming Christ Faithfully to the Nations.” Based upon the first few plenaries, it is clear that GAFCON wants delegates to remain faithful to traditional Anglican doctrines of all types in the face of cultural pressures to compromise. This pressure could be from secular culture in the West or Islam and traditional religion in Asia and Africa.
It is one thing to speak about the theme of the conference from the pulpit, but what the people on the ground have to say also matters. I have tried to ask as many clergy and laity as possible about what their hopes are for the conference. I spoke with archbishops, bishops, priests, and laity from Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Canada, the United States, Australia, and South Africa. Most of the people used language like fellowship, renewal, discipleship, and mission. Only one person I interviewed (who was American) mentioned GAFCON’s relationship or lack thereof with Canterbury.
I think that most people who have a negative view of GAFCON would be surprised by the nature of the conversations that are taking place among the delegates. There is not the rancor that you might expect. There is not a lot of talk about strategy and Communion politics. It is mostly Christians sharing their testimonies with one another.
Surprises Thus Far
One of the things that stands out at the conference thus far is its diversity. It is truly a global event; it is definitely a black and brown affair. Some of the worldwide Anglican events tokenize diversity. This has not been the case at GAFCON. The African presence is strong, with Nigeria bringing most of its 179 bishops to the conference. The Nigerian choir has been stellar.
But it is not just Africa. There are over 50 countries attending. During Morning Prayer, the celebrant asked the delegates to pray in their mother tongue and no one language predominated.
One might also be surprised at the strong presence of women at the conference, especially from the Global South. There are the bishops’ wives, lay leaders, and by one count about 40 ordained women, mostly from Uganda and the States.
There is one imbalance among the delegates that has stuck out. The majority of Africans present seem to be bishops and their wives or significant leaders in their provinces. From the West there are more delegates who are rectors. This can at times create a strange power dynamic.
If the goal of GAFCON is to restore biblical faithfulness to the Communion, how will it interact with 29 percent of the Communion that is not a part of its structures? Will the conference communiqué offer a clear word? It is fine to say We are the Communion and we are not going anywhere, but that does not lead beyond the current impasse.
I do not speak of an impasse with the theological left of the Communion. I mean an impasse in relation to people who agree with GAFCON’s beliefs about marriage but disagree with some of its strategy.
Is there a way for GAFCON to work in substantial ways with the Communion Partners in the Episcopal Church? It seems that there was only one Communion Partner bishop here. What will the ministry of GAFCON be to dioceses and churches that remain in provinces that have adopted heterodox beliefs?
Second, will GAFCON 2018 make a case for a conciliar Anglicanism that is compelling? One recurring theme has been that the Archbishop of Canterbury should not have all the power when it comes to defining Anglicanism. At the heart of this critique has been the claim of the Thirty-nine Articles that councils can err, even the C of E in defining membership. Can GAFCON foster a Communion-wide theological discussion on the proper shape of Anglican conciliarism that engages Scripture, tradition, and reason?
Finally, will GAFCON embody the conciliarity it proposes? In other words, will it create and sustain a structure that allows for shared ministry and mutual accountability? Family reunions are important, but for families to thrive it will need structure. At this meeting, GAFCON has announced the creation of a synod consisting of three representatives from each province of its provinces. This synod will serve as a council of advice for the already existing Primates’ Council. The details of this synod still seem to be developing.
GAFCON has also announced the creation of nine networks that will focus on a variety of the ministries across its provinces, including Women’s Ministry and theological education. Will these new initiatives last? What model of Church or ecclesiology of communion will undergird these ministries?
GAFCON is clearly here to stay. Questions remain about the role it will play in the lives and ministries of its supporters and detractors.