By Esau McCaulley
Membership in GAFCON is a tricky thing. A GAFCON province typically is led by a primate who is on GAFCON’s primates’ council. Thus, the decision to join GAFCON is in the hands of the primate.
But the authority of the primate varies from province to province. Some primates can decide such matters themselves. Others need the approval of their house of bishops or wider synod. Given these different approaches, it seems unlikely that any primate would join GAFCON if a significant portion of his province opposed it. Therefore, in practice membership in GAFCON has had at least the implicit approval of the provinces involved. Nonetheless, every transition in primatial leadership raises the question of a province’s continued participation in GAFCON.
This issue is important because Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit was elected primate of Kenya in 2016. He replaced Archbishop Eliud Wabukala, the previous chairman of the primates’ council. Archbishop Sapit has yet to join the primates’ council officially (although the GAFCON website lists him as a member).
I sat down with him to discuss his role as archbishop and the province’s place in GAFCON. Speaking of his early days as archbishop, he said,
I came and we were faced with two immediate challenges. First there were the national elections in 2017. The country was divided along tribal lines and threatened to divide the church along tribal lines. My major challenge is how to keep the church together then how to keep the nation together.
In the lead up to the election he made it clear that
God does not approve of anything that requires Kenyans to fight each other. Dialogue is the only way out. I began hitting against the government about non-lethal means of crowd control. You have rubber bullets and hot water cannons. You should not be shooting at crowds.
He urged peace throughout the election, counseling his people to choose the voting booth over violence. In the end, peace prevailed.
Historically, two of the major tribes in Kenya have competed for leadership in church and state. Part of Archbishop Sapit’s work as a reconciler came from the fact that he is a member of the Masai. “I could not depend on my tribal vote because there are only nine in the election college,” he said. He had to learn how to work with different groups and his election signaled the desire of the province for the same.
As primate, he has also encouraged the province to adopt a holistic approach to evangelization that includes personal conversion and community development.
I looked at the mission of the church as spiritual, pastoral, and social transformation looking at the model of Jesus. He fed the sick, he fed the hungry … we are not just engaging in evangelism. We are running mobile clinics, showing them how to do agriculture.
When asked about the Anglican Church of Kenya’s relationship with GAFCON he said:
Kenya was a country that signed the Jerusalem Declaration in 2008, and I was here at that time. When I came in as Archbishop, I began asking an important and vital question: What is the aspiration and hope of GAFCON? The answer given by the majority is that GAFCON is a movement for renewal and orthodox teaching.
Kenya supports this focus on faithful teaching and effective ministry.
Kenya is by nature in the evangelical wing of the Anglican Communion. We preach Christ crucified. We believe the Scriptures. We believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. Therefore, what GAFCON stands for we 100 percent support.
Archbishop Sapit is a bit weary about the implications of some GAFCON’s recent decisions, saying:
If GAFCON creates parallel structures what does this mean for the Communion? Are we heading into a separate church? If that is the direction, are we happy to wake up one day and say that we are not a part of the Anglican Communion? I do not think that we have arrived at that stage.
I asked him if his hesitancy meant that Kenya would be pulling out of GAFCON. He said, “It depends on what membership means.” If membership means cutting ties with Canterbury because of its relationship with TEC, then he would not support that move. He said, “everybody knows that we disagree with TEC,” but this disagreement should not impact Kenya’s relationship with England. He has gotten repeated assurances that GAFCON is not leaving: “Everybody is saying we are not ready to leave the Communion. If that is the position we have no problem.”
Archbishop Sapit outlined three levels of relationships in the Anglican Communion: (1) “deep communion,” which speaks to an unbroken relationship; (2) “fellowship,” which means “I am in fellowship with you, but not deep communion.” Finally (3), there are people “to whom the church must minister. We have a ministry to the whole world to love and reach out to them, even those who say or do things that are contrary to our faith.”
When asked about the Anglican Church in North America, he says that Kenya remains in communion with the ACNA and is engaged in joint ministry and mission with it. When asked about the Episcopal Church, he says it is important to stay in relationship with those with whom you disagree.
Does this mean that Kenya no longer supports GAFCON? The archbishop responded:
We are not renouncing GAFCON. We are here with 70 delegates. We still identify with this renewal, but if it reaches a point that GAFCON says that it wants to pull out of the Communion, we will have to go back to our synod and ask for direction.
Archbishop Sapit also made it clear that he plans to attend Lambeth 2020, but will not order any bishop of the province one way or the other. It will be up to each bishop to choose.