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GAFCON Meeting Could Reshape the Anglican Communion

By Kirk Petersen

More than 1,250 theologically conservative Anglican leaders from 40 countries around the world are preparing to meet in Kigali, Rwanda, for a five-day conference that seems likely to result in a further repudiation of the Archbishop of Canterbury as the primus inter pares of the Anglican Communion.

To a significant degree, the repudiation has already occurred – but the issue has taken on a new urgency. The fourth Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), long scheduled for April 17-21, will be barely two months after the Church of England General Synod voted to authorize prayers of blessing for same-sex unions.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby

In response, GAFCON declared “several churches and provinces are considering their future with respect to the Church of England,” and noted that the Global South Fellowship of Anglicans (GSFA) – a separate but overlapping group of conservative provinces – “have already declared that they are in impaired communion with the Church of England and said that they do not recognize the present Archbishop of Canterbury as the “first among equals” leader of the global Anglican Communion.” Part of the meeting in Rwanda will focus on developing and gaining buy-in for a formal statement on the relationship with Canterbury.

The Church of England vote in February stops well short of steps taken in recent years by the Episcopal Church, which fully authorizes marriage rites for same-sex couples. But the Church of England is the mother church, inextricably linked to the Communion by the very word “Anglican,” and conservative provinces see the vote as a powerful affront. The General Synod vote also drew harsh criticism from LGBT activists and allies, for whom nothing short of full marriage equality is acceptable.

For his part, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has attempted to thread the needle by saying he will not personally bless same-sex unions, while also declaring himself “extremely joyful” at the vote.

Welby has accepted the reality that his office’s role as one of four “Instruments of Communion” almost certainly will be diminished. At a February meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council – which is another of the Instruments – he said “I will not cling to place or position. I hold it very lightly, provided that the other Instruments of the Communion choose the new shape — that we are not dictated to by people, blackmailed, bribed, to do what others want us to do.” The two remaining Instruments are the roughly decennial Lambeth Conference, held most recently in 2022, and the Primates’ Meeting, which gathers at various intervals around the world, most recently in London in 2022.

The Anglican Communion is potentially on the precipice of major structural change, and the upcoming meeting in Rwanda may play a significant role.

 

The first GAFCON conference, in Jerusalem in 2008 | Photo: gafcon.org

The Origins of GAFCON

Doctrinal differences over human sexuality prompted the birth of GAFCON, and have remained its primary animating issue. The first Global Anglican Future Conference was held in Jerusalem in 2008, and the term GAFCON eventually morphed from the nickname of the conference itself to become the name of the organization that emerged from it.

The 2008 meeting resulted in the Jerusalem Declaration, which has served ever since as the foundation of the organization. All delegates to the upcoming conference have been required to affirm their agreement with the declaration.

This affirmation may seem like a minor detail, but it reflects a profound difference in approach between GAFCON and the Episcopal Church. Episcopal General Conventions sponsor task forces on “communion across difference,” and craft compromises designed, however imperfectly, to overrule conservative bishops without driving them from the church. The affirmation requirement amounts to a declaration that certain opinions are not open for discussion. After being asked to make the same affirmation, TLC sought and received permission to attend GAFCON as a neutral observer, without either endorsing or rejecting the Jerusalem Declaration.

The Jerusalem Declaration consists of 14 articles of faith, most of which are unobjectionable in the eyes of progressive Anglicans. But Article 8 draws a bright line of separation. It reads:

“We acknowledge God’s creation of humankind as male and female and the unchangeable standard of Christian marriage between one man and one woman as the proper place for sexual intimacy and the basis of the family. We repent of our failures to maintain this standard and call for a renewed commitment to lifelong fidelity in marriage and abstinence for those who are not married.”

The precipitating event that led to GAFCON was the 2003 consecration of a partnered gay man, V. Gene Robinson, as a bishop in the Episcopal Church. By 2008, the move had prompted some conservative priests and parishes to leave the Episcopal Church, and a handful of bishops were steering their dioceses toward disaffiliating.

GAFCON 2008 was pointedly scheduled for two weeks before the 2008 Lambeth Conference, after primates from four of the major African provinces – Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda – declared that they would boycott Lambeth.

 

Size and Scope of GAFCON

ACNA Archbishop Foley Beach

In terms of sheer numbers, GAFCON is overwhelmingly dominated by African churches. Yet it is led by an American, a previous general secretary was Australian, and the organization is headquartered in a business park on the outskirts of London.

GAFCON today lists as members nine of the 42 autonomous provinces that constitute the global Anglican Communion. In order of self-reported membership size, they are the provinces of Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan, Rwanda, Congo, Myanmar, South America, and Chile. The first three of these are among the four largest provinces in the Communion.

(The data behind these rankings comes from Wikipedia, where the membership numbers require a significant caveat. The Church of England is listed as the largest province, with 26 million members, ahead of the Church of Nigeria with 18 million. But the Church of England statistics include millions of people who were baptized into the state religion but who rarely if ever attend services. A 2018 survey found that just 14 percent of Britons self-identify as members of the Church of England – implying about 8 million active members. The comparison is not apples-to-apples, but that would put the Church of England into a rough tie for second place with the Church of Uganda.)

GAFCON also designates as provinces three entities that are not recognized by Canterbury, in part because they have geographic boundaries that overlap with official Anglican Communion provinces. The largest of these is the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which reports 122,000 members in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. For comparison, reported memberships of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican churches of Canada and Mexico are respectively 1.7 million, 359,000 and 100,000. GAFCON also lists as provinces the Anglican Church in Brazil, which is dwarfed by the Canterbury-recognized Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil, and a “proto-province” called the Anglican Network in Europe (ANiE).

ANiE could be considered “ACNA for the British Isles” – an alternative jurisdiction for conservative churches, and part of a broader movement to position GAFCON as a potential leadership alternative to Canterbury. (Despite the word Europe in the name, it is primarily a UK organization. Of the 35 churches listed on websites of ANiE subgroups, 32 are in the United Kingdom, two in Portugal, and one in Germany.)

In addition, there are GAFCON branches in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, Tanzania, and Ghana. Membership numbers are elusive, but the fact that they are not called provinces implies that each of them is smaller than the Anglican Church of Chile, the smallest of the Canterbury-affiliated GAFCON provinces, which reports 20,000 members.

ACNA Archbishop Foley Beach has been the chairman of the GAFCON Primates Council since 2019. This is despite the fact that the ACNA, according to Wikipedia data, represents approximately 0.3 percent of the roughly 40 million membership of GAFCON. Beach is a white American, while the other eight members of the Primates Council are men of color from the Global South.

Archbishop Ben Kwashi of Jos in the Church of Nigeria has been general secretary of GAFCON since 2019. He is mentioned only in passing on the webpage describing Foley’s leadership. Kwashi’s predecessor as general secretary was Peter Jensen, the now-retired Archbishop of Sydney, Australia.

 

Tensions Within GAFCON

GAFCON statements about theological controversies often assert that both the Scriptures and the votes are on GAFCON’s side. After the Church of England authorized the blessing of same-sex couples, Beach published a “GAFCON Response to CofE General Synod” that read in part:

“Have the Scriptures been clear on human sexuality through the centuries? Yes, they have. The majority of Anglicans around the world have concluded the same. And yet, now, the Church of England has authorized the blessing of sin and declared that sin is no longer sin.”

GAFCON alone may not quite represent a majority of the world’s 85 million Anglicans, but it comes close. If you add in the broader membership of the Singapore-based Global South Fellowship of Anglicans (GSFA), the claim of a majority alignment on the issue of homosexuality is quite convincing.

But while there is widespread agreement among traditionalist Anglicans that homosexual acts are sinful, there is a vast disparity in attitudes on how to treat people who are sexually attracted to members of their own gender.

The ACNA essentially takes the position that homosexuality is a temptation to sin, rather than an inherent marker of evil. In January 2021, after a year of study, the ACNA College of Bishops issued a 3,700-word pastoral statement that carefully parsed the term “gay Christian” and rejected it in favor of “Christians who experience same-sex attraction.”

“As spiritual fathers we want to communicate our love for the many within the Church who live with same-sex attraction,” the letter said. “In all these matters, we call for empathy. We also call for a commitment to depend on the Holy Spirit to reorder all of our disordered affections, especially through the application of scripture in our lives.”

Nigeria Archbishop Henry Ndukuba

The response from the Archbishop of Nigeria was scathing.

“The deadly ‘virus’ of homosexuality has infiltrated ACNA,” wrote the Most Rev. Henry C. Ndukuba. “A Gay is a Gay, they cannot be rightly described otherwise.” Then and now, Ndukuba serves with Beach on the GAFCON Primates Council.

The United States long ago abolished all criminal penalties for private consensual sex between adults, regardless of gender. But if you leave the Kigali Conference Centre and drive 90 minutes north on highway RN3, you’ll reach the border of Uganda. On March 21, the legislature of that country passed legislation prescribing the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” and prison terms for advocating for gay rights. Renting an apartment to a gay person could be punished by a year in prison.

In advance of the vote, Uganda Archbishop Samuel Stephen Kaziimba Mugalu explicitly urged passage of the bill. Kaziimba also serves with Beach on the Primates Council. Uganda President Yoweri Museveni has 30 days to sign or veto the bill – a period that coincidentally appears to expire at the end of the GAFCON conference.

The ordination of women – a matter that had been settled in the Episcopal Church long before Katharine Jefferts Schori became presiding bishop – also is a source of conflict within GAFCON. Women cannot become priests in Nigeria, while the Church Kenya has consecrated female bishops. In the ACNA, women can become priests in some but not all dioceses, but cannot become bishops.

Uganda Archbishop Stephen Kaziimba

And then there is the tenuous relationship between GAFCON and GSFA. There are no obvious theological differences between the two bodies, yet some GSFA provinces belong to GAFCON and some do not.

In August 2021, GSFA Chairman Justin Badi, who is archbishop and primate of the church in South Sudan, wrote: “GSFA and GAFCON have different histories and different approaches. We believe that we also have distinct purposes and identities under God, at this time.”

One strategic difference between the groups has been their relative willingness to interact with Canterbury. Most of the major GAFCON provinces boycotted the 2022 Lambeth Conference, continuing their practice from the 2008 Lambeth gathering. But South Sudan and some other GSFA provinces were well represented at Lambeth 2022 – although they expressed their feelings of impaired communion by abstaining from the Eucharist at the opening and closing services.

The gap between the two groups may be narrowing. As noted above, GAFCON expressed approval of GSFA’s denunciation of the Church of England vote. GSFA declared: “we believe it is no longer possible to continue in the way the Communion is. We do not accept the view that we can still ‘walk together’ with the revisionist provinces.” They declared that the same-sex blessing vote amounted to “the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury forfeiting their leadership role of the global Communion.”

GSFA, which has not previously held global meetings on the scale of GAFCON, is preparing “for our first GSFA Assembly under our Covenantal Structure (Cairo, 2019), which will be from 28th-31st May 2024 in Cairo.”

An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that the predecessor of Foley Beach as chairman of GAFCON’s Primates Council was an Australian. In fact, Beach was preceded by Archbishop Eliud Wabukala of Kenya. The Australian in question was Peter Jensen, the now-retired Archbishop of Sidney, who preceded Ben Kwashi as general secretary. The article has been corrected.

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