October 26, 2013

GAFCON Declares War on the Anglican Communion

At the start of GAFCON II, which ended today in Nairobi, George Conger, in a post titled “Whither Gafcon II,” described GAFCON as “a movement in search of a mission.” He observed, “The anger-tinged passion that drove the Jerusalem conference is absent from Nairobi.”

GAFCON logoTo judge from the communiqué issued at the end of the conference, sometime between October 21 and October 26, the GAFCON folks seem to have recovered their hostile edge. Conger can be excused his sunny view of the conference to come, however; his story was peppered with irenic quotes from GAFCON leaders. Perhaps attitudes changed as the week wore on; perhaps Jensen, Zavala, et al., were simply keeping their powder dry for a dramatic barrage at the end of the conference.

Of course, GAFCON did not literally declare war, and some of my colleagues think that to suggested that it did is either an exaggeration or is impolitic. It is unclear how much of a threat the GAFCON movement is to the Anglican Communion, but bitter experience has taught me that threats from the right are best recognized and attended to.

The Nairobi Communiqué and Commitment

The tone of the so-called “Nairobi Communiqué and Commitment” is set in the introduction with this improbable statement: “We believe we have acted as an important and effective instrument of Communion during a period in which other instruments of Communion have failed both to uphold gospel priorities in the Church, and to heal the divisions among us.” Translation: The institutions of the Anglican Communion didn’t do what we wanted, but we did. GAFCON didn’t heal any divisions; it simply acted as an echo chamber for those elements of the Communion that already agreed with one another. The message is clear, however. The structures of the Anglican Communion have failed, and new structures are needed.

Following the “Introduction,” GAFCON brags about how it has interfered in the affairs of sister churches. Interestingly, a “fellowship of confessing Anglicans” of the first GAFCON communiqué became the “Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans.” In this latest communiqué, it has become the “Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (GFCA).” That is, a vague concept has morphed into a concrete institution seeking a global reach.

“The GFCA and the Future of the Anglican Communion” is an opportunity for GAFCON to set out its philosophy:
  • We are willing “to submit to the written Word of God.”
  • We are unwilling  “to be in Christian fellowship with those who will not” so submit.
  • Promoters of “the false gospel”—presumably this refers to, among others, The Episcopal Church—are urged to repent of sins which “God himself abhors and which are made clear”—to GAFCON at any rate—“in his Word.”
  • We hold 1998 Lambeth Resolution I.10 to be authoritative.
  • “We want to make clear that any civil partnership of a sexual nature does not receive the blessing of God.”
Nothing here is really new, of course, but the unwillingness to be in fellowship—read “communion”—with those who don’t share GAFCON’s brand of bibliolatry is worrisome. This is a clear shot across the bow of the Anglican Communion as we have known it and an indication that GAFCON, if it doesn’t want to form its own communion, at the very least intends to ostracize some churches of the existing communion. To the degree that GAFCON participants fairly represent church, how can those churches be effective members of the Anglican Communion?

Heretofore, the GFCA (mostly known as the FCA until recently) has been but a diaphanous presence on the Anglican scene. Not only has GAFCON announced that it intends to “strengthen” the GFCA, but that strengthening seems intended to yield an organization more tightly organized that the Anglican Communion itself. GFCA is to become “more than a network.”

Here is where the communiqué gets interesting. A three-part strategy is articulated for beefing up the GFCA. There are really more than three parts, as some rather disparate plans are lumped together, but I’ll deal with the strategy as laid out in the communiqué. We can fairly characterize the three areas of action as theological, organizational, and financial.

The theological part of the GFCA plan includes:
  • “Proclaiming and contending for the gospel of Jesus Christ.” “Proclaiming” seems straightforward, and, from the context, I take “contending for” as another way of engaging in apologetics, or, as GAFCON has put it, preparing “convincing theological rebuttals of any false gospel.”
  • Supporting theological colleges based on “the faithful reading of Scripture,” as defined by GAFCON, presumably.
  • Finding “new ways of supporting each other in mission and discipleship.” I guess good ideas were in short supply on this front.
  • Because of its importance, I’ll quote this part of the plan in full: “Authorising and affirming faithful Anglicans who have been excluded by their diocese or province. The main thrust of work here would be devoted to discerning the need for new provinces, dioceses and churches—and then authenticating their ministries and orders as Anglican.” Of course, much of this work has been the responsibility of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Consultative Council. But the GFCA is to not only arrogate these decisions to itself, but is also to get more deeply involved into churches, making decisions about dioceses and even individual churches. This cannot be dismissed as idle talk, given the GAFCON role in the establishment of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and the interference GAFCON bishops in individual Episcopal churches.
As for organization, GFCA is to operate “on a more systematic basic.” To this end, a Primates’ Council—is this another Primates’ Council?—a Board of Trustees, an Executive Committee, and regional liaison officers will be established. Conservatives do love to create organizations.

On the financial front, GAFCON has a simple plan that both supports new structures and weakens the existing Anglican Communion: “In particular, we ask provinces to reconsider their support for those Anglican structures that are used to undermine biblical faithfulness [emphasis added] and contribute instead, or additionally, to the financing of the GFCA’s on-going needs.” Readers are expected to ask themselves why they would want to support “Anglican structures that are used to undermine biblical faithfulness” at all.

The communiqué does not declare that the GFCA is intended to replace the existing Anglican Communion, but the disdain shown to Communion structures and sister churches, the withdrawal of bishops for Communion gatherings, and the plan to create new organizational structures surely makes it look as though GAFCON is building a new parallel (or replacement) Anglicanish communion.

The communiqué continues with a section titled “Our Priorities.” This section is mostly motherhood and apple pie for the Anglican far right. It does contain one interesting admission, however: “We recognize that we have differing views over the roles of men and women in church leadership.” Women’s ordination, of course, is one of the cracks in the ACNA edifice. Apparently, the clear meaning of scripture is murky on this matter. Oh, and GAFCON wants to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to Muslims. Good luck with that. I see martyrs in the future.

The communiqué ends with a not very interesting “Conclusion,” followed by “The Nairobi Commitment,” yet another laundry list of things to do. The Commitment reaffirms the Jerusalem Declaration and recapitulates much of what has gone before (evangelize Muslims, emphasize the faithful reading of scripture in theological education, continue to interfere in disordered churches, support heterosexual marriage, etc.). One notable new idea is introduced, namely recognition of the Anglican Mission in England “as an expression of authentic Anglicanism both for those within and outside the Church of England.” The implication is that the Church of England is not an expression of authentic Anglicanism. England is the next target for the ecclesiastical subversion suffered by The Episcopal Church in recent years.

Further Thoughts on the Communiqué and Commitment

So, has GAFCON declared war on the Anglican Communion? It plans to continue to interfere in the internal affairs of sister church for the sake of doctrinal purity; it dismisses the relevance of Anglican Communion bodies, preferring to build its own organizational structures; and it plans to take money away from the Anglican Communion to carry out its plans. All of that seems hostile to the existing Communion. Yes, GAFCON looks like a threat.

Can GAFCON carry out its plan? That is much less clear. Neither GAFCON nor the GFCA seems to have formal institutional (i.e., church) members. They represent collections of church-associated individuals. Perhaps they are just blowing off steam. Nonetheless, some of these people have effected real damage on churches in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere. If GFCA really gets its act together, it could become an alternative communion or, less likely, a powerful force within the Anglican Communion.

How should The Episcopal Church respond to the GAFCON threat? What I expect our church will do is nothing at all. The primary threat is to the integrity of the Anglican Communion. We are already fighting what I have called the militant traditionalists at home. It isn't clear what more we can do. The Church of England should be concerned on its own home front, however. (There is some poetic justice here, as neither the Church of England nor its Archbishops of Canterbury have been of much help in the defense of The Episcopal Church against the militant traditionalists.)

What we should not do is give the Communion disciplinary powers, whether through the Anglican Covenant or by other means. Such mechanisms would be both dangerous in the wrong hands and fundamentally un-Anglican. Although GAFCON sees the so-called Instruments of Communion—or is it Instruments of Unity these days?—as ineffectual, they have clearly been manipulated to be Instruments of Mischief. This is particularly true of the Primates’ Meeting, which, mercifully, has not met often of late.

My own view is not that the Anglican Communion is too weak, but that it is too strong. I believe that The Episcopal Church should insulate itself from both the Communion and the GFCA. It should reject the Anglican Covenant and declare that, although it will participate in the Anglican Communion, it is not bound by any actions of the Communion. This is a piece of business for the 2015 General Convention.


  1. Thanks, Lionel, for your analysis and suggestions in your own context. I have a slightly different take - that GAFCON sees itself as the actual functioning (fifth?) instrument of Communion of Anglicanism http://liturgy.co.nz/gafcon-true-anglican-communion/17080 and, in my own context, I suggest some things that may happen. Unlike you, I think there does need to be some response - at least in my own context, where people, including a bishop (whom the text says has made a commitment) attended.



    1. Bosco, I read your essay with great interest. I didn’t mean to say, by the way, that The Episcopal Church need not do anything. I just think it will do as little as it can get away with. Despite the fact that paranoid conservatives think of TEC as a 500-pound gorilla, it is more like a dazed baboon in practice. If I had my druthers, I would likely suggest that TEC begin a new, loose confederation of like-minded Anglican churches and abandon the mess that we’ve created over the years. But, of course, I have a cold and am in a bad mood.

      I intentionally avoided suggesting what the Anglican Communion should do in the face of GAFCON II because I don’t really know what that is.

  2. Lionel,

    I think the act of recognising groups and individuals as Anglican is inherently schismatic. The step pre-supposes a claim to a pivotal authority which has not been granted it by the existing legally-constituted, constitutionally-tasked and recognised body - the ACC.

    For GFCA to organize around a Primates' Council (which I read to be the GAFCON Primates) is the assertion of a body separate from the Anglican Communion which may claim to be authoritative in matters of doctrine, discipline and order. It is also to shape the GFCA in the manner prescribed for the Communion in To Mend the Net (2001)

    (Authority is not a matter self-assertion but of sufficient recognition. Authority only works to the extent that (a) people accept it and (b) people challenge it, change it and in the end bow to it.)

    To set up (and authorise) training bodies furthers the schism.

    One possible reason for the less strident and combative tone to the communique may be that once this step (schism) is agreed then a significant amount of the internal tension of the organization is removed. There is less need to maintain the rhetoric designed both to assert your own strength and to deepen the divide between them and us. Once you have walked away you need no longer concern yourself with 'them': you may now concentrate on building new structures and making them effective.

    Of course GFCA will be a broad church (albeit that its centre of gravity will be far removed from your church or mine or ours). Internal tension is the nature of all organizations - it's what keeps it together. The next couple of years will show GFCA's leaders the extent of those who submit to it's authority and those who don't. As they strengthen their core they will see more clearly the extent of their reach.

    Away from the core, as Bosco Peters speculates, this is likely to show itself differently in the differing parts of the AC (not least in the CofE). The process of separation will be different dependent on legal structures, local leadership on both sides, the numbers involved, and mundane considerations like pensions.

    I suspect we will continue to see a slow schism, albeit one which has just taken a significant step. Each part of the present AC will itself then have to change - more or less, faster or slower according to the realities on the ground in each place.


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