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Picture of the GAFCON delegates in Jerusalem

GAFCON Reflections

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Posted by Tom Woolford, 10 Jul 2018

Tom Woolford, a curate in Blackburn Diocese, offers his personal reflections from GAFCON 2018

I’m not a GAFCON cheerleader. Or, at least, I wasn’t.

Though, given the ‘presenting issue’ that birthed GAFCON, I have always been theologically sympathetic to this movement of fellow conservative Anglican brothers and sisters, I have been, am, and likely will be again from time-to-time quietly critical of some of GAFCON’s decisions, statements, and actions. And my time in Jerusalem last month as part of the UK delegation was not one of unabated joy and optimism from start to finish. GAFCON – like every Christian body this side of the eschaton – is far from perfect.

But if I was doubtful of this before, I am now no longer: GAFCON is the best prospect we have for the renewal, unity, growth, and flourishing of the Anglican Communion in the twenty-first century; and is therefore good news for the Church, and good news for the world.

For the rest of this blogpost, let me explain some of the things that have led to my reappraisal, in the hope that it might speed yours.

Not a single issue lobby group

It is no secret that GAFCON would not have come into being were it not for both the consecration of Gene Robinson – the first openly gay and partnered Anglican bishop – by ECUSA (now TEC) in 2003 despite the overwhelming endorsement of Resolution 1.10 at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, and the absence of meaningful discipline on the consecrating Province since. The failure of the Instruments of Communion to deal with this flagrant and contemptuous breach of trust, collegiality, and mutual submission (a transgression of both love and catholicity, one might say) led to the convening of the first GAFCON to attempt to coordinate a response back in 2008. The continued impenitence of TEC (since joined by two or three other Provinces in their revision of the doctrine, canons, and liturgy pertaining to sex and marriage), and the continued impotence of the Instruments to respond robustly and constructively to the crisis has precipitated the continuance of GAFCON in the ten years since. Its growth as a movement since 2008 is in proportion to the weakening confidence of its Primates and supporters that the Instruments of Communion will ever provide the leadership necessary to restore and renew trust and cooperation across the global Anglican family.

Inevitably, therefore, GAFCON has been cast by revisionists as a coterie of bigots obsessed with the sin of homosexuality, and little else. Now, being of the conviction that we – both as individuals and as a Church – will be cursed by God if ever we call sin ‘good,’ GAFCON’s reputation as a single-issue lobby on the conservative side of this presenting issue hasn’t bothered me as much as it might have others. But some, themselves believing and teaching in line with the biblical and historic ethic, have been just as concerned that we not obsess about one species of sin to the effective exclusion of others; nor focus entirely inwardly on ecclesial discipline at the expense of seeking to fulfil the Great Commission. Which is why I am pleased to report that matters of sexual sin were rarely mentioned in the conference, whose theme was, after all, ‘Proclaiming Christ faithfully to the nations.’ Not one plenary session was given to the theme, and only two or three of the 27 optional seminars and presentations were ostensibly concerned with it or directly related topics.

The GAFCON Primates, conference organisers, and speakers could – and did – take it as read that everybody knows ‘where we stand’ on the issue. The final communique referenced it prominently and firmly, though not shrilly nor repeatedly. GAFCON III was about the maturing and broadening of the movement: with GAFCON’s clear commitment that Church doctrine, law, liturgy, and holy Orders must reflect the traditional sexual ethic now firmly established and embedded, GAFCON can afford to focus its energies going forward on other things – chiefly, on reflecting the catholicity of the Church through mutual love, submission, and spiritual and practical support across Provinces covering the whole Earth; and on making and maturing disciples of Jesus Christ. This was a conference and this is now a movement focussed not on sexual sin, but on the challenges to and opportunities for Christian witness in the twenty-first century world. Certainly, the Anglican Communion’s division and confusion on that issue is one of the challenges that GAFCON will continue to engage with until such time as the crisis abates or the Communion ceases to be a going concern. But other challenges were dealt with just as prominently, such as the prosperity Gospel, African Traditional Religions, and post-Christendom postmodernist Western culture. Make no mistake: GAFCON’s vision is nothing less than the vision of the Gospel.

Not monochrome

One of the most curious and frustrating mischaracterisations from which GAFCON suffers in England is its reputation as a purely conservative evangelical movement. It simply isn’t. That GAFCON in the UK is supported so predominantly by complementarian conservative evangelicals (like me!) is an anomaly in the movement as a whole, for which I can think of three possible causes peculiar to the English scene. Chief among them is the tribal nature of British evangelicalism (on which more below). Second, GAFCON’s actual footprint in England is so far coterminous only with AMiE, an admittedly theologically-narrow (complementarian conservative evangelical) outside-the-structures church planting movement officially recognised and sanctioned by the GAFCON Primates. Third, the viability and corresponding independence of The Society (administered by Forward in Faith) for the sacramental assurance of traditional catholics means that the greater part of that theologically-conservative movement has so far seen little need for greater domestic or international cooperation.

But the global GAFCON movement is not monochrome. Obviously, the range of its national and cultural expression is enormous (and, I might add, wonderfully, movingly encouraging to witness and be part of). But theologically, it is quite broad and diverse. Our English churchmanship categories don’t fit, and many of our shibboleths don’t seem very relevant. I tweeted half-way through the week the following:

In most of the world, the Anglican Church is evangelical in doctrine, catholic in ecclesiology and aesthetic, and charismatic in spirituality. Only in England are these three separate tribes.

I’ve had some constructive push-back on that assertion, but I still believe it to be broadly correct. Certainly it seems to be an apt description of Anglican brethren in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. And even in the US, where these three traditions do retain their own distinct identities within ACNA, there’s nothing like the party lines that seem so absolute in England. They may be distinct churchmanships, but they aren’t hermetically-sealed separate ‘tribes’ such as we have here, if we’re honest. And actually, the distinctions between evangelical, catholic, and charismatic blur in the American scene to a degree far more than most here would think possible or perhaps even desirable.

There really is a theological breadth to GAFCON. It has boundaries, but – following the precedent of the Elizabethan Settlement – they are generous. Some would say that they are too generous; one or two within the UK delegation candidly admitted that they were made to feel uncomfortable by, for instance, the number and prominence of women priests, by some charismatic aspects of the prayer and worship, and by some catholic vesture and ceremonial. And a woman incumbent in that same meeting vulnerably admitted that she too felt uncomfortable to be surrounded (in the UK delegation) by so many who cannot accept her priestly ministry. GAFCON’s breadth makes such tension and discomfort inevitable in the short, medium, and – let’s face it – long-term future.

Not quite a rival Communion

But I think navigating such tension and living with such discomfort, with love and patience, is part of what it means to be the body of Christ on Earth: if I thought the Church had to be much more narrowly defined theologically, I wouldn’t be in Holy Orders in the Church of England. Though I have clear and strong convictions on those contended matters, I sincerely and joyfully believe that those who disagree with me on them – provided that they believe in the same core faith of the Bible as expressed in the Creeds and Formularies – are part of the same one family, whose oneness should be expressed as fully as possible in both confession and institution, love and law, loose cooperation and formal communion. While others might see GAFCON having an important but negative role as not much more than a vehicle for co-belligerence – to see off (if possible) the peddlers of a false, repentance-less gospel; and to establish new jurisdictions where the wolves have overrun the sheep-pen – I hope it could be something more.

Certain commentators have bemoaned that, with the launch of an international panel of reference and nine GAFCON networks to grow the work of the movement between conferences, GAFCON is positioning itself as the Anglican Communion in waiting. I wonder why that is a bad thing. The communique – certainly expressing the mind of the delegates en masse on this point – insists that ‘we aren’t leaving the Anglican Communion.’ There is no desire for GAFCON to be a rival Communion: all hope and prayer is for the renewal of the Instruments of Communion centred on the See of Canterbury – for which there remains immense respect, love, and no little deference. And yet we must love and obey Christ first; and the work of the Great Commission is too urgent and too important for it to depend absolutely on the vicissitudes of Lambeth Palace.

The GAFCON Primates believe that the Great Commission is best served by a global vision, and that accordingly the Protestant catholicity of the Anglican Communion is England’s best gift, under God, to the world. So if the historic Instruments of the Anglican Communion prove unable to heal its breach, GAFCON wants what has been and still promises to be so good about that family of autocephalous national Churches historically linked to the Church of England to continue – in another form if necessary. GAFCON still hopes that its existence, activities, and communiques will yet bring sufficient pressure to bear on the Instruments that they make the very painful but necessary decision that, without repentance and restoration on the part of those three or four provinces, it is time to walk apart from them. But failing that, the GAFCON movement is the best chance of some 70%+ of worldwide Anglican worshippers continuing truly to walk together in love, trust, communion, and mission. And that’s why, despite my hang-ups and yours, I commend it to you for your prayer and public support.

Tom Woolford is Curate at All Hallows' Bispham in the Diocese of Blackburn

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