I wrote this brief article last week for my church newsletter. It’s a basic primer on what GAFCON is, how it came about, what happened at Kigali and why it was necessary. Feel free to use with attribution.
What is GAFCON?
GAFCON stands for Global Anglican Future Conference. The first GAFCON met in 2008 in Jerusalem as a response to a growing crisis in the Anglican Communion and there have been similar meetings every five years in Nairobi (2013), Jerusalem (2018), and Kigali (2023). Out of these conferences a global movement has formed. The movement refers to itself as “Gafcon” and the conferences as “GAFCON”.
What is the Anglican Communion?
The Anglican Communion is a global network of 46 national and international churches known as “Provinces” and a number of extra-provincial bodies. One such province is our own Anglican Church of Australia. These provinces all have common heritage in the growth of the British Empire and missionary work in the 18th and 19th Centuries as Christianity spread throughout the globe from the Church of England. Of course, others also spread the gospel across the world but the Anglican Communion traces its own history from the English church.
As the Communion developed it formed four “Instruments of Communion”.
- The Lambeth Conference – a meeting of all bishops in the Anglican Communion called every 10 years by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The first Lambeth Conference was in 1867.
- The Primates’ Meeting – the heads of each Province are known as “Primates”. Typically the Primates are Archbishops but not every Archbishop is a Primate (e.g. our own Archbishop of Sydney is not a Primate). The Primates meet regularly, called together by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
- The Anglican Consultative Council (“ACC”) is a global “council” that meets “to facilitate the co-operative work of the churches of the Anglican Communion”. Its president is the Archbishop of Canterbury.
- The Archbishop of Canterbury is the Primate of the Church of England and considered primus inter pares “First amongst Equals” of all the Primates in the Communion. He is the one who invites and calls together all the other Instruments of Communion.
Why did the first GAFCON happen in 2008?
As our Western culture grew increasingly secular many of our churches have been increasingly influenced to abandon Biblical authority and accommodate the ethics of the wider world. This accommodation has been seen most clearly in the area of sexual ethics. In response to this the Lambeth Conference of 1998 agreed a resolution on the topic, the now famous “Lambeth ’98 Resolution I.10”, including the following affirmations:
- Marriage between a man and a woman is the God given context for sex
- Abstinence should be honoured outside marriage
Despite this, in 2003 The Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. (“TEC”) (one of 46 “Provinces” or national and extra-provincial churches that make up the Anglican Communion) consecrated as bishop a man who was openly living in a same-sex relationship. Soon TEC and the Anglican Church in Canada were blessing same-sex relationships. When the 2008 Lambeth Conference was convened it included those bishops who had participated in the consecration of the bishop and those who had approved and allowed same-sex blessings. In response a large number of bishops, not the majority of those invited but representing the majority of the Anglican Communion’s worshippers, decided they could not attend. But they wanted to meet together and so GAFCON was born and 1,000 delegates, Bishops, Clergy and Lay, met in Jerusalem. They issued 2 important documents, the Jerusalem Declaration and Statement.
Since 2008 more and more Provinces or parts of Provinces have abandoned the authority of God in the Scriptures and embraced false teaching and practice in the area of sexual ethics, including the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Church of Wales, the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, the Anglican Church of Australia and, most recently, the Church of England.
For more information on the history see https://www.gafcon.org/about/history.
Why was GAFCON23 in Kigali so important?
For the past few years the Church of England has been grappling with the question of sexual ethics, going through a process known as “Living in Love and Faith”. At the beginning of this year the English House of Bishops issued their response to the process, endorsing blessings for those in same-sex relationships and relaxing other constraints around extra-marital sexual activity while, at the same time claiming that there was no change to the doctrine of marriage within the Church of England. At a press conference the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said that he “joyfully” welcomed these proposals while also stating that he would not himself be using the liturgies for blessings. In February the General Synod (national church parliament) of the Church of England “welcomed” these proposal while also asking the bishops to consider what revisions were necessary given the obvious division they were causing. The motion only gained 57% approval amongst the clergy and 53% in the laity. We are yet to see a final resolution to this in the Church of England.
Nevertheless, the Bishops’ initial proposals and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s “joyful” welcome of them were seen as a betrayal by many bishops around the world, including a large group from the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (“GSFA” or “Global South”). This is an organisation of theologically conservative churches who had decided to persist with attending the Primates’ Meetings and Lambeth Conference to make every effort to maintain the doctrinal unity of the Communion. Some members of the Global South are also members of Gafcon. The Global South bishops who attended the delayed 2022 Lambeth Conference report being effectively sidelined and silenced. GSFA issued it’s own very strong response to the Living in Loving and Faith process, stating that, “[the Church of England has disqualified herself from leading the Communion as the historic “Mother” Church””and “The GSFA is no longer able to recognise the present Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt Hon & Most Revd Justin Welby, as the “first among equals” Leader of the global Communion.”
GAFCON23 met in Kigali in the shadow of these events. Some might argue it was the providence of God to bring us together at just the right time.
What happened at GAFCON23?
There were a number of significant things to come out of Kigali.
First, key leaders of the Global South including the chair Archbishop Badi-Arama (Primate of South Sudan) and General Secretary Bishop Rennis Ponniah (former Bishop of Singapore) attended and participated fully. The Gafcon and Global South Primates had an important meeting together early in the conference.
Second, the conference issued a closing statement, the Kigali Commitment. The Kigali Commitment has a lot of detail. Here are some of the most significant points:
- The Failure of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Other Instruments of Communion. The strongest words in the Commitment are about the Archbishop of Canterbury.
“We have no confidence that the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the other Instruments of Communion led by him (the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meetings) are able to provide a godly way forward that will be acceptable to those who are committed to the truthfulness, clarity, sufficiency and authority of Scripture. The Instruments of Communion have failed to maintain true communion based on the Word of God and shared faith in Christ.
Successive Archbishops of Canterbury have failed to guard the faith by inviting bishops to Lambeth who have embraced or promoted practices contrary to Scripture. This failure of church discipline has been compounded by the current Archbishop of Canterbury who has himself welcomed the provision of liturgical resources to bless these practices contrary to Scripture. This renders his leadership role in the Anglican Communion entirely indefensible.”
- The need, therefore, for a “reset” and “reordering” of the Anglican Communion.
- A clearly expressed intention for Gafcon and the GSFA to work together as far as possible to bring about this “reset” and “reordering”.
In effect the conference declared a desire for a renewed Anglican Communion defined not primarily by any relationship to the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury but by a common Anglican identity set out in the Jerusalem Declaration which itself draws from the historic 39 Articles and Book of Common Prayer.
So what happens now?
The first test of this Commitment will come with the next meeting that the Archbishop of Canterbury calls. There is a Primates Meeting scheduled for later in 2023. It remains to be seen if this will be delayed. The strength of the Commitment will be seen by the refusal of Gafcon and GSFA Primates to attend.
More broadly the GSFA will meet in the coming years and seek to clarify structures for the ongoing work of the Anglican Communion. There is still a lot of work to be done here, including legal efforts (both civil law and canon (church) law.
Here in Australia the Commitment will have little immediate effect. Our dioceses are fairly independent of each other and the breach of relationship in our own House of Bishops is already experienced. There may be things said and written in the coming weeks in response to those bishops from Australia who attended in Kigali. In particular our own Archbishop Kanishka Raffel has been appointed one of 2 global vice-chairs of the Gafcon movement and this is likely to bring criticism.
Do be in prayer for the Gafcon movement and especially for those who now need to put into motion those things we agreed together in the Kigali Commitment. Archbishop Raffel and others from Australia will have particular work to do. And thank you for your own prayers for me as I attended. I spent the week working in production for a special series of livestreamed interviews “The Heart of GAFCON”, part of “The Pastor’s Heart”. You might also like to read my daily reports from the conference on my own website.
Here’s the closing paragraphs of the Kigali Commitment:
Most importantly of all, we commit ourselves afresh to the gospel mission of proclaiming the crucified, risen and ascended Christ, calling on all to acknowledge him as Lord in repentance and faith, and living out a joyful, faithful obedience to his Word in all areas of our lives. We will explore fresh ways to encourage each other, to pray for one another and to hold each other accountable in these things.
We commit ourselves into the hands of our almighty and loving heavenly Father with confidence that he will fulfil all his promises and, even through a time of pruning, Christ will build his church.
‘To whom shall we go?’ We go to Christ who alone has the words of eternal life (John 6:68) and then we go with Christ to the whole world. Amen