Understanding the GAFCON Communiqué – Consultation, Critique and Clarity

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Since I flew from Nairobi and spent a day in Abu Dhabi much has been written already about the Nairobi Communiqué and Commitment. Perhaps the most helpful work at this stage is Joel Wilhelm’s very prompt and very helpful analysis of the changes inbetween the draft and the final document. Although the draft document has now been taken down from Anglican Ink I think this is still a helpful exercise to consider, not least because the movement from draft to final helps those looking on to undersand something of the nature of the conference, it’s process and the theological issues being considered.

I intend to bounce off Wilhelm’s work, since there’s little reason to duplicate it. I do, however, want to argue that some of his analysis while well-reasoned isn’t quite right. I’m going to be extensive in what I write but, I fear, not perfectly comprehensive – it’s a big big document and I can’t write forever!

First, Wilhelm rightly notes a change of emphasis in the two documents:

I. A Change of Emphasis on the Jerusalem Declaration

As you will see, there was clearly an Anglo-Catholic fear of too much emphasis on the Jerusalem Statement, presumably due to its emphasis on the 39 Articles. It changed from calling the Jerusalem Declaration the “foundation” to the “framework”:

The Jerusalem Statement and Declaration which commits us to biblical faithfulness, and has since provided the framework… [from foundation to framework].This attempt to de-emphasize the Jerusalem Declaration in terms of on-the-ground-reality also caused this change from:

the preparation of excellent theological rebuttals of the false gospel; supporting a network of theological colleges aligned with the Jerusalem Declaration;to:

the preparation of convincing theological rebuttals of any false gospel; supporting a network of theological colleges whose students are better oriented to ministry, whose faculties are well-trained, and whose curricula are built on the faithful reading of Scripture.You see this again when a statement on the gospel is struck, from:

We commit ourselves anew to the Jerusalem Statement and Declaration, with its emphasis upon the gospel of Christ. We rely on the power of the gospel to be effective in mission.to:

We commit ourselves anew to The Jerusalem Statement and Declaration.And finally, from:

The standard of theological education in some cases also needs improvement, and so we shall support theological colleges in developing curricula aligned with the Jerusalem Statement and Declaration.to:

The purposes of theological education need clarifying so that students are better oriented to ministry, faculty are well-trained, and curricula are built on the faithful reading of Scripture.This shows a probable Anglo-Catholic move to substitute “the faithful reading of Scripture” for alignment with the Jerusalem Statement. The “faithful reading of Scripture” can be debated – what is faithful and what is not? But the Jerusalem Statement is not debatable because it is more clearly a document in line with the Reformation.

I can’t speak for Anglo-Catholic concerns raised at GAFCON, but it’s helpful to understand that these movements were actually largely those proposed by delegates from the “Oceania” grouping which included Australia and New Zealand. This was, in essence, one of two main conservative evangelical groupings (the other being from England and the British Isles – although not as strongly so). In our discussions we raised concerns about referring to any statement (even one as excellent as the Jerusalem Declaration (“JD”) as authoritative or foundational in and of itself. And so in the changes you Wilhelm refers to the movement is from the JD to the real foundation – the gospel and the Scriptures in which we find the gospel.

Wilhelm does, however, raise a valid issue for the acceptability of the JD for Anglo-Catholics. Frankly, I don’t blame them for having concerns and I am, in part, surprised that Anglo-Catholics had no qualms about signing the JD with it’s clear reference to the 39 Articles as a doctrinal basis. Ever since Newman and Tract 90 this debate has been raging and readers will be in no doubt on which side of it I fall. Nevertheless, we had Anglo-Catholics aplenty at GAFCON but they were a notable minority rather than a major bloc. As Jack Iker noted in his recent interview with me, GAFCON is a predominantly evangelical organisation – albeit with a broad range of evangelicals.

The changes to the material on theological education also came from the conservative evangelicals, one of whom had chaired the education workgroup. We were concerned that the Communiqué did not yet accurately reflect the key outcomes of the mini-conference and the writing group were more than happy to include those amendments which moved from a broader “in line with the JD” to specific points of attention such as training, curricula, ground in Scripture etc.

Second, Wilhelm notes that the three “streams” of evangelical, charismatic and Anglo-Catholic were “codified”.

II. A Codification of ‘Three Streams’?

The final document changed from,

we, in all our different traditions, are committed to… to:

we, in all our different traditions – Evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics and Charismatics – are committed…So, the “different traditions” are redefined in a “three streams” fashion. This is descriptive Anglicanism on show, but I can’t see any reason why it was necessary to delineate just what the “different traditions” are, unless it is to give them official standing in the new GAFCON world.

and I agree. I think this might be a little bit of push-back from the charismatics and Anglo-Catholics to establish themselves. It was notable that while there was a broad range of traditions represented throughout the conference, the morning Bible studies and other Biblical teaching came predominantly from conservative evangelicals. This was, I think the majority of delegates would be quick to affirm, those evangelicals doing what they do best. And they did it very well. Mike Ovey’s presentation on the decline of grace and repentance in Western culture was nothing short of a theological tour de force while Willy Taylor’s talk on Ephesians 5 was described to me by one delegate as “the best sermon I’ve heard in years” (no link available as at the time of writing).

Because of this I think it’s fair to say that if there are going to be any ongoing tensions in the GAFCON movement (as there will be in any grouping of this size) I don’t think it will actually be around the issue of Anglo-Catholicism but between the “streams” of evangelicalism and charismaticism and their particular emphases.

I had personal experience of this in the mini-conference on the Work of the Spirit in the life of the Church. Neither the opening presentation nor the concluding report had any explicit mention of the work of the Spirit in inspiring the Scriptures, in illumining those same Scriptures to the reader or of regeneration. The closing report told us that we affirmed what the historical Creeds had to say about the Spirit but this, to my own mind, only further demonstrated a faulty lack of clarity on this matter from the charismatic perspective. Consider that the Nicene Creed has this to say about the Spirit (my emphasis),

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.

Note carefully that the Creed says only 2 things about the work of the Spirit; He is the giver of life (regeneration e.g. Ezek. 37:1-14; John 3:6 etc.) and He spoke by the Prophets (inspirition of Scripture, the words being drawn directly from 2Peter 1:21). It pains me to say that it begins to look like doing lip service to these incredibly important and Creedal statements when a summary of the work of the Spirit in the Church does not take care to mention them, let alone expand upon them sufficiently alongside the other important matters which were examined, most notably the fruit and gifts of the Spirit. What this sadly shows is the thin end of the wedge of charismatic excess which Matt Kennedy has so helpfully written about with respect to it’s diminished emphasis on the authority of Scripture against “spiritual experience”. These tensions will remain as long as this unhelpful stance remains upon charistmatics. It was, however, very reassuring to hear during the mini-conference, both from one speaker and then from so many of the delegates who found themselves in arenas of the more “supernatural” spiritual activity, of the need to constantly control and understand charismatic experiences and encounters by the Scriptures. I’m sure there will be more to say and discuss about this in due course.

Third, Wilhelm notes a clear emphasis on the theme of repentance. Not only did this draw, as he correctly emphasises, from the understanding we gained from the East African Revival (EAR) with it’s pronounced expressions of repentance but it also displayed a desire on the part of many delegates (particularly from Western cultures) to not appear too aggressive or proud in our statements about the sin of others. Thus the document has a sustained engagement with the topic of repentance not only with regards to those in the Communion who need to repent but also as an exercise in self-reflection. We were accutely aware, not least due to the things we learned from the EAR, that we could not presume to speak as though we had reached perfection hence the repeated theme of repentance in the final document and also a softening of some of the other language throughout.

Fourth, Wilhelm points us a movement away from mentioning the West specifically. Those of us from that area were concerned that we have a global perspective. This did not arise from any defensiveness on our part (we are certaintly enormously critical of much of the decline of our society) but an intention that we remain united together in a common work in the whole world. It also recognises that the West influences the rest of the World and so what ails us will eventually ail our brothers and sisters elsewhere.

Fifth, there was a change of emphasis about Canterbury but not in the way that Wilhelm things. Yes, a statement was removed about Welby’s opposition in the UK House of Lords to same-sex marriage but this was (at least on the part of our delegates) more about having too much detail in than anything else. There was, however, a change in the Communiqué from expressing pleasure with Welby’s statement to GAFCON with pleasure that he had made a statement; a subtle shift but an important one. The video statement, frankly, went down like a lead balloon. I think it’s fair to guess that every single “provincial” grouping that fed back to the writing group was unhappy with Welby. Indeed the Communiqué itself has plenty of veiled criticism of him. This is particularly noteworthy in the closing commitments:

4.We commit ourselves to defend essential truths of the biblical faith even when this defence threatens existing structures of human authority (Acts 5:29)…

I think it’s fair to say that Welby simply hasn’t done this anywhere near enough. He’s not spoken out clearly against false teachers in the church in the way that he could. GAFCON is making clear that being committed Christians and Anglicans means not chairing meetings to seek reconciliation with wolves and crocodiles (as they were described by one platform speaker) but calling them out for what they are.

This means that if Welby wants any chance of being the leader he’s meant to be then he needs to get with the programme of calling out the wolves amongst us for what they are. And this would be entirely in line with his stated evangelicals convictions yet he feels unable to do so. He is (to use the speaker’s full illustration) feeding crocodiles in the hope that it will pacify them. It doesn’t, it just give them more of a taste for fresh and free meat. Of course, the contrary is also true. Were Welby to face up to the liberals both in the CofE and the Communion then he would find in GAFCON a greater and more supportive friendship and support than he will ever receive from the crocs. Put another way, he may still lose the battle for the gospel but at least he will lose well, as a good and faithful servant.

There are other changes that Wilhelm did not have the time to get to but which require some further thought. Western delegates sought to, and were able to, change some of the language about sexual ethics to include aspects of thinking that were not originally fully expressed. In particular I thought this was very important:

We continue to pray for and offer pastoral support to Christians struggling with same-sex temptation who remain celibate in obedience to Christ and affirm them in their faithfulness.

Sadly there was no mention of adultery. I would have dearly liked to have seen this included in a document that spoke about marriage and sexual expression, given that it is far more rife than homosexual practice.

There was also a significant reordering of the opening argument about the false gospel. One than one grouping suggested that the more fundamental issues of the authority of Scripture, the uniqueness of Jesus and the nature of the gospel itself should be articulated before moving on to the logically subordinate ethical statements that were also needed. Necessary statements about sexual ethics therefore moved to the end of that flow, rather than the beginning as they were initially.

What becomes clear from all of these changes and more is that the GAFCON process was palpably strongly consultative in nature, even though a smaller writing group produced the initial draft. There was no “central control” driving the process, rather,

  1. many of the feedback groups gave not only larger “big-ticket” feedback items but many smaller and at times very particular comments. It appears that the writing group worked very hard to incorporate those suggestions in the final document. That means that the shift from draft to final Communiqué ought to be viewed not as a sign of confusion and uncertainty but, rather, as an expression of the consultative and collaborative nature of the process. I have to say, I was actually surprised at the amount of influence the feedback had on the document. I even had one particular line I drafted included!
  2. the many improvements (for that’s how I view most but not all of the changes) reflect the theological depth of many of the delegates. The original writing group were by no means poor theologians; on the contrary the members were well-chosen and of the highest calibre! Nevertheless there was strength in depth at the conference and not least (as I’ve suggested above) amongst the conservative evangelicals and others.

Where does this analysis of the final day of the process leave the Communiqué? I think it means we see the document as the genuinely heartfelt desire of the conference. Feedback was sought and incorporated and the final document was therefore an expression of the broad mind of the conference. It is very clear in a great number of areas where it needs to be and it is a comprehensively corporate piece; it is a real expression of what all of us there in Nairobi wanted to see stated and we represent the vast majority of the Anglican Communion – of that there can be no doubt.

The final Communiqué and Commitment is therefore a document that needs to be taken seriously by the rest of the Communion. It’s not a process-managed piece but a collaborative declaration. While it betrays underlying tensions that still remain in the movement it is still a powerful work. GAFCON and the FCA is not just here to stay, it will become bigger and bigger. The commitment to serious recruitment of resources and regional structures only underlies that assessment. What the outcome of all of this will be remains to be seen.

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  1. Robert Tong

    thank you David for this very helpful analysis. Robert Tong

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