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GAFCON IV: Lessons from a Communion in Birth Pains

GAFCON IV: Lessons from a Communion in Birth Pains
PHOTO: Sam Ferguson (back right) with his small group at GAFCON IV

By Sam Ferguson
April 25, 2023

In AD 597, the bishop of Rome sent a missionary named Augustine to evangelize the Anglo people of southern England. Augustine's mission base became known as the See of Canterbury, his office the Seat of Canterbury, and the global church that grew from it the Anglican Communion. There are now around 85 million Christians who are part of the Anglican tradition, making the Communion the third-largest Christian denomination in the world.

Sadly, the Anglican Communion is in crisis. Across the world, many Anglican bishops, pastors, and institutions have turned from the authority of Scripture and rebelled against both biblical teaching and church doctrine--especially in matters of human sexuality. The most recent example is the vote by the general synod of the Church of England to allow pastors to bless same-sex unions.

Those of us who gathered last week in Kigali, Rwanda, for the fourth Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON IV) are believing and praying this crisis is the birth pains of a renewed Communion, not its death throes.

I grew up in the Anglican Church, was ordained there, and now pastor one of its congregations. What happens to the Anglican Communion certainly matters to me and my congregation. It also matters to the broader church. Here's what I experienced at GAFCON IV and what all believers can learn from global Anglicans in this important moment.

Resetting a Global Communion

From April 17--21, 1,302 delegates from 52 countries--including 315 bishops, 456 members of the clergy, and 531 laypeople--gathered in Kigali for GAFCON IV. These leaders attended on behalf of 85 percent of worldwide Anglicans.

Launched in Jerusalem in 2008, GAFCON stands as a response to the crisis in our Communion. Its goal is to offer a biblical counter to progressive Anglicans' errors in doctrine and practice and a spiritual home for the faithful.

Foley Beach, the archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America and former chairman of GAFCON, said in his opening address that it's "time to move on past Canterbury." The Kigali Commitment, released on the final day of the conference, affirms this judgment and calls the current archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to repent: "Despite 25 years of persistent warnings by most Anglican Primates, repeated departures from the authority of God's Word have torn the fabric of the Communion. These warnings were blatantly and deliberately disregarded and now without repentance this tear cannot be mended."

Historically, the archbishop of Canterbury has been seen as the "first among equals [leaders/primates]" by Anglican provinces. Fellowship in the Communion was tied to provinces being recognized by him. But Archbishop Foley and the Anglican primates of Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Myanmar, Brazil, Chile, the Province of the Indian Ocean, and others now find the historic Seat of Canterbury empty:

'Despite 25 years of persistent warnings by most Anglican primates, repeated departures from the authority of God's word have torn the fabric of the Communion.'

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.

It's unclear how other Anglican leaders will respond to the Kigali Commitment or how GAFCON and other orthodox Anglicans will organize fellowship "after Canterbury." What's clear is that GAFCON Anglicans will not abandon their church but are rather seeking to reset structures of authority and fellowship:

Resetting the Communion is an urgent matter. It needs an adequate and robust foundation that addresses the legal and constitutional complexities in various Provinces. The goal is that orthodox Anglicans worldwide will have a clear identity, a global "spiritual home" of which they can be proud, and a strong leadership structure that gives them stability and direction as Global Anglicans.

Lessons from GAFCON IV

What can we learn from this tragic but ultimately hopeful moment in the Anglican Communion?

1. Faithfulness to God's Son is inseparable from faithfulness to his Word.

Listening to theologically liberal Anglicans can be confusing. They speak of loving Jesus, hearing Christ speak in Scripture, and commitment to Christ's mission--all things an attendee at GAFCON would also affirm. But listen longer and the tune changes: Jesus, Scripture, and God's mission are shaped in the image of the liberal Anglicans and their ideologies, rather than those leaders being shaped by God's Word.

The decisive issue for Anglicans today is the same as during the Reformation: the authority of the Bible and its plain interpretation. The Bible doesn't sit below or alongside human reason and tradition. It isn't interpreted like a piece of modern art--so that meaning lies in the experience of the reader. Rather, as the Kigali Commitment states,

The Bible is God's Word written, breathed out by God as it was written by his faithful messengers (2 Timothy 3:16). It carries God's own authority, is its own interpreter, and it does not need to be supplemented, nor can it ever be overturned by human wisdom. God's good Word is the rule of our lives as disciples of Jesus and is the final authority in the church. It grounds, energises and directs our mission in the world. The fellowship we enjoy with our risen and ascended Lord is nourished as we trust God's Word, obey it and encourage each other to allow it to shape each area of our lives. This fellowship is broken when we turn aside from God's Word or attempt to reinterpret it in any way that overturns the plain reading of the text in its canonical context and so deny its truthfulness, clarity, sufficiency, and thereby its authority.

We must have this clarity. Knowing Christ and faithfulness to him are inseparable from submitting to "the plain reading of the [Bible's] text in its canonical context."

2. A healthy church needs strong leadership.

The archbishop of Canterbury's equivocation, and now outright dissent, from Christian teaching stands in stark contrast to the clear and courageous leadership of the men who have led the GAFCON movement. Peter Jensen, Peter Akinola, Ben Kwashi, Foley Beach, and others have sacrificed much to shepherd God's flock toward good pasture.

The decisive issue for Anglicans today is the same as during the Reformation: the authority of the Bible and its plain interpretation.

GAFCON IV reminds us God has structured the church by giving it pastors and shepherds (Eph. 4:11). These leaders are qualified by two attributes: godly character and rightly handling God's Word (Titus 2:7; 1 Tim. 3:2--7). For their stewardship of this high calling, they'll be judged strictly (James 3:1).

The failure of the Anglican Communion has been a failure of its leaders. Watching this failure and the response of godly men reminds pastors and teachers that we must tremble before our calling. It should remind church members of the need to pray regularly for their shepherds.

3. Local discipleship benefits from global Christianity.

Humans are social creations, and our discipleship is shaped by our context. While in Kigali, I listened to and prayed with Christians from Myanmar, Nigeria, northern Sudan, Australia, Rwanda, and the United Kingdom. They revealed some blind spots in my own discipleship ministry.

Two pastors from Africa reminded me it's neither unexpected nor unusual for the Bible's sexual ethic to sit awkwardly within a culture. For over a century, churches in parts of Africa have faced the complexity of bringing the Bible's teaching about monogamous marriage into settings where polygamy was normal. Those of us in the West should remember that tension between a biblical sexual ethic and the surrounding culture is to be expected, not seen as a reason to jettison the faith (Acts 15:20; 1 Cor. 6:9).

A Sudanese convert from Islam to Christianity reminded me that local churches aren't for entertainment but are meant to be family. This brother shared how his Muslim family held his funeral when he converted, going so far as to bury an empty casket in a tomb that bore his name. Our local churches must be family, especially for those who will lose their families to follow Jesus in an increasingly hostile culture.

Anglicanism is a historic branch of Christianity. For it to thrive in the future as a global movement will mean cultivating godly leaders who are faithful to God's Word. During a memorable testimony at GAFCON IV, one Sudanese Anglican reminded us that will be costly: "A Christianity that costs us nothing is not biblical." As I reflect on my time at GAFCON IV, I'd add, "A church that costs its members nothing is not the church for which Christ died."

Though it's costly, I pray faithful Anglicans will continue to do the hard work of humble gospel reform, ongoing repentance, and structural resetting that our Communion so desperately needs.

Sam Ferguson is rector of The Falls Church Anglican in metro Washington, DC, and author of The Spirit and Relational Anthropology in Paul. He holds degrees from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (MDiv), Cambridge University (MPhil), and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (PhD)

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