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An Interview with Canon Phil Ashey, President of The American Anglican Council

David W. Virtue, DD
November 21, 2019

VOL: In recent days there has erupted a controversy over the seeming theological overlap between GAFCON and the Global South Primates communiques; specifically, a Covenant was drafted recently in Cairo (hereafter known as the Cairo Covenant) and the Jerusalem Declaration formulated by the GAFCON primates. Does this indicate a rift between the two movements?

ASHEY: Actually, the Cairo Covenant is the fruit of a process of healing the rift between the two movements. One of the first-fruits of the healing was the joint Statement from the Global South Primates and the GAFCON Primates Council Concerning Same-sex Unions [link: http://www.globalsouthanglican.org/blog/comments/statement_from_the_global_south_primates_and_gafcon_primates_council_concer ] that came out of the October 2016 Global South gathering in Cairo. Then in July 2017-- when the GAFCON and Global South Primates came together at our ACNA Provincial gathering in Wheaton IL to help consecrate Andy Lines--they met together to decide how best to address the increasing false teaching, without discipline or consequences, among Anglican Churches in the west. In Wheaton, those GAFCON and Global South leaders appointed a joint Study Group to come up with a Covenant that would address this "ecclesial deficit." The Gafcon Primates who were there appointed Archbishop emeritus Robert Duncan (because of his gift in bringing Anglicans in North America together), Bishop David Onuoha of Nigeria and myself on behalf of GAFCON to work with Bishop Rennis Ponniah and Canon Michael Poon of Singapore, and Bishop Samy Shehati of North Africa on behalf of the Global South.

During the two years we met and worked together, we experienced the gracious fullness of "communion" that this Cairo Covenant proclaims and invites. Our team is a very diverse group, culturally and in terms of our churchmanship. We have differences over strategy. But we were of one mind on the essentials of the faith. Our work was theologically conscientious, thorough and rigorous through many drafts. Thanks to the leadership of Bishop Rennis and Archbishop Bob, it was also shaped by the Scriptures and soaked in prayer every step of the way.

The final draft we presented in Cairo on October 11, 2019 was approved unanimously by the GAFCON and Global South Primates present. It went immediately to the Global South Assembly of Provincial delegates (Bishops, clergy and laity), where it was approved with only two abstentions. We believe this approval of the Cairo Covenant is another practical step in bringing both groups together.

VOL: But why then is there no reference to GAFCON or the Jerusalem Declaration in the Covenant?

ASHEY:The Draft we submitted to the Global South Steering Committee in November 2018 included GAFCON, The Jerusalem Statement and The Jerusalem Declaration throughout the Covenant, including section 1, the Doctrinal Basis-Fundamental Declarations. But a former leader of GAFCON asked that all references to GAFCON, including the Jerusalem Statement and the Jerusalem Declaration, be removed from the Covenant. I understand now that the intent behind that removal was that there would be no confusion about a merger between GAFCON and Global South. The two organizations have two distinct missions and purposes, and the previous leaders of Gafcon didn't want to lose the distinct purpose of Gafcon by getting weighed down with lots of structure.

What's important to know is that the current leadership of Gafcon--Archbishop Foley Beach (Chair) and Archbishop Laurent Mbanda (V-C)--were among the most vocal supporters of the Cairo Covenant in discussions with their fellow Primates. How do I know? Because I was invited as part of the Drafting team to be in the room with the Primates, to answer any questions they might have, while they were discussing the Covenant. Almost every Primate seated around the table expressed the same question: "How can we find even more ways for Global South and Gafcon to work together?" That's the heart, and the John 17 prayer, behind this Covenant.

Also, if you follow the video series the American Anglican Council is doing weekly on the Cairo Covenant, you'll see that the same content of the Jerusalem Declaration is to be found in the Cairo Covenant. The doctrinal affirmations in clauses 1-7 of the Jerusalem Declaration are found in the Doctrinal Basis-Fundamental Declarations (section 1) of the Covenant. The call for discipline in clause 13 of the Jerusalem Declaration is found in both sections 2 and 3 of the Covenant. Like the Jerusalem Declaration, the Cairo Covenant affirms Lambeth Resolution 1.10 (1998) as "the teaching on marriage and sexuality of the Anglican Communion." In section 2, on the organic connection between faith, order and mission, the Cairo Covenant even cites the cry from Gafcon Jerusalem 2018, that together we may all "proclaim Christ faithfully to all nations."

VOL: Nevertheless, some are saying that Gafcon has not officially endorsed the Cairo Covenant because GAFCON has its own Primates Council, which meets each year and only this body can officially endorse such a document, with final adoption by a GAFCON Assembly. I understand that a Draft of the Cairo Covenant was presented to the Gafcon Primates Council in 2018 and 2019, and both times the GAFCON Primates did not endorse it.

ASHEY:That's true insofar as we are speaking of endorsement by Gafcon. In my capacity as the convener of the Gafcon Lawyers Network, I agree that endorsement of the Cairo Covenant by Gafcon requires action by both the Gafcon Primates Council and an Assembly--and the next such gathering won't be until 2023.

However, the resolution coming out of the Global South meeting in Cairo on October 11, 2019 call for endorsement or "approval" of this Covenant "by the respective Provinces" of the Anglican Communion on or before June 2021. The Gafcon Primates in Cairo--North America, Rwanda, Brazil, Sydney, Chile, Myanmar, Congo and S Sudan--will approve this Covenant, or not, by action of their Provincial Synods between now and June 2021. Those Gafcon Primates who were unable to attend for various reasons--Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and S America- are also invited to bring the Cairo Covenant to their Provinces for approval by their Provincial Synods. The same holds true for the "not-yet-Gafcon" Global South Primates who were also in Cairo and voted unanimously for the Covenant.

VOL: Well-known and respected theologian Dr. Stephen Noll wrote a piece in which he says that you described the Cairo Covenant as a unique and "historic" development addressing the "ecclesial deficit" in the Anglican Communion, implying that the GSA Fellowship "is not saying they are better than GAFCON or want to replace GAFCON," but that you failed to say what GAFCON is? Can you elaborate on this point?

ASHEY: Well, the answer to that question is above my pay grade! I'm not a bishop, but I hope that the Gafcon Bishops gathering in Kigali in June 2020 will address Dr. Noll's question. As I have written elsewhere, this is precisely the kind of question of faith and order that bishops have been uniquely called to address within the body of Christ. Dr. Noll's essay on why Gafcon IS a church is food for the Gafcon Bishops' reflection and decision making in Kigali.

But let me answer the question by analogy to the relationship between the American Anglican Council and the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). We (the American Anglican Council) are not, nor have we ever been, a part of the organizational structure of the ACNA. We are not a "church." We do not have dioceses or churches, missions and church plants. Instead, we are a Christ-centered, Biblically faithful, prophetic movement that is always reforming the Church. We speak truth to the ACNA, and other Anglican churches we serve across the Communion--and we speak truth both lovingly (Eph. 4:25) and even when it hurts. We find it helpful NOT to be part of the organizational structure of the churches we serve precisely because it frees us to speak that truth without compromise.

So I see Gafcon in the same light. The Jerusalem Statement calls GAFCON a movement and not just a moment in time. Amen! It is a movement that "proclaims Christ faithfully to the nations," and without any compromise, because it is not part of the organizational structures of the Anglican Communion. As a movement, GAFCON is calling faithful Anglicans all over the world to Biblical faithfulness and Christ-centered mission, and to challenge false teaching that denies the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3) May it ever be so!

VOL: At a previous Global South Primates meeting in Cairo, Nigerian Archbishop Nicholas Okoh asked the question, "Why does GAFCON have a bad reputation?" Some answered, "because of GAFCON's aggressive approach." Do you agree with that assessment?

ASHEY: I agree with the Apostle Paul that the message of the cross of Jesus Christ is a scandal that offends--"a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles." (I Cor. 1:23). But the message of the cross of Jesus Christ and his death on that cross for our sins is the only power that will deliver us from death. The blood of Jesus Christ shed for us is the only good news that can save the whole person--mind, body, spirit and community. Jesus made it absolutely clear: there is no salvation other than through following him (John 14:6) That truth is what's at stake in the Anglican Communion today. The crisis of false teaching is not simply about sex. It touches the very essentials of what we believe as Anglican followers of Jesus Christ. I'm sure Gafcon will continue to offend because it speaks this truth without compromise. So be it.

VOL: One primate told VOL that GSA started in 1994 and played an important role at Lambeth Conference in 1998, long before GAFCON came into existence. "GSA continued to uphold the faith we once received from the saints, while believing strongly that it is important to stay faithful until the end." The Primate went on to say that, "We believe that God is the one who will separate the weeds from the wheat." Do you agree with that assessment?

ASHEY: The history of the Global South is documented in the Historical Preface of the Cairo Covenant. Yes, it was constituted by the Lambeth Conference 1988 as a regional "instrument" for discerning matters that concern authority and the identity of the Anglican Communion. Yes, the Global South has a history of guarding the faith and order of the Church through its periodic conciliar meetings and communiques.

The Cairo Covenant takes Global South and refines its purpose to "embrace the calling of John the Baptist"-- to call for repentance from false teaching and the autonomy that shields it. Like John the Baptist's ministry of repentance and preparing the way, the Cairo Covenant not only addresses the need for discipline and consequences, it prepares the way for full communion, interdependence and mutual accountability among its member churches--in ways that the Anglican Communion has never attempted at the Global level.

I too believe that, in the end, God will separate "the weeds from the wheat". That's the point of the parable. The "field" it speaks to is the world. There is a strong contrast between the present hiddenness of the Church and its future vindication in the end. In the meantime, the Cairo Covenant extends recognition, membership and episcopal oversight to faithful Anglicans in those Churches that have departed from Biblical standards and the historic doctrine of the Anglican Communion. And the Cairo Covenant rejects the "hermeneutical skepticism" of false teachers that dismisses the clarity and authority of the Bible, allowing the weeds to grow.

VOL: Whichever option (the Jerusalem Declaration vs the Covenant) you choose, both endorse Resolution 1:10, the gold standard on human sexuality which, while the Lambeth Conference also overwhelmingly endorsed it (526 to 70) the Archbishop of Canterbury has not followed through with disciplinary measures against those provinces that violate said resolution. Is this the line in the sand for GAFCON and the GSA?

ASHEY:Yes. I believe this is the line in the sand for both GAFCON and the GSA. Together. That line has already been crossed. That is why we have the Cairo Covenant, to address this "ecclesial deficit," the failure of discipline and the lack of consequences. The Cairo Covenant provides a "communion within the Communion" for Biblically faithful Anglicans in Gafcon and the Global South to pursue Gospel mission together, unfettered and undistracted by false teaching and indaba.

VOL: The Jerusalem Declaration's structures are a public repudiation of the Anglican Communion's Instruments of Unity, which got Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon of the Anglican Communion Office upset at GAFCON III. Nothing has changed since then. In your mind does that make it impossible for any kind of reconciliation between the two communions?

ASHEY: With God, all things are possible! But the documented failure of the Anglican Instruments of Communion and the current trajectory of the Canterbury-led Communion do not inspire hope for reconciliation. The middle ground is fast disappearing. We need to provide an alternative to the secularizing leadership of the Canterbury-led Communion and its false teaching.

The Cairo Covenant is that alternative. It offers full-communion, mutual accountability on the basis of a shared, Biblical and historic faith, and interdependence in Gospel mission. The hope and prayer behind this Covenant is that those trying to straddle that fast-disappearing middle ground will recognize in this Instrument genuine Anglicanism--the Anglican way of following Jesus Christ that is at once both confessional and conciliar. We believe that God is in it--and if he is, that even those trapped in secularization and false teaching will recognize in this Covenant a better way, the very mind of Christ himself that Paul proclaimed in Philippians 2:5-11.

The Executive Summary of the Covenant closes on this note: "There is a grace filled urgency to this favoured moment...Whether the global Communion is destined to flourish, or to expire together as one global family, God calls us, in the fullness of time, to give concrete expression to a truly one, holy, catholic and apostolic Communion."

Dallas Willard had a wonderful saying about such grace-filled moments as we are in right now. He said "grace is not opposed to effort. Grace is opposed to merit." In our sin and our squabbles we don't deserve the Communion this Cairo Covenant offers. But we--Gafcon and Global South together --should make every effort to keep our unity in Christ, his word and his mission, in the spirit of Ephesians 4:3. This Cairo Covenant shows us the way.

VOL: Thank you Canon Ashey.

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