Vol II No. 5
From the Quarterly

Bishop, Book, and Church: GAFCON and the Quest for Anglican Catholicity

by The Editors

Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliffe

Prelacy, Episcopacy, and Conciliarity are manifestly foundational to the project that is GAFCON. The latest manifestation of this powerful movement in the contemporary Anglican Communion, held in Nairobi in October, made this quite clear in its actions if perhaps less immediately in its words – but then everyone knows which of these speak louder.

The Nairobi gathering was commonly referred to as GAFCON II, and although there was a meeting last year in London, this was but the second truly major gathering of the movement since the first held in Jerusalem in 2008. If there is an echo of a Hollywood “blockbuster” in this terminology it is not entirely out of place, for the organizers were at pains to show that GAFCON is big, in much the same way that the Vatican likes to demonstrate that St Peter’s is big. This clearly reflects a view that big is good and tells us something.  Not, of course, that they would in GAFCON want to take the Roman line of thinking in quite the Vatican direction . . . for here they meant big relatively, and they meant big within the Anglican Communion, which is the primary horizon of their concern. Thus it was much emphasized that those Provinces represented at the conference contain by far the majority of the world’s Anglicans, even if the number of individual Provinces represented at the level of their Primus, was about seven out of the global Anglican Communion’s thirty eight.

But the challenge posed by GAFCON was clear: why should the present international structures of the Communion place the multitudinous Anglicans of Nigeria, or Kenya, (each just one Province) on merely the same level as say, the continuing-but-few Anglicans to be found in the Provinces of Wales, or even New Zealand, when it comes to determining the affairs of the Communion?  (Though of course Sydney does like to feel it should not be muddled up with the rest of wider Australia, so the logic of numbers is not perhaps always uniform.)

One is reminded of the contest between two political figures in the nineteenth century of whom it was said that, “Pitt is to Addington as London is to Paddington,” for GAFCON reflects a parallel of reasoning which feels that it is time for the Communion’s global structures to reflect better the numerical distribution of Anglicans world wide. (Though thankfully no one has gone so far yet as to jest that GAFCON is to Anglican as London is to Paddington.)  But there is, actually, something deeper at work here than any mere “numbers game,” for there is a substantive resentment of what is seen as ultimately an imperialist legacy.

Thus it is asked why the more revisionary few, world wide—mostly from the more prosperous “global north”—should set the theological agenda for those committed to the orthodox faith, as it has hitherto been received by the Anglicans who comprise the majority of Anglicans overall, people who happen moreover to live predominantly in the “global south”.[1]   The comments made by Archbishop Welby resonated well with some of these frustrations when, in his Sermon in Nairobi Cathedral on the Sunday immediately before the GAFCON conference opened, he stated that, “I have thought and said for a long time that there is a need for new structures in the Anglican Communion.”  He then went on to say that, “The issues that divide us are at one level simple, but they are also at another level very complicated. Among many things, they tell us that we need a new way of being together as the Communion. A way that reflects the twenty-first century and not the old colonial pattern.”

As we look back across all the hullabaloo and dramas that have so sadly beset the Communion since the consecration of Gene Robinson in the United States in November 2003 and the subsequent visible split in the US Episcopal church, and then the fracture in global unity reflected in Lambeth 2008 when several hundred bishops declined to attend, not to mention the current inability of all the Primates of the Anglican Communion even to meet and celebrate the Eucharist together, it is the question of what comprises the most authentically Anglican path for the Communion that lies at the heart of the GAFCON movement; this is the question with which it must wrestle.

Inevitably, as a movement that is profoundly Anglican, it has to address the ecclesiological challenge that lies before it.  This is so even though it tends to express itself in language that speaks naturally, first and foremost about truth and biblical fidelity to the personal salvation made uniquely available in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, rather than about the Church as such.

The frankly curious acronym of GAFCON, when unfolded, is important here—for it makes clear that at present GAFCON does not view itself as an ecclesial body—it is simply the Continuing Global Anglican Future Conference which convenes itself from time to time, although it is exploring some formal ecclesial functions. In other words, whatever the sharply issue-driven energy that led to its creation, it lives within the peculiarly Anglican tension of seeking to convene and support a global constituency of the faithful on the one hand, and having to grapple with how to do this within the specifically Anglican heritage of organizational structures on the other. These structures range from the traditional orders of the Ministry, through to elements of Erastianism in England, to the Lambeth conferences, the primates meetings, and perhaps most exotic of all, the Anglican Consultative Council.

It is precisely its search for the core of this heritage which leads it back to Episcopacy and Primacy as key organizational foci, just as much as the Bible and the divine person of Christ incarnate are central to its theology. In doing this GAFCON is surely drawing too lightly upon the specifically Anglican formularies of the Prayer Book and Ordinal.  And it is because it makes such scant use of these historic and defining Anglican theological resources, that it is ultimately so driven to an implicitly Catholic polity built on bishops.

The Nairobi conference was in fact not really one conference at all. It was a musically rumbustious prayer and praise event with lectures and sub-groups for most of the 1500 or so participants.  It raised morale and spirits most effectively and demonstrated the desired “bigness” (as has been mentioned by virtue of its global make up), but the largest group did not actually decide things, even though it was invited to endorse them. Decision making was a matter for a much smaller group led by Primates (along with drafting and policy committees) while the several hundred bishops again met as a further group on the side.

Accordingly, despite the apparent emphasis on words, with all GAFCON’s various statements and declarations, the documents produced were not the organizational focus for GAFCON.  This is helpful to realize when looking at the Jerusalem Statement or the more humbly titled Nairobi Communiqué and Commitment. Some observers have been perplexed and asked if the authors—however they happened to have been selected and convened—somehow understood themselves to be completing the work of the early Church Councils, and to be filling in such lacunae as Cranmer, the Books of Common Prayer and even the very Creeds had overlooked!  Such an absurdity of presumption was however never intended, happily, for the commitment of all those in GAFCON is, as they keep stressing, Biblical truth and personal salvation in Christ, as mediated through GAFCON’s interpreting Anglican community, convened and grounded by its bishops and primates.

Perhaps the Report from the Bishops Gathering held during the wider meeting in Nairobi is the most helpful document here, opening as it does with resonant words from Hebrews 10.7: “Remember your leaders who spoke to you the Word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (sic. Actually 10.13, though the words of verse 7 are not unhelpful:  “Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me) to do thy will, O God.” But perhaps the bishops in Nairobi should really have used the Douay-Rheims translation for an even clearer effect: “Remember your prelates who have spoken the word of God to you: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation….”

It is no accident that care was taken to use the word Catholic with intent and emphasis in the Nairobi Communiqué in speaking of “the renewed Anglican orthodoxy to which we, in all our different traditions—Evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics and Charismatics—are committed.”  The economy of reference must not be allowed to conceal the import for the term “Catholic Church” goes back to  St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 100 A.D.) when, in his letter to the faithful at Smyrna, he wrote: “Where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church” (Smyrn. 8:2). This surely captures well the GAFCON ethos.

Historically this term, from Ignatius onwards, was used to define the Church and was used in the creeds themselves—including the most definitive formula of the ecumenical councils of Nicea and Constantinople. This was in spite of the fact that the word “catholic” is not found in Scripture itself.  In this regard, it is like the Holy Trinity which, again, is not explicitly referred to in the Scriptures, even though it is alone adequate to the truths set out therein. But more than this, the concept of the Trinity offers the ultimate eschatological instantiation of the catholicity to which the Church in this world is called—namely to be an image or, in the language of the East, an icon, as we profess and believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of which the Anglican Communion partakes.

In its original Greek sense, the word catholic means first and foremost the inner wholeness and integrity of the Church’s life, which is not phenomenal and empirical in the simple sense that is suggested by its sometime synonym “universal”. True universality applies to the truth the Church upholds, rather than to its geographic spread. In addition it has the fullness of saving power which can overcome every sin and evil through having the fullness of holiness and grace. Understood thus in its full historic sense the word catholic has a richness that is lacking from the merely universal.

All of which is highly relevant when next thinking about the sense of prelacy and primacy so evidently important for GAFCON for it is much more than an administrative expedient.

The sense of primacy hidden therein can best be thought of as a charism. It is not so far a governmental concept referring to universal jurisdiction and juridical power over the Churches of Christ (a perspective to which the Orthodox and Anglicans have historically both felt Rome to be too tempted). Rather, it echoes something once said of the Papacy by the late Demetrios I, patriarch of Constantinople—primacy was said to be a “service, an office of charity, resting on God’s grace.” In paraphrase, one might adapt Demetrios’ further comment and say that, “bishop explains primate, and primate expresses bishop with greater force.”  Essentially thus no bishop is different in his apostolic authority from another. The primate, therefore, cannot wield a power independent of the episcopal college, nor is he a “father” of other bishops, but a brother even if his office gives him “a greater force” through which to proclaim the truth.

By this reasoning, to ask if leadership in the Communion should always be located in Canterbury is to ask a defective question. What is meant is better expressed by the question, “Must the Archbishop of Canterbury always be elected from the Church of England?”

All of which indicates that what may be nascent in GAFCON, in its practice whatever this may lack by way of an expressed ecclesial theology, is a fresh expression of an ancient model rooted in patristic times,  whereby Anglicanism in the ordering of its ecclesial life seeks to interiorize both primacy and conciliarity in service of God’s truth.

A perhaps unexpected quotation in this context comes to mind:

“Who do you think that the ancient lady was from whom you received the little book?” . . . “Who is she, then?” I said. “The Church,” he said. . . .“She was created the first of all things. For this reason is she old; and for her sake was the world established.”

[The ancient lady] said to me:

“Behold, do you not see before you a great tower being built on the water with shining square stones? . . . The tower which you see being built is myself, the Church . . . . [T]he building of the tower shall be completed, and all shall rejoice together around the tower, and shall glorify God because the building of the tower has been completed.” The Shepherd of Hermas, Vis. II,iv,1; Vis. III,ii,4; Vis. III,iii,3; Vis. III,iv,2; written circa A.D. 150

The Church is imagined here in two ways, first as an ancient woman (who grows younger in The Shepherd), the “first of all things,” for whom “the world was established.” Then, secondly, the Church is pictured as an uncompleted tower which is thus something ever new and not capable of being comprehended in this world by time-bound human thought. In a related fashion, existentially in the Church it is possible for it to combine tradition and living experience, the past and the present, all the while with a self-understanding of participating in an as yet an uncompleted task.

Such an image allows us perhaps to see GAFCON II as a positive phenomenon affording hope for the future of the Church in its Anglican form, as part of Anglicanism’s struggle as a whole to wrestle with an ecclesial doctrine of the Church that is still in process of development. But then this is, as it always was and ever shall be in this life, a challenge for the people of God: “Come, let us go to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us his ways and that we may walk in His paths. (Is. 2:2)

Photo Courtesy of Anglican Mainstream.

[1] There is another Global South movement within the Anglican Communion which is much more broadly-based in terms of the participation of Provinces than GAFCON.  It has included around twenty-two provinces.  As a result of its size it has been less able to hold to a tight agenda and is hampered, ironically, by the fact that it is less well funded than GAFCON and so lacks GAFCON’s much higher profile.