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 GAFCON 2013

The Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) in Nairobi

Report by Lee Gatiss, Director of Church Society

Last week I had the privilege to attend the Global Anglican Futures Conference in Nairobi, Kenya. My experience of this conference of over 1300 bishops, clergy, and laity from around the Anglican world was moving, positive, and optimistic.

While there were tornados in Hampshire and rain all over England, the weather in Nairobi was 29 degrees, and the purple Jacaranda trees gave the atmosphere an episcopal tinge. Delegates from nearly 40 different countries gathered together to sing God’s praises in All Saints Cathedral, a foretaste of heaven. We heard each day from God’s word, with some excellent talks on Ephesians, but also from the persecuted churches of the Communion. It was interesting in this context to hear stories from the English delegation about our own struggles here, from a secularist government and a worldly church. Anglicans from around the world expressed their shock and concern for us, in a situation where many have compromised or are tempted to. They were genuinely and visibly shocked by stories of things that some English clerics do, which we have grown sadly too accustomed to. Yet they also rejoiced to hear of the steadfastness and gospel faithfulness of some. Archbishop Ben Kwashi of Jos (Nigeria) put all this in perspective, however, as he told us that the religiously-motivated violence in his country against Christians “does not make evangelism harder... though it does make life harder.”

Delighted by the dearth of mosquitoes, stories of the East African Revival kept us hopeful and inspired throughout the week. We began part through the conference to split into smaller “streams” or “mini-conferences. I was part of the conference on theological education, which is a major issue facing us as a Communion. Professor Dapo Asaju from Nigeria reminded us that it is not enough to simply teach theology; we must train people for ministry. He also said that we need to be more aggressive in writing books and articles, because those who teach orthodox theology are not writing enough to counter the pernicious spread of liberalism. Many African churches struggle to pay for theological education of good quality, and here perhaps we may have discovered a way in which the West might be able to help our under-resourced but faithful brethren in the global South.

I was thrilled to meet a number of people from every corner of the globe who appreciated the work of Church Society. A Brazilian bishop told me passionately and excitedly of how he was encouraged and edified by Churchman, and wants to translate many articles into Portuguese, as he has already done for our English Prayer Book. He was just one of a number of people who made me realise afresh that across the world we have brothers and sisters in Anglican churches that we may never have met, a huge unknown extended family, but who share our commitment to Anglican orthodox faith and practice. I even met a Nigerian King, and had a fascinating discussion about our Queen’s Coronation oath to maintain and defend “the true profession of the gospel... the Protestant Reformed religion.”

I was deeply moved to meet a bishop from Northern Nigeria who works quietly and carefully to reach people for Christ in a province dominated (98%) by Muslims. Considering the death of thousands of Christians in his area over recent years, I found it quite an emotional experience to hear him speak and consider that I may not see him again until glory because he may be yet another martyred evangelist by the time of the next GAFCON. The mood was lightened by drinks at the Deputy High Commissioner’s residence, where he told the British delegation of his own journey to faith in Christ, and mingled amongst us to find out how we were enjoying Kenya.

The British contingent were able to meet together several times to discuss issues of importance to us back home. This was a good opportunity to take soundings from our constituency about the new legislative proposals being made on the women bishops issue, as well as to gather some wisdom on the future of the Anglican Mission in England (AMiE) initiative. In the main sessions of the conference we were also treated to a first-class presentation from Mike Ovey of Oak Hill (a member of the Church Society Council), a mind-stretching but heart-warming analysis of the situation we find ourselves in, encouraging us to stick with the grace of God rather than the “world of the West.” He warned our developing-world brethren that the subtle attractions of the West’s materialistic philosophy and mindset would soon be heading their way, and that like us they would have to battle against its narcissism, and spiritual implications.

We were joyful to hear of Prince George’s baptism back home, and there was some respite from the intensity of “conferencing” as we enjoyed an afternoon safari in Nairobi National Park. At the excellent Carnivore restaurant that evening we were treated to great food and loud entertainment in the form of Kenyan drummers, and I sat on a table full of Nigerian bishops and Archdeacons, one of whom pastors a church 1200 strong as well as overseeing 6 other congregations, but without a hint of “celebrity pastor” pride. I also chatted to a Nigerian bishop about a commentary he has written on the Thirty-nine Articles. I can’t wait to read it!

At the same time, I was becoming aware from stories and anecdotes that some African attitudes towards homosexuality can be less than biblically helpful; there is a social conservatism against same-sex attracted people in many African societies which can often be mistaken for biblical godliness, but which expresses itself in violent language and sometimes violent behaviour, which is out of place for followers of the Prince of Peace and friend of sinners. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, for example, recently compared gay people (unfavourably) to “pigs and dogs”, whereas surely we would want to affirm that though the gay lifestyle is by no means compatible with Christian faith, people with same-sex attraction are made in the image of God and therefore worthy of the same respect, dignity, freedom, and protection as everyone else who falls short of the glory of God, i.e. all of us.

The size of each delegation was set in proportion to the number of active Anglican churchgoers in each nation, so it was humbling to note that there were more Nigerian bishops present than we had delegates (the Nigerians totalled nearly 500 men and women, but we struggled to get our full complement of 120 there). We learned from their vigorous praise and dynamic examples, and benefitted from their encouragement and inspiration. Most of the week was spent networking, singing, hearing God’s word, reporting on various situations, and conferring in our mini-conferences on evangelism, theological education, the Holy Spirit, Islam, and others important topics. Yet near the end of the week we turned to the serious business of devising a conference statement. At this sharp end of things, we needed to think about action. There was much negotiation and effort put into the wording of the resulting Nairobi Communiqué and Commitment, but when I first read this fine document I was taken aback by my own emotional response to it. It was a very moving and sobering experience. Some of the highlights of what was affirmed include:

“We believe we have acted as an important and effective instrument of Communion during a period in which other instruments of Communion have failed both to uphold gospel priorities in the Church, and to heal the divisions among us.” It is quite right that the Communiqué says “we have become a movement for unity among faithful Anglicans.” It feels like this was what the Anglican Communion was always meant to be, but has failed to become because of false teaching and false living in certain Provinces of late.

The conference (like the previous GAFCON meeting in 2008) opposed a “false gospel” spreading throughout the world which “questioned the uniqueness of Christ and his substitutionary death, despite the Bible’s clear revelation that he is the only way to the Father (John 14:6). It undermined the authority of God’s Word written. It sought to mask sinful behaviour with the language of human rights. It promoted homosexual practice as consistent with holiness, despite the fact that the Bible clearly identifies it as sinful.”

GAFCON put God’s word at the centre of its core commitments. “Our willingness to submit to the written Word of God and our unwillingness to be in Christian fellowship with those who will not, is clearly expressed in The Jerusalem Statement and Declaration. This means that the divisions in the Anglican Communion will not be healed without a change of heart from those promoting the false gospel, and to that end we pray.” We cannot just cut ourselves off from the erroneous doctrines of liberalism without also committing ourselves to pray for those who have been taken captive by them.

“We urge those who have promoted the false gospel to repent of their unfaithfulness and have a renewed confidence in the gospel. We repent of indifference, prayerlessness and inactivity in the face of false teaching. We remind them – as we remind ourselves – that the sins from which we must repent are not simply those which the world also believes are wrong; they are those that God himself abhors and which are made clear in his Word.”

On the issue of the day, homosexual practice, the Communiqué was clear. “We want to make clear that any civil partnership of a sexual nature does not receive the blessing of God.” Yet at the same time, it was vital to affirm that, “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.” We also said later that “We repudiate all violence.”

There was a new focus on organising the GAFCON movement, and a request that those who were faithful to the gospel might consider withdrawing funding from Anglican structures which undermine biblical faithfulness (such as the worldwide bodies that have refused to take a clear stand on Christ’s uniqueness, substitutionary atonement, and biblical lifestyle). This may well be controversial for some, but seemed very much in line with what we heard from Ephesians 5, where we are clearly exhorted not to be partners with those who try to deceive us about the reality of God’s wrath against such immorality. This being said, the clear emphasis of the statement was on the need for evangelism, training, and supporting of faithful ministry, and discipleship of Christians who must find their identity “in Christ rather than national, ethnic, or tribal attachments.” We were encouraged to resist the privatisation of faith and to be bold in speaking for Jesus and working to change individuals and communities through the power of the good news.

On the issue of women’s ministry, which has so divided the Church of England of late, the conference made a clear and honest declaration: “We affirm the ministries of women and their vital contribution to the life of the church: their call to the task of evangelism, discipling, and building strong marriages, families, churches and communities. GAFCON 2013 upholds the Bible's teaching that men and women are equally made in the image of God, called to be his people in the body of Christ, exercising different gifts. We recognize that we have differing views over the roles of men and women in church leadership.” There are some provinces of the Anglican Communion where women could be made bishops, for example (though there are very few women bishops in the global South), while many of us continue to read the Bible as discouraging such a development. I had some great conversations with ordained women from around the Communion at GAFCON, and while we acknowledged a difference of opinion on that subject (there was a spectrum of views on it, even amongst the women clergy themselves), we also recognised in each other a shared commitment to the gospel and our fellowship in Christ.

The Communiqué also said that “It grieves us that in many communities women and children are marginalized through poverty, lack of education, HIV/AIDS, the mistreatment of widows and orphans, and polygamy. Furthermore, they suffer domestic violence, sexual abuse, trafficking and abortion. We repudiate all such violence against women and children and call on the church to demonstrate respect for women, care for marginalized women and children around the world, and uphold the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.”

The conference also made nine commitments, including commitments to support mission, lay training, and theological education; to defend the truths of the faith even when this threatens existing structures of human authority; to recognize the Anglican Mission in England (AMiE) as “an expression of authentic Anglicanism”; to teach more on marriage and singleness; to repudiate all violence; and to continuing the GAFCON movement itself, not least as a voice within the wider Anglican Communion “for its renewal and reform.” (Many parts of the Anglican Communion are still struggling to come to terms with recent developments, or are internally divided over the effects and consequences of the liberal “gospel.”)

It remains to be seen what AMiE will become in the next few years, and we must pray that it is a force for good. If, as its leading advocates claim, it is a “lifeboat” for those on the edges of the Church of England, we must hope and pray that it is a sound and buoyant one which can advance the cause of Christ in our nation. In French, “amie” means “girlfriend.” For those of us who are able to stay married to our first love, we may have no need for such a body. Yet for those who are cut off from the Church of England, by choice or by a messy, unwanted divorce, AMiE may prove to be a friend. Yet that still leaves a huge number of us in ordinary parish churches up and down the land who are working to promote the gospel and be a light to our communities within the Church of England. We may need to work even harder in the coming months to persuade other Anglicans that we remain as committed as ever to the renewal and reform of our beloved church. There may be rocky times ahead in our relationship, but for the sake of the children of God entrusted to our care, I believe we must make every effort to stay together.

As for GAFCON, it contains its own fault lines and failures. The place of Anglo-Catholics within the broader movement may prove in the future to be problematic (and I spent many hours trying to negotiate some of this territory, with some friendly Anglo-Catholics who were kind enough to give me a great deal of their time). Some delegates expressed concern that justification by faith alone was not asserted clearly and unambiguously, and one senior Archbishop admitted that our fellowship may not be entirely gospel-focused, yet. But despite the many inoculations and injections I needed to get in order to attend, the fellowship I experienced in Kenya was the biggest shot in the arm, so to speak. I have returned joyful and delighted by the vibrant faith and powerful witness of so many brothers and sisters in Christ. I am more aware of their struggles and their strengths, as well as my own. I am more conscious of how risky and radical it is to live “all out for Jesus” in a world which encourages compromises. A family I hardly knew I had, came together for a blessed week of praise, prayer, and proclamation. It was a taste of paradise, and progress towards it. I pray that it will produce much fruit in the coming years.

Lee Gatiss.


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