Even before it began, the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON, as its organizers called it) was dismissed as a failed attempt at schism¯and hailed as a triumphant new beginning¯for the long-troubled Anglican Communion.
In fact, however, its too soon to tell which it will be, even now that the conference has finished. A meeting of over one thousand conservative Anglicans held this June in Jerusalem, GAFCON stopped short of enacting schism with Canterbury. Instead, the final statement declared itself to be the charter of a new global fellowship of confessing Anglicans. As such, GAFCON was welcomed by Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, as positive and encouraging¯a sentiment shared by many and fully justified by the conferences theological substance and irenic tone.
But questions and grounds for concern remain, and whether or not the movement represented by GAFCON will wind up serving the faith and unity of historic Anglicanism or lead to further fragmentation and schism still remains to be seen.
What happened in Jerusalem can be summed up under several headings. The conference was primarily attended by conservative Anglicans¯from Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda, West Africa, Tanzania, the Southern Cone, and the Sydney diocese of Australia, as well as by several conservative bishops from the American, Canadian, and English churches. In both numbers and influence, GAFCON was heavily but not exclusively African¯leadership was assumed by primates such as Peter Akinola of Nigeria and Henry Orombi of Uganda, but the popular Australian evangelical archbishop Peter Jensen, among others, also exercised influence. The overall impression of many attendees was one of fellowship, resolve, and worship¯in sharp contrast to the contentiousness and broken fellowship that has characterized many gatherings of Anglican leadership in the recent past.
The conference was also markedly evangelical. The theological documents produced by the conference (such as The Way, The Truth, and the Life ) were all firmly set within the evangelical wing of Anglicanism. The perspicuity, divine inspiration, and self-interpreting nature of Scripture were recurrent themes; GAFCON attendees saw themselves as forthrightly standing up for the clarity of Gods word written and the paramount necessity of the Churchs obedience to it. Those of a more Catholic Anglican persuasion may legitimately worry if they have been left out of GAFCONs vision of orthodoxy. While some Anglo-Catholics were indeed present, such as Bishop Jack Iker of the Fort Worth diocese, they were a decided and evident minority.
As for GAFCONs enemies, little doubt was left that the attendees of the conference intend to drive away the errant doctrines of theological liberalism from the Anglican Communion, and are prepared to act independently of Canterbury and the formal structures of Anglicanism. The final statement cited three undeniable facts as the root of the crisis facing global Anglicanism: first, the promotion of a different gospel (read: defiance of Scripture and acceptance of theological pluralism) contrary to apostolic teaching; second, the broken communion brought upon the Anglican Communion by the preaching of this false gospel (particularly with regard to the American and Canadian churches acceptance of same-sex unions and the American churchs elevation of an actively gay man, Gene Robinson, to the episcopacy); and third, the manifest failure of the existing structures of Anglicanism to do anything about it.
More positively, the GAFCON statement spelled out fourteen tenets of orthodoxy, which they regard as foundational to orthodox Anglican theology. Dedication to the gospel of Christ and subscription to the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God written, containing all things necessary for salvation, come first, along with the need to interpret the Scriptures with due respect for Church tradition and the rule of faith expressed by the first four ecumenical councils and the three historic creeds. (Here, Anglo-Catholics have something to cheer about.)
Christs universal lordship, atoning death, and glorious resurrection are proclaimed as securing the redemption of all who come to him in repentance and faith. The three-fold order of ministry is upheld, and the unique normative status of Christian marriage (understood in its traditional sense) is maintained. The Thirty-Nine Articles are held up as authoritative for Anglican doctrine, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as authoritative for Anglican prayer and worship (as locally adapted), and the orders and jurisdiction of Anglicans who ascribe to orthodox faith and practice are recognized as universally valid in the Communion.
Rowan Williams, in response , judged that these fourteen tenets would be found acceptable to and shared by the vast majority of Anglicans in every province. In large part he is no doubt correct, but with significant exceptions. The Thirty-Nine Articles have not been strictly and uniformly enforced in the Anglican world for quite some time. In the American church, they are included in the prayer book only as historical documents. Re-establishing a reality that has simply not existed in Anglicanism since the nineteenth century will be, to put it mildly, difficult.
Recourse to the 1662 prayer book will also be tricky: Would the American prayer book of 1979 be judged a sufficient adaptation? If not, would the old 1928 book do? Finally, to make recognition of holy orders and Episcopal jurisdiction dependent upon orthodox faith and practice is of course absolutely necessary, but more than a bit difficult to pull off in practice. Who is orthodox, and who is to say? Arguably, this question goes to the heart of the entire Anglican controversy.
The GAFCON answer to this question seems to be a revived and reinforced confessionalism, based on the Thirty-Nine Articles and the fourteen tenets of the Jerusalem Declaration. As the statement makes patently clear, the GAFCON Anglicans have little confidence that the existing structures of Anglicanism can be trusted to judge in matters of orthodoxy and Church discipline. GAFCON asked that its new fellowship of confessing Anglicans be headed by a Primates Council, whose function will be to authenticate and recognize confessing Anglican jurisdictions, clergy, and congregations¯ whether they are in full communion with Canterbury or not.
The principle is similar to that already used to justify cross-boundary interventions in the United States by the Nigerian, Rwandan, and other churches, as accepted by the 2007 primates meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania¯namely, that cross-boundary interventions are undesirable in the long run but acceptable as a temporary measure until a Communion-wide solution can be found.
In this, GAFCON has not closed off the possibility of participating in Lambeth and the other existing structures of the Anglican Communion; indeed, the Tanzanian bishops decided to attend both GAFCON and Lambeth, along with several American bishops such as Mark Lawrence of South Carolina. That means GAFCON has not quite forsworn cooperation with the rest of Anglicanism. But they do seem to be saying that if the Anglican Communion wont discipline itself, then the GAFCON Anglicans will take care of themselves, with or without Canterbury.
These are, no doubt, strong words and forceful actions, and they have not gone without criticism from other quarters of the Anglican world. The Episcopal Churchs presiding bishop, Katherine Jefferts Schori, referred to GAFCON as merely the latest emission from those who consider themselves the only true believers. (In this context, one remembers the persistent complaint of African Anglicans, repeated at GAFCON, that the American and English churches all too often remain in a mindset of colonial arrogance.)
Rowan Williams, by contrast, asked two serious and pertinent questions: By what authority are primates deemed acceptable or unacceptable members of any primatial council? And how is effective discipline to be maintained in a situation of overlapping and competing jurisdictions?
The answers to such questions are not clear. What precisely are the criteria by which a bishop or province will be judged heretical enough to merit intervention? And who will do the judging? Apparently the answers are: the Jerusalem Declaration, and the new Primates Council. Already, the GAFCON statement envisions the creation of a new orthodox American province parallel to the Episcopal Church. But as both Rowan Williams and N.T. Wright have pointed out , there remain a number of unquestionably orthodox American dioceses that have not signaled any intention of leaving the Episcopal Church. Are they to be replaced? Are they still authentically Anglican? Who is to say?
These difficult questions are at the heart of the entire present struggle over the soul of Anglicanism. Orthodox critics of GAFCON such as Williams and Wright¯along with theologians such as Chris Seitz, Ephraim Radner, Philip Turner, and primates such as Drexel Gomez of the West Indies¯argue that sufficient answers cannot come from ad hoc interventions and councils. They must come instead by reforming Anglicanism from within. These critics stake their hopes on the proposed Anglican Covenant , due to be discussed at Lambeth next week, the principal goal of which is to arrive at a mutually agreed-upon method for deciding disputed matters with reference to substantive and coherent theological criteria.
Unfortunately, it is not clear that Lambeth and the other existing structures of Anglicanism can accomplish any such thing. Many hope so, against great odds, and not a few continue to work and pray that it might. Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, one of the Church of Englands leading thinkers, said at GAFCON that Anglicanism, if it is to be an effective confessing church, needs also to be a conciliar church . . . to have councils at every level, including worldwide, that are authoritative, that can make decisions that stick. Orthodox Anglicans going to Lambeth agree; that is why they are going, and that is why they have placed their hopes in the proposed Anglican Covenant. If they do not succeed, the GAFCON fellowship will almost assuredly step in to fill the gap, as a new confessional church in the evangelical Anglican tradition. Anglicanism will not be what it used to be, and some will argue that it no longer genuinely exists.
It might be too much to say that a good Lambeth could save Anglicanism from such a fate, but it is probably not too much to say that a Lambeth gone wrong could render such schism unavoidable. Certainly it is not too much to predict that faithful Anglicans everywhere will be working, watching, and praying for guidance.
Jordan Hylden, a former junior fellow at First Things , is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School.