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This might be the most important gathering of Anglicans in 400 years,” declared Bishop Lee McMunn last month at the fourth Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON). GAFCON, held this year in Kigali, Rwanda, is a conference of the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (GFCA). Representing 85 percent of the world’s Anglicans, the GFCA was formed in 2008 as a conservative response to the Church of England’s theological drift into progressivism. It includes convocations like the Anglican Mission in England, to which McMunn belongs.

After McMunn spoke, Archbishop Henry Ndukuba, primate of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, took the stage to read the Kigali Commitment, the statement produced at the conference. “We cannot ‘walk together’ in good disagreement with those who have deliberately chosen to walk away from the ‘faith once delivered to the saints,’” he read.

Successive Archbishops of Canterbury have failed to guard the faith by inviting bishops to Lambeth who have embraced or promoted practices contrary to Scripture. . . . This failure of church discipline has been compounded by the current Archbishop of Canterbury who has himself welcomed the provision of liturgical resources to bless these practices contrary to Scripture. This renders his leadership role in the Anglican Communion entirely indefensible.

All week the writing committee had sought words to describe the disastrous failure of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC). Anglicans don’t have anything like a pope, as they will be quick to tell you. The Anglican Communion was officially established in 1867 when the British Empire was nearing the peak of its expansion. The twentieth-century withdrawal of Britain from her colonies, while messy and painful, also left a residue of ecclesiastical affection. Anglicans around the world, though they may have never been lulled by the beauty of Evensong, or wandered through Canterbury Cathedral, have nevertheless always considered the Church of England the Mother Church.

The ABC, as the “first among equals,” does not have direct authority over Anglican Communion provinces, but he does have the power of invitation. He convenes the Lambeth Conference, the once-a-decade meeting of all Anglican Communion bishops. He oversees the legislative sessions of the Anglican Consultative Council, a body comprised of bishops, laypeople, and clergy from a variety of provinces. He presides over the Primates Council. These three gatherings, along with the See of Canterbury itself, constitute the Instruments of Communion. Participation in them, as well as communion with the See of Canterbury, determines whether or not an Anglican province is an Anglican “Communion” province. The ABC is like the hub of a global wheel. How, then, could primates representing 85 percent of the world’s Anglicans declare his continued leadership to be indefensible? 

The demise of Canterbury began imperceptibly. Theological liberalism had sapped the fervor of Protestant churches in the West even before the Communion’s formation. The rot became more noticeable in the late twentieth century as notorious English and American prelates publicly repudiated creedal tenets such as the virgin birth and the resurrection. This particular crisis, however, began in the Episcopal Church (TEC) when some dioceses ordained non-celibate gay priests and deacons in the ’80s and ’90s. Attempts by conservative bishops to bring their heterodox colleagues to heel substantially failed. Conservatives, nevertheless, could argue that while individual bishops here or there fell into heresy and immorality, TEC’s official doctrine articulated in the Book of Common Prayer and the Canons had not changed. 

Then, in June 2003, the Diocese of New Hampshire elected Gene Robinson, a partnered gay man, as diocesan bishop. For Anglicans, along with Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, bishops are not localized ministers serving their own isolated dioceses. A bishop is consecrated for the whole church. His life and doctrine represent the life and doctrine of the whole. Gene Robinson’s confirmation that same summer by General Convention, the governing legislative body of TEC, constituted an official act of ratification carrying global ramifications. In the eyes of a majority of Anglicans worldwide, that vote set TEC beyond the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. Unless something was done, the entire Communion would be implicated by her actions. 

What made Robinson’s consecration doubly shocking was that a mere five years earlier, at the Lambeth Conference in 1998, Anglican Communion bishops, led by the Global South, overwhelmingly ratified Resolution 1.10 identifying homosexual relationships as sinful. Robinson’s consecration was a slap in the face to the majority of the Communion by American revisionist bishops outraged that their progressive vision for Anglican Christianity had been so thoroughly repudiated. The response to Robinson’s consecration from the Global South was swift. The majority declared that TEC had torn the fabric of communion and demanded that the ABC act decisively. Instead, for two long decades, first Rowan Williams and then Justin Welby refused to enforce Lambeth Resolution 1.10—which they could have done by disinviting TEC from Communion meetings. This inaction turned to complicity and betrayal when the bishops of the Church of England, with the full support of Archbishop Welby, approved prayers of blessing for partners in same-sex relationships. This action, coming only two months before GAFCON IV, made the gathering unlike any other Anglican meeting in recent memory. Primates, bishops, clergy, and laity alike had one thing to say: enough. 

The Kigali Commitment recognizes that Archbishop Welby has abandoned his office and that Instruments of Communion have failed to uphold essential doctrine regarding human sexuality, thereby undermining their very purpose. Those signing the Commitment no longer recognize the authority of the existing Communion structures. The Commitment empowers GAFCON and the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches to establish new structures for orthodox Anglicans wherever they are.

The Kigali Commitment marks the beginning of a new chapter for Anglicans. In North America, the feckless plea by some younger clergy in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) to reconcile with TEC has been answered with a definitive “no.” We will not walk together with those who are blessing sin. Canterbury will no longer define the global Anglican polity. The organizational details and ecclesial structures emerging in the aftermath of Kigali are yet unknown. What is clear is that Anglicanism around the world is alive and faithful. As the conference drew to a close, Bishop McMunn prompted the attendees to recite its rallying cry. “To whom shall we go?” he asked. “We go to Christ,” the congregation responded, “who alone has the words of eternal life, and then we go with Christ to the whole world.” 

Matthew Kennedy serves as rector of the Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York, and writes for Stand Firm.

Anne Kennedy is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People.

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Photo by Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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