Richard Condie reflects on two GAFCON meetings and the contrasts between them.
A lot has changed in the five years since the first GAFCON was held in Jerusalem in 2008. The contrast between it and the second conference held on October 21-26 in Nairobi, Kenya this year was quite marked. Both conferences were inspirational, but in different ways: one to draw a “line in the sand” to deal with a crisis, and the other to mature a movement that is full of hope and forward facing mission.
Opening sessions of large conferences like this often set the background and tone for what follows. GAFCON 1 in Jerusalem opened with a recounting of the unhappy history of the Anglican communion since 1998. The story was one of a slide into liberalism, especially in North America, the dislocation of orthodox believers, civil action in the courts, and the failure of the Instruments of Communion to deal with the situation. It was a sombre stage for the work that needed to be done in defining Anglican identity, making a stand for truth and in charting a new course for the future.
By contrast, GAFCON 2 in Nairobi commenced with an energetic celebration of the East African Revival from the 1930’s to the 1970’s, and the hundreds of thousands of men and women, boys and girls who were won for Christ through it. Story after story of the grace and purpose of God were told by the people who saw it take place and who have lived with its influence since. It was full of joy and hope and the strength of African exuberance, and set the tone for a forward looking conference on the mission of the church.
In Jerusalem we heard many sad stories: Bishops and clergy in North America losing their way, denying the uniqueness of Christ, the resurrection, and the authority of the Scriptures for doctrine and morals. We heard stories of faithful credal Anglicans excommunicated, defrocked, and put out of the their church buildings. We heard of massive amounts of money being spent on court cases by The Episcopal Church to prosecute parishes for pursuing episcopal oversight from other Dioceses.
While some of those sad stories still sit in the background, the delightful stories we heard in Nairobi, were of a church on mission. Most of the court cases are now over, and the newly formed Province of the Anglican Church in North America (itself a product of GAFCON 1), is now seeing a flourishing in mission. Church planting, evangelism, and other signs of growth and health are evident.
In Nairobi I had a conversation with one of the new ACNA Bishops in Canada. Pain was etched in this gentle man’s face as he recounted his story. He and his parish held on to their Diocesan connections as long as they could. His Bishop’s liberal application and disregard of the bible became so apparent that finally they had to leave. They were evicted from their church building, and a long court battle ensued. In the middle of the court proceedings the Bishop’s lawyer took the Rector’s lawyer aside and asked “What did your client do to make my client hate him so much?”. His bishop’s hatred of him was a betrayal of the pastoral trust.
But his face lightened when he began to speak of his new ministry. Now consecrated Bishop by the GFCA/GAFCON Primates as part of the ACNA, he has responsibility for parishes right across Canada. He tells of flourishing Anglican churches in halls and gymnasiums, of new congregations, and a church on mission. His view of God’s sovereign purposes is so strong, that he can speak of the blessings he has received through this massive tragedy and betrayal, because he sees God’s hand in renewing his church.
It was clearly evident in Nairobi that the battle for the heart and soul of the denomination is not yet won. The focus in Jerusalem was on the internal threat of liberalism in the church. While that was still present in the Nairobi conversations, the external threats of persecution and the rampant secularism of western society was also a strong theme.
The persecution and suffering of Christians in the face of militant Islam is still one of our major challenges. We heard many disturbing stories of the threat to the church from Islam in Africa, especially in Nigeria. Of course meeting just after the Westgate siege in Nairobi, with subsequent high security, made this all the more poignant.
The radical secularisation of western society, especially with its redefinition of marriage, and the relegation of the Christian faith to the private sphere, poses many threats to the gospel. A lawyer from the UK, Andrea Minichiello Williams spoke about her work defending ordinary Christians in Britain who have been prosecuted, sometimes losing their jobs, for political correctness – praying at work, wearing a cross around their neck, or speaking their minds about sexuality. She told of three street preachers in the last three months, stripped and held in police cells for preaching the gospel on the streets.
An excellent address by Paul Perkin who is Rector of Battersea Rise in London alerted us to the problems in Britain where he sees the secularism of the world invading the church. He cited a survey in England that reveals “approximately one out of every four male clergy in the C of E does not believe in the Trinity, or in God the Father who made the world, or in the Holy Spirit, or that Jesus died to take away the sins of the world…. Almost a half do not believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, or in his bodily resurrection, or that he is the only way of salvation.” He spoke of the challenges that this is to the gospel witness of the church in England.
But amidst all this challenge, the tone of the Nairobi conference was one of hopeful mission. My mini-conference was subtitled “the re-evangelisation of the West” as we begin to take seriously the decline of Western Christianity and the mission challenge before us. Other mini-conferences on Islam, the Holy Spirit, Families, and Episcopal ministry also had this strongly missional flavor which was very encouraging.
One of the things that has surprised me in both conferences is that, while the consecration of a practicing homosexual bishop was the trigger point for the movement, the issue of sexuality was not their key concern. It was very clear in Jerusalem and in Nairobi, that a re-reading of scriptures and the subsequent diminishing of their authority in establishing doctrine and morals, is the key issue fuelling the movement. Yes this radical re-reading does flow out into various views about sexuality, but more critically in my view, it flows out into a denial of the divinity of Christ, his bodily resurrection, and his uniqueness in salvation. GACFON and the GFCA (the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans), will continue to contend for these.
Jerusalem was the start of a movement, uncertain and precarious, and heading into the unknown. We were drawing a line in the sand against liberalism in the Communion. It was inspiring to “nail our colours to the mast”, and declare where we stood. The reading of the Jerusalem declaration was truly a great moment in my Christian life. Being part of something just beginning, “ a movement” not just a conference, was a great privilege.
The meeting in Nairobi had a necessarily more prosaic air, as we agreed to give the GFCA, which was just an idea in 2008, a more solid footing, better governance, commitment to finance, and a longer term strategy. I see this as a sign of maturity for the movement, and an acknowledgement that that we are now in for the long haul, contending for the faith once delivered to the saints, and being a true global Anglican fellowship working together for gospel good.
On the eve of my departure for Nairobi I was a little ambivalent about GAFCON 2. Was it worth the money and effort? What could we possibly achieve? The Jerusalem experience was unrepeatable, so what would this be like? I think I may have even suggested that this would be my last. But gathering for a week with faithful Anglicans from 38 nations, and multiple traditions - evangelical, charismatic and Anglo-Catholic - all with one aim to contend for a biblical faith within our great denomination, was truly an inspirational experience. We need each other. We need to know we are not alone, and we need to be inspired by the boldness and faithfulness of others. I’m already looking forward to GAFCON 3!
Dr Richard Condie is Vicar of St Jude's Carlton and Archdeacon of Melbourne