In speaking of the challenge of GAFCON, I ought to indicate, of course, that I myself was present when the idea of GAFCON was born in December 2007 and helped organise the first Jerusalem Conference in June the next year. Following that I became the General Secretary of GAFCON, a position I held until 2018. Thus, I am no uncommitted bystander, although I am no longer present at the key policy-making decisions. However, I can speak with some knowledge about the history and significance of the movement, and I want to discuss something of the challenge that GAFCON represents in the Anglican Communion and a particular challenge that GAFCON faces.
Among bishops and the keen observers of the Anglican Communion, the phrase ‘Lambeth 1.10’ refers to something so well known that it needs little introduction or explanation. It is, of course, a reference to the famous (or, for some, infamous) Resolution of the Lambeth Conference in 1998 on the subject of human sexuality and especially homosexuality. The Resolution was passed by an overwhelming majority of those present and voting, namely 526 to 70.
As with all commonly used abbreviations, however, the danger is that the shorthand version will contribute to the loss of memory of the actual words. They are available on the Anglican Communion Website and are as follows:
commends to the Church the subsection report on human sexuality;
a. in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage;
b. recognises that there are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation. Many of these are members of the Church and are seeking the pastoral care, moral direction of the Church, and God's transforming power for the living of their lives and the ordering of relationships. We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ;
c. while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture, calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals, violence within marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex;
d. cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions;
e. requests the Primates and the ACC to establish a means of monitoring the work done on the subject of human sexuality in the Communion and to share statements and resources among us;
f. notes the significance of the Kuala Lumpur Statement on Human Sexuality and the concerns expressed in resolutions IV.26, V.1, V.10, V.23 and V.35 on the authority of Scripture in matters of marriage and sexuality and asks the Primates and the ACC to include them in their monitoring process.
It is likely that this is the best-known Lambeth Resolution of all. It is integral to the genesis of the GAFCON Movement which arose ten years later in 2008. In the light of the fourth GAFCON Conference it is worth referring to it again as a way of thinking through the challenge to and of the GAFCON movement.
One of the blessings of the Anglican Communion is that its authority structures are loose. There is no way in which provinces can order each other about. For some, this is a serious weakness. They would argue that for the Communion to have the ecclesial standing that it ought to have there needs to be a constitution or a covenant to be entered into by the provinces, one which is enforceable. The danger of such an arrangement is that the majority may exert pressure on the minority over matters which are of secondary importance or even erroneous.
As well, it does not account for the legal structure of provinces, where the Primate and the General Synod may have very little power indeed. Such a province may enter covenant, but it may be unenforceable within the province.
Thus, as is often observed, resolutions of the Lambeth Conference, no matter how overwhelmingly passed, have no binding authority in the Dioceses and provinces represented within. But this weakness may also be an advantage, as it is in the case of Lambeth 1.10. What I mean is that the authority of the resolution is not legal, but moral. It was not an attempt to enforce by legislation but to address the consciences of those in the Communion who were proposing that same-sex unions be blessed.
The conscience was addressed in a twofold way. First, by the persons of those voting for the resolution. Here is a fellowship of Christian bishops, drawn together in Christ and by history, liturgy, theology and a deep respect for one another. As well, it is a worldwide fellowship in parts of which there are significant dangers of persecution and death. Many had already spoken with power in the Kuala Lumpur Statement favourably referred to in Lambeth 1.10. It could be thought that, even with strongly held convictions on the other side of this debate, those proposing innovation may hesitate out of love for others, not least when they saw the numbers of those opposing change. Is it best to change the minds of so many by radical political action or by lengthy and gentle persuasion, recognising that we may be in error, and based on the joint study of God’s word?
Secondly, however, the conscience is bound to the word of God. The appeal of Lambeth 1.10 (and the Kuala Lumpur Statement) is precisely to the scriptures. No-one can plausibly deny that the word of God has been overwhelmingly read in one way for the whole of Christian history. This, of course, does not in itself make that reading correct, but despite the debate of recent decades, even many of those who are in favour of change have agreed that the Bible’s teaching is inconsistent with anything but sexual intimacy within the bounds of monogamous heterosexual marriage. The case for innovation has to be made on other grounds.
As I contemplate the events of the last two decades in the Anglican Communion, it seems to me that the case for change has not really been argued. It has been enacted. We can see the same phenomenon in the broader culture, where the change in sexual ethics has been simply made rather than argued for. To use the old cliché, it is better to apologise after the event. Once the consequences, if any, have been absorbed, the revisers can make the next move. In this way a new culture is developed, one with its own ethical system and the habit of blaming as bad people those who do not accept it.
It seems to me that this helps explain the way in which those who have created the new way have explained the reluctance of others to make the change, and, indeed, even to blame them for it. The views of others, it is suggested, are not really scriptural, they are cultural. Whether it is the hateful ‘fundamentalism’ of the conservatives or the old-fashioned home cultures of the Global South, this, rather than Scripture, ‘explains’ their unwillingness to change. We all appeal to Scripture, the argument goes, and so the word of the Bible is not decisive. It is where you were born and whether you have absorbed the best of modern Western culture.
The Challenge Of GAFCON
The GAFCON movement, a product of the first conference in Jerusalem in 2008, is not a breakaway or schismatic group. As the Jerusalem Statement and Declaration make clear, it seeks to be nothing more or less than scriptural, Anglican, and fully committed to the Communion. Indeed it represents the Anglican Communion as it was before the fateful actions in Canada and the USA divided the churches in those provinces.
Thus, GAFCON does not represent one type of churchmanship. It incorporates the many varieties of Anglican commitment and practices characteristic of the Communion when the twenty-first century began.
Significant numbers of North American Anglicans had disaffiliated from their provinces at very considerable cost to themselves, unable to continue in fellowship with those whom, as they saw it, had disobeyed scripture, ignored the call of the majority and had set the gospel itself at risk. The fact that several years passed between these events and the creation of GAFCON is a reminder of the way that serious attempts were made, especially through meetings of Primates, to get the innovations repealed.
Ultimately, when the next Lambeth Conference was due without any resolution, and it was clear that no significant discipline would be exercised at the conference itself, and hence no support for the faithful Anglicans who had left their churches at high personal and congregational cost, it became clear to some that they must stand with the faithful and either not attend Lambeth, or go in order to speak for Lambeth 1.10. To support those who had made the choice to be absent, it was decided to have a conference in Jerusalem. The Conference became a movement and one of the first acts of the movement was to ‘gather up the fragments’, that is, to provide a thoroughly, indisputably Anglican home for those who had left their dioceses and provinces of origin.
Hence the birth of the Anglican Church of North America. None of those who left The Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church in Canada had any wish to be other than faithful Anglicans. Indeed, it was their faithfulness which inspired their withdrawal. It was painful not to be recognised by the official instruments of Communion. But to their rescue came courageous Primates and provinces from elsewhere, offering them recognition and support in the hope that the day would come when their witness would be honoured and they would be fully restored to a repentant and renewed Communion. The heart of GAFCON is not schism but a gospel-based unity; it is not the destruction of the Anglican Communion but its salvation.
It is a spiritual renewal movement. When people withdrew from their home church, or declined to go to Lambeth with bishops who had defied scripture, it was always in the hope that their actions would summon those making innovations back to the authority of the word of God. In this it follows the teaching of scripture about how we are to deal with such matters (eg 1 Cor 5 and 6). As the Jerusalem Declaration says, ‘We reject the authority of those churches and leaders who have denied the orthodox faith in word or deed. We pray for them and call on them to repent and return to the Lord’ (Clause 13).
It has never been the view of the GAFCON movement that the only way forward for clergy and people caught in a church which has denied Lambeth 1.10 is to leave. There are many who have judged it their duty for different reasons to remain. Thus in the UK, the creation of the Anglican Mission in England and the Anglican Convocation in Europe is not intended to imply that joining them is the only way forward. Originally a mission society, it has become part of the Anglican Network in Europe, recognised as truly Anglican by other Anglicans around the world. The work of the two Convocations has grown through evangelism, as was always intended. But it has also grown as others have left the Church of England and their churches in Wales and Scotland to join them. Such refugees are not joining independent churches or other denominations. They remain authentic Anglicans, awaiting the moment when unity around the teaching of scripture can once again be established. And the path to such reconciliation must be via repentance if it is to avoid being merely political.
The statement of the English House of Bishops with prayers about the recognition of same-sex unions, and the meeting of the General Synod which followed have been decisive moments for the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. My own reaction when I first read the Bishops’ comments and suggestions surprised me. I live far away and have little to do with the Church of England as such – but I felt as though I could weep. It was as if I had been cut to the heart. As I have observed the reactions of others who belong to the Church of England, as well as those from other parts of the world to this and to the resolution of the General Synod I detect the same grief. It is as if we have been hurt by a parent. It will now be impossible to appeal to the formal teaching of the Church of England as cover while we fight our own cultural wars. At a crucial point – the sinfulness of fornication – it has capitulated to the sexual revolution. What does this do to the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury?
It is tragic to see a reference in the Bishops’ statement to the impact of ‘a proper twenty-first century understanding of being human and being sexual’. The irony is that there are signs at least that the sexual revolution may have run its course and even non- Christians are beginning to see that the whole cultural shift has been a disaster. What we need to have done and now need to be doing with even greater clarity and force, is to argue the case for the biblical view of marriage and sex and to demonstrate how good it is and how necessary for the well-being of society. This is not merely about same-sex activity, but about the whole contest for family and for the good health of both women and men. It is not a secondary issue, where we should ‘walk together’ in order to preserve a false unity, it is a primary, gospel matter. And it is a gift to the nations which we represent.
In that sense, the question of whether Christians need to leave their church for another is part of a much bigger issue. In a world where people are anxious to use the law to attack what they see as discrimination by Christian organisations and churches, it is truly helpful to be part of a much larger denomination which believes the same things and will defend you. Even within the church, though, will your denomination allow you to teach the great biblical truths about marriage and sex and the family, or will you be hindered and discouraged, even forbidden? It is interesting to see how cautious we have all become even now about teaching some biblical passages to do with the relationship between the sexes, for fear that we will be called out, and knowing that we will receive no support from the authorities. How much more will we now avoid Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 and other passages, or try to explain them away?
The Challenge To GAFCON
The fourth GAFCON met in April 2023 in Kigali. The love of world mission was very much on the agenda. But it is fully recognised that there is no mission worth following which is not true to the gospel as found in the Holy Scriptures. This is why, although those who gather want to engage in nothing more than getting on with sharing the gospel in a lost world, they know that they cannot do so with a mangled gospel. We must call sin what it is before we can summon the repentance and faith which is indispensable to salvation. It is precisely because Jesus is the love of God incarnate that he begins and continues his gospel proclamation with the summons to repentance. You do not love people by hiding the truth from them.
GAFCON has been much criticised for the strength of its stance. Many prefer the imagined ‘middle way’. It is as if the GAFCON leadership have been ambitious to take over the Anglican Communion (nothing could be further from the truth) or demanding that all who disagree with their own denomination must necessarily leave. The major GAFCON provinces have paid a heavy price for the stand they have taken, a stand which is vindicated by recent events. Once the 2022 Lambeth Conference was over, the English Bishops appear to have declared their hand. There were those who clearly see that the next step is the full recognition of same-sex marriage as ‘Holy Matrimony’. GAFCON has already taken action to sustain the truth in North America, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, Wales and Scotland. This is not a ministry which can be allowed to lapse.
But there are two other things which GAFCON must also do. The first is to sustain the unity of the movement. Fundamentally this must be a spiritual matter. As we all know, cultural differences can easily cause dissent and division in any movement. There is a great need, therefore for continuing wise leadership, understanding, forgiveness and mutual care.
Secondly, the movement must examine the whole of Lambeth 1.10, and see that it not only forbids homosexual sex, it also acknowledges that true believers may be same-sex attracted and yet without sin, and it calls upon us all to care for such people, to honour and encourage them. Lambeth 1.10 speaks of pastoral care, of listening to the experience of same-sex attracted persons, of condemning irrational fear of homosexuals and of assuring those who are faithful that they are the children of God.
The movement has not entirely ignored these challenges. But in my opinion, we have not done enough to discuss them and apply them. We cannot make a strong appeal to Lambeth 1.10, but only to part of it. If we have failed our brothers and sisters within our provinces who are subject to same-sex attraction but do not act it out because of their faith in Christ, it is a failure for which we need to repent and seek forgiveness.
Indeed, some of the greatest heroes of the faith, not least since the sexual revolution began, have been those men and women who have lived single and chaste lives. Many would love to be married, but the opportunity has not arisen. And yet they have sought marriage only within the Christian family and failing that they have lived obediently to Christ in their sexual lives, whether same-sex attracted or not. We have been blessed in recent years by the testimony of many of our brothers and sisters with this lived experience, and we need to hear them, learn from them and respond appropriately in line with the resolution to which we make frequent appeal.
I count my involvement in GAFCON as one of the great blessings of my life. No doubt my contribution has been flawed and under my influence we may have said and done things which are less than helpful. I can think of personal mistakes for which I am deeply sorry. But one of the great benefits of meeting as we do every five years is the opportunity to hear God as we study his word together and to accept his guidance and rebuke as we hear of his promises and his glory. To the latter we respond with faith; to the former with repentance. We must, as the Kenyan liturgy puts before us so poignantly, take all our failures, all our sins, all our weaknesses, to the foot of the cross in genuine repentance and hear once more those words which we do not deserve to hear, ‘Your sins are forgiven’. For the blood of Christ remains our only hope in life and in death. In the end, this is both the challenge of and the challenge to GAFCON and, indeed, the whole Anglican Communion.
Peter Jensen is former General Secretary of GAFCON and former Archbishop of Sydney.
* This article first appeared in The Global Anglican (formerly known as The Churchman). It is reproduced in this form by permission of the author and The Church Society.