For some time now, the American Anglican Council has been actively supporting the Primates Council of the GAFCON movement – the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. We support these leaders with briefing papers, strategic planning and counsel as requested and needed. This week, the Primates Council will be meeting in London to worship, pray and reflect on the next steps for the development of this Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans – especially those steps that were outlined in the Nairobi Communique and Commitment from GAFCON 2013 in October. I am heading there to support them in this great work of “Anglican realignment,” and I bid your prayers for the Primates as they consider the road ahead.
One of the most significant developments from the gathering in Nairobi was the recognition that GAFCON is now an “Instrument of Unity” within the Anglican Communion for those who believe that the future of Anglican mission, faith and order lies in a faith that is truly confessional – specifically, the confession that we find in The Jerusalem Declaration from the first GAFCON in Jerusalem 2008.
Declaring GAFCON an “Instrument of Unity” is a critique of the failure of the existing Instruments of Unity” to hold the Communion together in the face of unilateral revisions of faith and practice by Anglican churches in the west (by this I mean the failure in the last ten years of the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference of Bishops, and Primates gatherings and the Anglican Consultative Council). This is not news. Even Archbishop Justin Welby acknowledged from the pulpit at All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi, the day before GAFCON 2013 began, that the Instruments of unity had failed.
But the declaration that GAFCON is now an Instrument of Unity also stands for a very positive affirmation and recovery of something lost to Anglicanism. It is the assertion that Anglicans need not wallow in the “deficit of authority” that has paralayzed the current Anglican leadership in the face of un-Biblical teaching and moral practices. It is the assertion– and the beginning of the manifestation– of a recovery of genuine conciliar governance that we find as far back as Acts 15 and the earliest ecumenical councils of the undivided church.
What do I mean by “conciliar governance”? Quite simply, it is the way of governing the church that we find in Acts 15, where leaders from every quarter and every order of the church met to worship, pray, address serious theological and missiological issues (must gentiles be circumcised in order to become followers of Jesus Christ), and reach a consensus on the basis of Scripture, apostolic witness and the Holy Spirit. The Roman Catholic conciliarist Jean Gerson (1363-1429) gives the classic definition of conciliarism as both an ideal and a practice:
“A general council is an assembly called under lawful authority, at any place, drawn from every hierarchical rank of the whole catholic Church, none of the faithful who requires to be heard being excluded, for the wholesome discussion and ordering of those things which affect the proper regulation of the same Church in faith and morals.”
In practice, Anglican ecclesiology embraces realism: there can be no true “Ecumenical Council” of the whole church since the Great Schism of 1054 AD between east and west. But according to Paul Avis, Anglicans are not paralyzed by the impossibility of a truly ecumenical council:
“[Anglicanism] believes that provinces gathered into communions should act in a conciliar fashion within the limits imposed by the divisions in the Church. It [Anglicanism] sets out to extend conciliarity as far and wide as it can until it runs up against the barriers erected by broken communion, rival claims to jurisdiction or serious differences in doctrine or order.”
While Avis speaks with authority for many in the Anglican status quo, he gives too much away. Anglicans are rightly allergic to monarchical and hierarchical forms of governance that have great potential for abuse. We had a Reformation over this after all. But I believe Avis also concedes so many limits to conciliar governance in his definition as to make it practically impossible within the deep theological differences among churches in the Anglican Communion. This is precisely why the leadership within the Anglican status quo, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, find themselves defaulting continually to “process,” “dialogue,” and “facilitated conversations (aka Continuing Indaba)” as the end point and fulfillment of the conciliar ideal. Process is a mere shadow of the ideal and practice of genuine conciliarism. It is a far cry from Jean Gerson’s definition– and an even farther cry from the New Testament, apostolic practice and the Ecumenical Councils of the church.
But here is where GAFCON steps in, within the Anglican Communion. For you see abuse of authority is not a one way street. Authority is equally abused “when it is dissipated to such a degree that Christian self-rule breaks down.” The confidence in process as the locus for authority underestimates the power of human pride and sinful resistance to the spiritual unity of the Church. This is precisely what GAFCON gatherings, the Primates Council and the GAFCON movement have continued to address: the restoration of faith, order and Christian self-rule within the Anglican Communion of Churches, and with it the necessary repentance from human pride and sinful resistance to unity that has come from the abandonment of Biblical gospel, grace and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
From 21st to 26th October 2013, 1358 delegates (331 bishops, 482 other clergy and 545 laity) from 38 countries representing millions of Anglicans worldwide met in Nairobi, Kenya for the second Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON). As delegates they gathered to represent “the whole church” (Anglican Communion). They gathered to serve the common good, the spiritual unity of the Communion, which they defined as faithfulness to the truth and power of the Bible over and against a “false gospel.” They did so in the context of extensive daily worship, bible study and prayer. They stimulated theological inquiry through the bible studies, plenary speakers and meetings which helped form a commitment to theological education. They declared themselves to be a reforming council of the church, a new “Instrument of Unity” in the face of the failure of the existing Anglican Instruments of Unity. They pledged to set in order Anglican provinces and dioceses which upset the spiritual unity (common good) of the Communion through doctrinal innovations, and pledged to do so through the enhanced responsibility of the GAFCON Primates Council. The delegates came to one mind in approving the Nairobi Communiqué, in the conciliar tradition of doing so rather than seeking decisions by majoritarian rule.
What happened at this GAFCON is a picture of what genuine conciliar governance can and ought to be within the Anglican Communion. Yes, it requires greater development and theological reflection. Please pray for the GAFCON Primates Council as they take this up and continue to work for the restoration of Gospel faith and order within the Anglican Communion.
The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey is CEO of the American Anglican Council.
1. Paul Avis, Beyond the Reformation? Authority, Primacy and Unity in the Conciliar Tradition (London: T&T Clark, 2006), p. 85
2. Ibid., p. 8.
3. Paul Valliere, Conciliarism: A History of Decision Making in the Church (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 17.