The GAFCON movement has hit a bump in the road.  This week, it was made pulic that Archbishop Daniel Deng-Bul, the outgoing Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan (ECSS), consecrated a woman bishop in December of 2016. This is a material breach of the GAFCON Primates’ 2014 moratorium on consecrating women as bishops. The GAFCON Primates agreed to the moratorium due to differences on theology and ecclesiology over the issue.


According to a senior member of GAFCON, who asked not to be named as they were not authorized to speak on behalf of the primates, the Gafcon Primates learned of the 31 December 2016 consecration from Archbishop Deng-Bul at their April, 2017 meeting. Archbishop Deng-Bul said he consecrated Bishop Elizabeth Awut because many of the male priests in the Diocese of Rumbek, which had been on the front lines of the South Sudan civil war and border conflict with the Khartoum government in Sudan, were dead or in exile. She was the best available candidate in the circumstances, Archbishop Deng-Bul told the other GAFCON Primates.


However, in an interview with Good News Radio, a Sudanese Catholic station, Archbishop Deng-Bul stated he had long hoped to be able to appoint a woman as bishop and was pleased with the innovation. Considering this interview, one cannot help wondering whether Archbishop Deng-Bul was fully transparent with his fellow GAFCON Primates when he explained his reasons for breaking the moratorium. What other pertinent facts went missing? Was there an episcopal election in the Diocese of Rumbek? Were the internal Archbishops and other diocesan bishops of ECSS aware of the situation? Was their permission sought and given before the consecration? If not, what provision is there in the constitution and canons of the ECSS for an Archbishop to appoint and consecrate a bishop without such election, notice and permission to consecrate?


This situation raises, yet again, a question which is at the heart of the need for the new Anglican reformation. The question is this:  How can we recover Godly order within the Church when relationships between bishops and churches break down?


According to the Anglican “status quo,” “thick” and reciprocal relationships are what hold the churches of the Anglican Communion together rather than a shared confession of faith or any shared norms of conduct. So wrote the Inter-Anglican Theology and Doctrine Committee (IATDC) in their 2008 Report Communion, Conflict and Hope: (Communion, Conflict and Hope (London: Anglican Communion Office, 2008) at p. 50.)


“IATDC has identified theology, canon law, history and culture, communication and voluntary commitment rather than coercion, as essential aspects of communion.  Yet real communion can exist in many of the elements separately.  The Commission is persuaded that ‘thick’ ecclesiology, concrete experience of the reconciling and healing work of God in Christ, should take priority over ‘thin’, abstract and idealized descriptions of the church.”


That’s nice.  But what happens when fallen human nature takes over these “thick relationships?” What happens to the “collegial bonds of affection” among bishops and churches when just one bishop (e.g. 2003: The Episcopal Church’s (TEC) Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold consecrating the first gay bishop) or one Church (e.g. 2017: the Scottish Episcopal Church joining TEC in redefining marriage to include same-sex couples) decides to abandon the common Biblical faith of Anglicanism to act “prophetically?


When that happens, the ecclesiology of “thick relationships” unravels like a ball of yarn pushed in every direction without ballast. It’s impossible to stop it from unraveling completely. Even the IATDC conceded in its report that the substitution of a “thick” relational ecclesiology in place of a common confession of faith and common norms of behavior “immeasurably weakens Anglicanism as a coherent global communion of churches,” (Ibid. at pp.) and its mission.


If we want a Church that is ordered around the essentials of the Christian faith—the proclamation of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of all nations, salvation through his atoning blood on the cross, the apostolic witness to his bodily resurrection from the dead, the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the ultimate rule and standard of faith, holiness of life in Christ, to name but a few—then we need more than a coalition of people shaped by a tacit consensus that adjusts constantly to facts on the ground.


Jesus himself was not afraid to call the Church to a higher standard. In fact, he outlined some very specific norms for the Church to follow when relationships break down and people hurt each other:


“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault just between the two of you.  If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  If he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”  Matthew 18:15-17 NIV


Is it fair to draw an analogy between “sinning against your brother” and consecrating a woman bishop in South Sudan? Some Christians might disagree—although the just released Report of the GAFCON Task Force on women bishops affirmed both the Primates moratorium and the historic practice of consecrating men only “until and unless a strong consensus to change emerges after prayer, consultation and continued study of Scripture among the GAFCON fellowship.”[1] But what about the sin against brother bishops by breaking a mutual agreement not to consecrate?


Is it fair to draw an analogy between the GAFCON movement as a fellowship and a ball of yarn that can so easily unravel? At least GAFCON has a shared and common faith, the Jerusalem Declaration (2008) as the ballast beyond an ecclesiology of relationships—however thick we might wish those relationships to be.


But what other ballast does the GAFCON movement and its Primates need to add to the Jerusalem Declaration? What norms of behavior should it expect from its members to keep the movement and the global Anglican reformation from unraveling?  The Gafcon Primates have chosen not to allow this “anomaly” of the consecration in South Sudan to change the course they have followed since 2014, to publish the Report of the Task Force, to continue to study the matter of women in the episcopate and to invite the new Primate of South Sudan to join them in that study.


Is that enough ballast to keep the ball from unraveling any further?


The Rev. Canon Phil Ashey is President & CEO of the American Anglican Council.  

[1]Noting further: “… the 1988 Lambeth Conference legitimised a flawed process of “open reception” in which the demand for recognition of pre-emptive actions outweighed the authority of Scripture. As one of our number observed, ‘Yesterday’s solutions are today’s problems.’ We now have an opportunity to revisit this too hasty ‘reception’ process. We recommend that the GAFCON Churches should focus on strengthening ministries by women before pressing forward to consecrate women as bishops.” <>  Accessed 9 February 2018.

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