Many Anglicans around the world say CofE proposals to bless gay relationships are at odds with the views of the global majority. As the rift in the Anglican Communion deepens, Gerald Bray explains what it’s all about
The Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) recently met for the fourth time in Kigali, Rwanda. Out of the meeting came an agreement that this global group of Anglicans had no confidence in the leadership and central institutions of the Anglican Communion (AC) because they had departed from orthodox biblical faith by failing to discipline those Anglican provinces that bless (or even celebrate) same-sex marriages.
What is GAFCON?
GAFCON is a global movement of Anglicans who claim to be standing together to retain and restore the Bible to the heart of the Anglican Communion. It describes its mission as: ”guarding the unchanging, transforming gospel of Jesus Christ and proclaiming him to the world”. With nine Archbishops who support its aims, GAFCON claims to represent the views of the majority of the world’s Anglicans.
GAFCON began as a protest movement in 2008 and has consistently pushed for a return to traditional orthodoxy within the AC. It is not a federation of Churches, but a spiritual movement that has three different types of members. First, there are whole provinces like Nigeria, Uganda and Rwanda, who support it unequivocally.
Next there are dioceses within provinces (like the diocese of Sydney, Australia) and bodies like the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) which adhere to it, although the Churches to which they belong do not.
The Church of England seems set to follow the path of the revisionist churches and ignore the wishes of the worldwide majority
Finally, there are churches that are not part of the AC but call themselves Anglican, adopting an episcopal structure and subscribing to the historic formularies of the Church of England (especially the 39 Articles of Religion and the Book of Common Prayer). Among these, the most prominent is the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), which was founded by former members of the Episcopal Church in the US and the Anglican Church of Canada. ACNA played a leading role at GAFCON-IV.
It should also be noted that there is a parallel grouping called the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches (GSFA), which consists mainly of whole Anglican provinces – with special provision for some dioceses like Sydney – but does not include any grouping outside the AC. It is estimated that slightly over half of all AC provinces now belong to the GSFA.
At GAFCON-IV these two groups met, recognised that they have the same aims, and agreed to co-operate, but they have not merged into one single body. Because GAFCON is a movement, not a group of clearly defined Churches, it is misleading to say that it has split from the AC, to which it does not belong. But if the GSFA takes GAFCON’s positions on board, as it seems likely to do, then there be a division within the AC, with consequences that are difficult to predict.
Ignoring the worldwide majority
There is no doubt that the revisionist Churches of the AC are a minority, and that they are in decline. The American Episcopal Church (TEC), for example, has lost approximately 40 per cent of its members in the past 20 years. Much the same can be said for the other Churches that have followed the revisionist agenda – the Anglican Church of Canada, New Zealand, the Church of Scotland, the Church of Wales and the Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil.
It is also true that these declining churches have continued to play an outsized role in the AC, despite repeated protests from both GAFCON and GSFA, whose Churches are often expanding at breathtaking speed. Statistics are unreliable, but their claim to represent about 85 per cent of the world’s practising Anglicans is probably not far off the mark. Fairness would suggest that their views ought to prevail in the AC as a whole, but that has not been the case. Sooner or later, something is bound to give, and it may be that GAFCON-IV will be the watershed moment that will finally give the GFSA the recognition it believes it deserves.
Matters have now come to a head because of the fear that the Church of England, which in many respects is the lynchpin of the Anglican Communion, seems set to follow the path of the revisionist Churches and ignore the wishes of the worldwide majority. In particular, the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as one of the AC’s instruments of unity has been called into question, because Most Rev Justin Welby has not supported the views of the majority, or distanced himself from those Churches which have dissented from them.
The situation is further complicated because there is a large group within the Church of England, prominent in the CEEC but not confined to it, that rejects the English house of bishops’ proposal to permit the blessing of people who have contracted same-sex marriages, even though the Church does not accept that such marriages are valid.
There is no doubt that revisionist churches are a minority, and that they are in decline
Several people, including many who support same-sex marriage, have pointed out that this position is untenable, and the bishops may yet withdraw their proposal. If they do not, division within both the AC and the Church of England will grow deeper and become permanent.
GAFCON-IV has thrown down the gauntlet. If the Church of England wants to preserve the AC and its own internal unity, then the bishops must withdraw their proposal, and the Archbishop of Canterbury must accept that the dissenting minority of revisionist Churches cannot be full members of the AC. This will be difficult, to be sure, but there is no alternative.