The Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON)
Jerusalem 22nd - 29th June 2008
Arriving into Ben Gurion airport, Israel, in the early hours of Sunday morning 22nd June, the first impression was of the heat – a full 20 degrees warmer than the Irish 'summer' we had left in Dublin some hours earlier! A party from N. Ireland and the Republic had made the trip to Jerusalem for what will probably be remembered as one of the most historic conferences for Anglicanism in modern times. In all, some 1300 people had travelled from across the globe to meet in the conference centre of the Renaissance hotel, Jerusalem. This number included some 300 bishops, representing around 33 million out of the estimated 55 million church-going Anglicans worldwide. Most notable that day, as we queued to register, was the sea of african faces, an indication that the centre of Anglicanism has shifted from the West to the nations of the developing world.
Indeed, one of the most important of those Anglican leaders, Archbishop Peter Akinola, from Nigeria, gave the opening conference address. In that address, he pointed out why GAFCON had been called and what was hoped to be achieved through it. He explained that GAFCON had been necessitated by the present crisis within the Anglican Communion caused by 'The Episcopal Church (TEC), and the Anglican Church of Canada, in their decision to promote homosexuality as a valid Christian lifestyle. Not only had these Anglican provinces ignored the pleas of the rest of the Anglican Communion to cease pursuing this unscriptural agenda, but there had been a manifest failure by the Anglican 'instruments of unity' (especially the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates' meeting) to discipline them for it. On the contrary, the Archbishop of Canterbury, without waiting for any sign of repentance from these two Anglican provinces, invited them to the Lambeth Conference! So, Akinola explained that GAFCON had been called together by concerned Anglican leaders from around the world to rescue the Anglican Communion from slipping further away from the teaching of the Bible in all matters of doctrine and practice.
This primacy of Scripture as the final authority in belief and practice was highlighted at GAFCON by the daily expositions of Scripture at each morning's gathering of all the conference members. Preachers from Africa, England and Canada expounded on the big theme of Scripture, God's gracious offer of salvation through Christ for people from every nation, race and language. The joy of this message was mirrored in the corporate worship, enthusiastically lead by an african music group and choir. Indeed, one morning we were led in praise by the Mothers' Union Choir of Nigeria, who sang and danced their way into the Conference hall - not something usually associated with the Mothers' Union in this part of the Anglican world! Another pleasant surprise to Church of Ireland members at GAFCON, was the sight of 4 guitar-toting bishops, including one Archbishop, so joyfully leading the praise of God! The surprise lay not in them playing guitars, but in the obvious heartfelt worship of Christ – again, not something usually associated with our experience of bishops at official church gatherings! Certainly, for many of us, the impact of strong, clear biblical teaching and such heart-felt corporate worship and praise was a real joy to the soul!
This fellowship in the main plenary sessions continued in the small groups that met in discussion and prayer immediately following these gatherings. We discussed the Bible readings; we discussed our various churches; we talked about how to reach the world with the Gospel; we encouraged one another by listening to and praying for each other. For my part, it was fascinating and humbling to listen to the experience of a bishop working in the southern Sudan, where persecution and killing of Christians is often a common occurrence. It was in these discussions particularly that I got a real sense of perspective not only on the work being done by faithful Anglicans throughout the world, but also on the sheer depravity of false teaching in America and Canada. It struck me just how much of Anglicanism is unashamedly evangelical and engaged in actively preaching and promoting the Gospel throughout the world. But when we think that it is this life-giving Gospel that the liberal-revisionist clergy of TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada are denying, the magnitude of their false teaching is breath-taking! Not only are they in plain denial of the teaching of the Bible, but also they are completely out of step with Anglicanism worldwide, which is faithful, vibrant, and growing. In comparison, the churches of these two provinces are declining, their heirarchy busy persecuting and removing faithful anglicans from office, and seeking to implement a gospel which is no gospel. This sense of perspective was underlined by the presence at GAFCON of faithful, Gospel-minded bishops and clergy who had suffered at the hands of 'tolerant' liberal-revisionists!
A deeper understanding of what was happening worldwide throughout Anglicanism was brought home to us in the workshops that were held following the small group Bible-studies and prayer times. These workshops covered topics such as Anglican identity, Gospel and culture, Gospel and leadership, Family and marriage, evangelism, church-planting, biblical authority, and theological education. The workshop on theological education was particularly refreshing. It stressed that the goal of theological education is to serve the Gospel by producing pastors who understand the Gospel and are capable of communicating it effectively at the local parish level. This is especially apt at this time of re-assessment of theological education in the Church of Ireland. The old Church of Ireland Training College manifestly failed to deliver, and we can only hope and pray that the new Church of Ireland Training Institute that has replaced it, can produce such a Gospel-minded approach to theological education as is happening in the rest of the Anglican world.
With such a full programme of plenary sessions, small-groups, and workshops, it was refreshing to take time out to visit some of the sites associated with the events of the Bible. It was no mean feat to organize buses, food, and water for what was one of the biggest group of tourists ever to have visited Jerusalem! On the second day of GAFCON, we visited the Mount of Olives, where the whole group was photographed against the stunning backdrop of the 'Golden Gate' and the walls of Jerusalem. Also, on the day before GAFCON finished, the whole group were bused to the region of Galilee, sailed across the Sea of Galilee and visited the ruins of the village of Capernaum. The value of these visits to biblical sites was to re-inforce the historicity of the Gospel that we proclaim, that it is based on actual events in history, recorded by eye-witnesses whose Spirit-inspired interpretation is recorded for future generations in God's Word written, the Bible.
At the close of GAFCON, the authority of God to govern his church through his Word, was underlined by the final statement of the conference, which included the 'Jerusalem Declaration'. This final statement indicated the desire of GAFCON to continue as a movement within Anglicanism, aiming to engage the world in mission with the biblical Gospel. It has set up a 'Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans', which is not a breakaway group from Anglicanism, but a re-alignment within world Anglicanism of those who wish to be faithful to the Gospel. The Jerusalem Declaration is the basis of this Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, and calls not only for Anglicans to be faithful to the Gospel, as expressed in its formularies (the 39 Articles, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal), but also for this Declaration to chart the way forward for Anglicanism. It expressly says that those churches and leaders who promote a false gospel and deny the biblical Gospel, have lost the right to any authority in the Anglican Communion. The Final Statement then went on to declare the setting up of a 'Primates' Council' to oversee the future direction of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans and to support faithful and orthodox clergy and bishops struggling in liberal-revisionist provinces and dioceses.
For me, it was a privilege to have been at this historic moment in Anglicanism. It was refreshing to see so much of world Anglicanism faithful to Christ and to His Word. Moreover, it is exciting that every faithful Christian, church, diocese and diocese has an opportunity to be part of this movement by joining this Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. I hope that many individuals and churches within the Church of Ireland will take up that opportunity and so signal their desire to stand shoulder to shoulder with other faithful biblical Anglicans in the work of bringing the Gospel to the world.