Crisis in the Anglican Communion: recent history and potential outcomes.

Jan 7, 2016 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

[This article gives background to the current situation, explaining why GAFCON exists, some of the roots of the current divisions in the Anglican Communion,  what might happen going forward, and some implications for the Church of England.]

The rise of revisionism

In the 1980’s and 1990’s ECUSA[1] and the Anglican Church in Canada (ACoC) were increasingly influenced by a radical revisionist theology which rejected a confessional understanding of the bible and historic, orthodox expression of faith. Bishops such as John Spong[2]. Michael Ingham, Barbara Harris and Frank Griswold openly rejected the message of salvation through forgiveness of sins and union with Christ, and replaced it with a new Gospel of traditional church trappings combined with new age spirituality, and secular humanist views of social improvement as mission. As they called for new creeds, celebrated multi faith worship, appointed openly gay clergy, blessed same sex relationships, radicalized theological courses and ordination training, they saw themselves as ‘prophetic’, in the vanguard of the secular culture (as opposed to the C of E which has tended to follow the culture).


Warnings from the Global South

Many in the Church of England believed that what was happening in North American Anglicanism was irrelevant to the UK. However there was concern for some time in the leadership of the non-Western provinces[3] at the North American church’s apparent capitulation to new liberal social trends, and how this would inevitably manifest itself in other Western contexts including the C of E. A series of consultations were held, including the watershed 1997 Kuala Lumpur conference, resulting in the statement[4] from Global South church leaders. Careful preparation began for Lambeth 98, to provide resources and organization for Global South Bishops. The eyes of the world’s media and the concern of Anglicans around the world were focused on the headline debate about human sexuality. Under the leadership of Archbishop George Carey, Bishops from the Global South, previously treated as the ‘poor cousins’ in a set-up definitely geared towards the sophisticated Western Bishops with their money and knowledge of processes, supported by some orthodox Bishops from England, Australia etc gained a majority in the debate, and affirmed what became the vitally important Lambeth 1.10 motion[5].


Response to Lambeth 1:10 – persecution of the orthodox, and new global alignments

Revisionist Bishops and liberal campaign groups which had hoped for a change in doctrine and full acceptance of same sex relationships, were furious. Bishop Barbara Harris famously declared that the Africans had been ‘bought with chicken dinners’, and John Spong made a racist comment about Africans being poorly educated and unsophisticated[6]. The North American advocates for change had no intention of abiding by the motion and made much of the fact that as an independent entity they were free to follow whatever path they saw fit in terms of relating to their own culture. Campaigns to make ECUSA more ‘inclusive’ intensified. Churches in the US and Canada which protested against the increasing revisionist policies of Diocesan Bishops started to feel the heat of lawsuits. 5 years after the passing of Lambeth 1:10, General Convention approved the consecration to the Episcopal See of New Hampshire of Gene Robinson, divorced and now openly in a sexual relationship with another man.

For some time before this gamechanging moment, orthodox Anglicans in the US and Canada had at various times begun to form groups looking for alternative oversight, and help came from Africa and South America. At different times, beginning in the late 1990’s, Archbishops from Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda and Argentina came across and took on leadership of new movements in North America. This was the first time really that genuine partnerships were formed between West and South: previously “mission” had all been one way, but now groups of North American Anglicans sacrificially broke away from what they saw as corrupt and heretical Dioceses at home to become part of church families centred in areas previously considered “mission fields” – with Africans and Asians taking spiritual leadership and white Americans serving as deputies. All was not completely rosy however – some of these groups differed sharply with each other over churchmanship, women’s ordination, charismatic gifts etc, and also with those orthodox who chose to stay in the Episcopal Church.

In England, in the same year 2003, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries put forward Jeffrey John[7] as their preferred candidate for the Suffragan See of Reading. Conservative evangelical, charismatic and orthodox Anglo Catholic Oxford churches stood firm against this, and John’s candidacy was withdrawn. Orthodox believers in the C of E now realized that the crisis wasn’t just something happening in America – it was global. The Robinson consecration showed that the North American liberals had no intention of abiding by the settled mind of worldwide Anglicanism based on an agreed interpretation of Scripture, and subsequent events showed their arrogant disregard for the rest of the Communion. Several Primates meetings tried to resolve the crisis, with meetings at Windsor, Dromantine and Dar Es Salaam, resulting in Communiqués urging no more actions to upset other churches until resolutions could be found[8].   But ECUSA’s aggressive liberal agenda continued with the appointment of Katherine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop, upping the ante in terms of lawsuits against conservative churches, continued appointment of leaders in gay relationships, and increasingly weird pronouncements showing a belief system veering off into neo-paganism[9].


The road to GAFCON 1

  1. Rowan Williams invited ECUSA (now TEC) to Lambeth 2008, even though they were on their course described above, and had ignored moratoria on further Communion-breaking actions which TEC and Williams themselves had signed up to. The Conference was planned while the issue of the broken relationships in the Communion was not resolved.
  2. Global South Primates felt that after all the time and expense of going to various summits, and getting agreements from TEC which had proved worthless, the invitation of TEC to Lambeth implied that it was ‘business as usual’, and that Canterbury did not take their concerns seriously. They knew they would not be able to share fellowship with those who had turned their back on clear Christian teaching, and abused trust.
  3. The build-up to Lambeth 2008 saw the emergence of a new idea called INDABA, a Zulu word for community discussion, which privileged institutional unity and ‘conversation’ over shared faith and doctrinal unity. Chris Sugden says that for Global South leaders, “it was a conflict about the nature of truth. Was truth to be found in endless discussion, at an open table, in an indaba process where no revelation was given or to be apprehended, or in unbounded diversity? The so-called open table is already biased in favour of a non-biblical agenda as it assumes that all opinions are of equal worth, even those that reject the bible’s teaching. The indaba process [in its original African context] is designed for communities where the moral boundaries and the system of governance is settled and not up for discussion: it is not designed to investigate or invent or design those boundaries.”[10]
  4. Many non-Western leaders felt that something different was needed. An alternative meeting to Lambeth: a coalition of those who would stand publicly with Anglican faith and practice as set out in the Anglican formularies. Over 1200 people from 27 provinces of the Communion responded to their invitation to meet. They represented at least over 40 million of the 55 million churchgoing Anglicans around the world. This meeting called for Anglicans to return to their roots to discover who we are, focusing on a shared liturgy; the authority and supremacy of Scripture in the church; the unique Lordship of Jesus Christ; an order in the church; and missional engagement with the local community and the nation.
  5. GAFCON 1 was held in Jerusalem in 2008. According to one participant: “We met in the place, on the steps of the temple, where Peter had preached the risen Jesus and opened that life to the whole world. For me, as a member of the Church of England, it was very powerful indeed to realize that my spiritual roots belonged here…not in the sixteenth century, nor in the sixth century, but in the Holy Land all the way back to Abraham. People are Anglicans because of their biblical faith, not because they are approved by one or another structure.”
  6. The first GAFCON resulted in the “Statement on the Global Anglican Future[11]”, which contained these important assertions: a) GAFCON intends to be a movement not just a conference b) the Anglican Communion as a vehicle for worship and mission has been seriously compromised by a false ‘gospel’ c) churches which hold to the true orthodox teaching of the church are increasingly out of communion with those promoting the new teaching, and the Communion is broken d) the “Instruments of Communion[12]” have failed to address this e) what is needed is a Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans renewing commitment of Anglicans to biblical teaching and mission. f) The Jerusalem Declaration summarises what orthodox Anglicans believe, and g) true Anglicanism is defined by shared faith and doctrine, not necessarily loyalty to an institution or relationship with a historic office.
  7. GAFCON set up a Primates Council formed of those committed to the vision set out at Jerusalem. One of their first actions was to call for the formation of an orthodox Anglican structure in North America – which became ACNA[13].

There were some theologically orthodox groups around the world who felt that GAFCON was the wrong solution. The open evangelical group Fulcrum were at the forefront of a proposal to keep the Communion together through adherence to a Covenant[14], believing that GAFCON was polarizing Anglicans through ungracious language and lack of willingness to compromise, rather than bringing unity. Much energy went into this but in the end it was rejected by revisionists as being too doctrinally prescriptive, and by GAFCON adherents as glossing over the seriousness of the rifts in the Communion, and placing too much confidence in the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference and other ‘instruments’ to ensure adherence to biblical doctrine.


Important recent developments

  • The emergence of ACNA, demonstrating diverse but united, orthodox and missional Anglicanism as a viable alternative to TEC. While still not officially recognized by or in communion with Canterbury, ACNA’s Archbishop, Foley Beach, is now on the GAFCON Primates Council. His consecration was attended by GAFCON and Global South Primates who affirmed him and ACNA as authentically Anglican[15]. This demonstrates how orthodox Anglicanism can exist in the same geographical area as revisionist Anglicanism, with separate structures and belief systems.
  • The initiating of the Anglican Mission in England. AMiE is administered by a Committee, overseen in England by a panel of Bishops validated by the GAFCON Primates Council. Currently it serves to provide Anglican oversight to congregations which have been and continue to be established but for various reasons are not recognized by their local Diocesan Bishop. AMiE is part of the ReNew movement and does not currently reflect the diversity on secondary issues found in ACNA or GAFCON.
  • GAFCON 2013 in Nairobi, which continued the impetus of the movement started in 2008, and succeeded in producing another influential statement agreed by the participants with their wide diversity of backgrounds[16]. In particular it affirmed endorsement of AMiE and the principle that alternative Episcopal oversight should be provided for orthodox congregations when existing oversight can no longer be regarded as orthodox.
  • Justin Welby’s ministry as Archbishop of Canterbury. He brings a charismatic evangelical understanding and experience of personal faith to the role, in a different way to his predecessor. He has met the Gafcon Primates as a group in October 2013 in Nairobi, and October 2015 in Cairo. He has also spent time with each Primate in his home Province, and has welcomed some of them individually at Lambeth Palace. While these aspects are genuinely welcomed by the GAFCON Primates, there remains suspicion among global orthodox Anglicans about Archbishop Welby’s perceived reluctance to address the revisionist trajectory in the Church of England, a continued commitment to a form of “Indaba” seen in the Shared Conversations, and continued close fellowship with TEC and ACoC.[17]
  • Archbishop Justin is committed to a vision of reconciliation, and to finding a solution to the continued divides in the Anglican Communion. He would like to call a Lambeth Conference in the future without it being boycotted by half the Anglican world. With this in mind he has invited all Primates to a meeting in Canterbury in mid January 2016[18]. TEC and ACoC are invited, and so is Archbishop Foley Beach, though up to the start of the meeting the nature of his status and participation is unclear. GAFCON Primates have responded that they will attend[19].


Conclusion: The Canterbury meeting and implications for orthodox in the C of E

GAFCON presents itself not as an alternative, breakaway Anglican Communion, but as the majority of the Anglican Communion, committed to renewing worldwide Anglicanism based on united confession of Christ and adherence to the Bible and the historic formularies, and necessarily rejecting revisionist doctrine and practice. They are calling on Archbishop Justin to exercise leadership, and re-commit the Anglican Communion to a clear orthodox theology and practice as a basis for united mission in the world: “robust commitments to biblical teaching and morality”[20],

Of course if this is the result of the meeting in Canterbury, there will be general rejoicing among orthodox Anglicans of all persuasions. But there is a strong possibility that it will not happen: Justin Welby has said many times that his goal is to keep the divided Anglican groups together, and not excluding those who cannot sign up to certain theology or practice. Even if he wanted to reassert conservative theology at the heart of the Communion and discipline those who have departed from it, he may feel he does not have enough support from the leadership of the C of E or the national media; he is unlikely to want to alienate TEC. The result of the Canterbury meeting therefore may well be a further breach between GAFCON and the Global South on one hand, and the official structures of the Communion (including the Church of England) on the other.

The important question for orthodox leaders in the C of E, then, is this: what would such a division, or further ‘tearing of the fabric’ mean in practical terms? Should we follow the majority of global orthodox Anglicans, and make plans for an alternative Anglicanism that is not Church of England? For some accustomed to operating in a theologically diverse church, it is this latter call to reject and separate from other Anglican leaders and structures which is unnecessary and divisive. For others, there has to be a limit to diversity, the toleration of heresy and immorality and even its promotion in our own church, and the resulting confusion about the nature of mission and what is the Christian life. Some kind of separation needs to occur, and it would be better if it were done with “good disagreement” rather than bad.

Put another way: if the majority of the world’s confessing Anglicans decide to loosen ties of fellowship with the Church of England because the C of E, like TEC and ACoC, continues its trajectory of following the norms and values of secular Western culture, can an orthodox Christian in good conscience continue as a part of the C of E? Could a church which retains orthodox formularies, but allows them to be interpreted in any way one chooses, still be regarded as authentically Anglican? On the other hand, perhaps as English Anglicans we could never envisage putting our understanding of faith and salvation before local community, history and geography; the priority of close fellowship with Africans and Asians above one’s own Bishop and other parishes in the Diocese?

Of course there will not just be a stark choice between “stay in the C of E forever”, and “leave and join GAFCON now”. There will be a spectrum of views in between (for example, join GAFCON now and leave the C of E later), and these views will change depending on what happens in Canterbury now and in the C of E over the next few months. Much discussion and prayer is needed.


[1] The Episcopal Church USA, later called The Episcopal Church (TEC).


[3] A separate paper would be needed to trace the history of the emergence of solid godly evangelical leadership in Latin America, Asia and Africa, due in part to the ministry of John Stott, Langham Partnership and EFAC.




[7] John was living in a same sex relationship, which he has always maintained is celibate. He has also been a vocal campaigner for change in the C of E’s teaching on sex and marriage.

[8] The Windsor Report, endorsed by all the Primates, called for moratoria on same-sex blessings and appointment to the episcopate of people in same sex relationships; at Dromantine the Primates advised the withdrawal of ECUSA and ACoC from the Anglican Consultative Council.

[9] For an example, see

[10] Chris Sugden was at the time Executive Secretary of Anglican Mainstream, and one of the organizers of the first GAFCON. This quotation is taken from the text of a talk given at Wycliffe Hall in 2011.

[11] See also the full commentary on the Statement and its background here

[12] The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primates Council, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council.

[13] ACNA was originally supported by Global South Primates in 2006 when they declared at Kigali in September: “the time has now come to take initial steps towards the formation of…a separate ecclesial structure of the Anglican Communion in the USA…”


[15] ACNA was formally made a partner Province of the Anglican Global South with full voting rights at the November 2015 GS Primates meeting in Cairo.


[17] See for example here:


[19] Gafcon’s initial response to the invitation to the January meeting:

Statement of Gafcon and Global South including their agreement to come to the meeting



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