GAFCON, the Archbishop and Lambeth 2020

Last month almost two thousand Anglicans from all around the globe met together in Jerusalem at the third Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON). This was one of the largest Anglican gatherings ever held and at the end it produced a ‘Letter to the Churches’ which reported on the conference and the conclusions reached in the course of its sessions.

Among other things this letter declares:

‘…. we respectfully urge the Archbishop of Canterbury:

  • to invite as full members to Lambeth 2020 bishops of the Province of the Anglican Church in North America and the Province of the Anglican Church in Brazil and
  • not to invite bishops of those Provinces which have endorsed by word or deed sexual practices which are in contradiction to the teaching of Scripture and Resolution I.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, unless they have repented of their actions and reversed their decisions.

In the event that this does not occur, we urge GAFCON members to decline the invitation to attend Lambeth 2020 and all other meetings of the Instruments of Communion.’[1]

What are we to make of what is said in this section of the letter?

The first point to note is that the Archbishop is not being asked to do the impossible. Ever since Archbishop Charles Longley invited Anglican bishops to the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 it has been accepted that it is for the Archbishop of Canterbury to decide which bishops should be invited. He can invite who he likes and not invite who he likes and he is not obliged to have the agreement of any other person or body about the matter. The buck stops with the Archbishop.

This means that Archbishop Welby can fulfil the requests made in both the bullet points in the GAFCON letter. However, this still leaves the question of whether he should do so. To answer this question it is necessary to recall what has taken place in the Anglican Communion in the twenty years since the Lambeth Conference of 1998.

Two key things have happened.

First, in spite of being repeatedly urged not to do so, a number of provinces of the Anglican Communion (The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church in Canada, the Episcopal Church in Brazil, the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in Aorateara, New Zealand and Polynesia) have acted in ways that go against Scripture and Resolution 1.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference by accepting, in terms of both doctrine and practice, the blessing of same-sex sexual relationships, same-sex marriages and the ordination of those in same-sex sexual relationships.

Secondly, in response to these developments, Anglicans in the United States, Canada and Brazil who have remained loyal to Scripture and Lambeth 1.10 have established the two alternative orthodox provinces mentioned in the first bullet point– the Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Church in Brazil.

By acting in the way that they have, those Anglican provinces which have accepted same-sex sexual relationships have rejected the obligations that go with being a member of the Anglican Communion. These obligations were classically set out in the encyclical letter from the bishops who attended the 1920 Lambeth Conference. This letter declared:

‘For half a century the Lambeth Conference has more and more served to focus the experience and counsels of our Communion. But it does not claim to exercise any powers of control or command. It stands for the far more spiritual and more Christian principle of loyalty to the fellowship. The Churches represented in it are indeed independent, but independent with the Christian freedom which recognizes the restraints of truth and of love. They are not free to deny the truth. They are not free to ignore the fellowship.’[2]

Those provinces which have accepted same-sex sexual relationships have refused to accept the ‘restraints of truth and love.’ They have rejected the truth by ignoring the teaching of the Bible that God has created marriage to be between a man and a woman and sexual intercourse to be something that takes place solely within marriage (Genesis 2:18-24, Matthew 5: 27-30, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8, Hebrews 13:4). They have rejected loyalty to the fellowship of the Anglican Communion by ignoring what the Communion as a whole has said about the matter.

Because they have thus shown that they wish to go their own way rather than accept the obligations involved in belonging to the Anglican Communion it is right that their membership of the Communion should be suspended until such time as they amend their ways. The Bible teaches that those who persist in ungodly behaviour should be disciplined by the Church (Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13), both as a way of maintaining the holiness of the body of Christ and as a loving warning to the persons concerned that they need to repent of their wrongdoing and turn to God for forgiveness and a new start. Suspending the provinces concerned from the Communion would be a right exercise of such discipline and not inviting their bishops to the Lambeth Conference is the part of such suspension that the Archbishop of Canterbury has immediate power to enforce. This is therefore what he should do.

By contrast, those Anglicans who have formed the Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Church in Brazil have demonstrated that they do take seriously the obligations involved in being faithful members of the Anglican Communion. They have gone through a very difficult and painful period as they have separated from The Episcopal Church, The Anglican Church in Canada and The Episcopal church in Brazil, but they have been willing to do so because they have wanted to remain loyal to Scripture and to Lambeth 1.10. It is therefore right that they should be recognised as full members of the Anglican Communion and one way this can happen is by the Archbishops of Canterbury inviting their bishops to be full members of the 2020 Lambeth Conference. This is therefore what he should also do.

In the final part of this section of the letter GAFCON members are urged not to attend meetings of the ‘Instruments of Communion’ if the Archbishop chooses to ignore their requests with regard to the Lambeth Conference. This means that they should not attend the Lambeth Conference itself, or the meetings of the Anglican Primates, or the meetings of the Anglican Consultative Council.

There are three reasons for this suggestion.

First, over the past twenty years the bodies just mentioned have repeatedly failed to address the disorder in the Anglican Communion by taking proper disciplinary action against those churches who have rejected the teaching of Scripture and Lambeth 1.10. If there is no indication from the Archbishop that this is going to change, then continuing to attend meeting of these bodies would be an exercise in futility. It would be a waste of time and money that could be better used in other ways.

Secondly, at the moment Anglicans representing provinces that have rejected the teaching of Scripture and Lambeth 1.10 are still included as full members of the Instruments of Communion whereas those representing the Anglican Church in North America and the Anglican Church in Brazil are not. This is unjust, and by not attending meetings of the Instruments until it is rectified GAFCON members would be registering a clear protest against this injustice and standing in solidarity with their orthodox brother and sisters in North America and Brazil.

Thirdly, the continuing attendance of orthodox Anglicans at meetings of the Instruments has been used by the powers that be in the Communion over the past twenty years to suggest that divisions over marriage and sexuality are not that important. Anglicans, it has been said, can learn to live with divisions over these matters while continuing to ‘walk together’ and while the other business of the Communion continues as normal. However, marriage and sexual conduct are primary rather than secondary issues because they are integrally bound up with creation and redemption and effect peoples’ eternal destinies. They are therefore not ‘matters indifferent’ on which Anglicans can disagree while conducting business as usual.[3] Refusing to attend meetings of the Instruments of Communion until the authorities in the Anglican Communion take appropriate action about these matters would be a clear way of drawing attention to them and preventing them from being illegitimately side lined.

The major argument against non-attendance would be that orthodox Anglicans would forfeit their ability to contribute to the development of the Communion. However, this is not the case. There is nothing to stop them relating directly to the Archbishop of Canterbury and, as the emergence of GAFCON has shown, it is possible for them to develop alternative structures to help Anglicans to relate to one another and to work together to take forward the mission of the Church. This argument is therefore not persuasive.

For the reasons given above, what this section of GAFCON’s Letter to the Churches says makes perfectly good sense. The Archbishop of Canterbury should listen to what GAFCON has said and act accordingly.

M B Davie 9.7.18

[1] Letter to the Churches – GAFCON Assembly 2018, at

[2] Conference of Bishops of the Anglican Communion 1920 – Encyclical Letter with Reports and Resolutions,London: SPCK, 1920 p.14.

[3] See Dennis P Hollinger, The Meaning of Sex, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009 and David Peterson (ed),Holiness and Sexuality, Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2004.