GAFCON 2018: Anglicanism riven, reformed or simply reheated?

Hundreds of delegates from around the world are this week making their way to Jerusalem for the third meeting of the Global Anglican Future Conference, known to most people simply as 'GAFCON'.

The organisation was formed in 2008 in reaction to a perceived liberal drift in many of the official structures of Anglicanism, especially in north America but also in the UK. Its first gathering that year attracted 1,100 people; five years later, in 2013, 1,500 met in Nairobi. This year, 2,000 people will attend. At least 43 nations will be represented.

ReutersGAFCON's 2018 conference is being held in Jerusalem.

People's views on GAFCON will vary, of course. In the age of the internet, opinion tends to polarise on almost any subject between the belief that something is either terrible, or, on the other hand, absolutely brilliant. But real life in practice tends to be rather more nuanced and complex.

1. Is GAFCON 'Anglicanism riven'? There are many who believe GAFCON to be a divisive movement. However, those involved with GAFCON would, I think, reply simply that it is those who have changed church doctrine on moral issues who are the divisive ones. They would point out that for the last 2,000 years, all major denominations (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Pentecostal) have had a broad consensus on matters of the gospel, sex and marriage. And they would say that it is 'liberals' who have split away from this shared understanding.

They would also argue that church unity is 'organic' rather than 'organisational', and that unity in New Testament terms comes from being 'united in the truth' rather than 'united in a structure'. Moreover they would point to the fact that many traditionalist evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics felt so marginalised and excluded (sometimes via lawsuits) by the Anglican churches of north America that some form of alternative home for them was not only desirable but essential.

At this point I should lay my own cards on the table and declare that it was this treatment of many fine Christians and thriving churches in north America that motivated me to become one of many UK clergy who have indicated their support for GAFCON. If GAFCON hadn't existed, it seems to me it would have been necessary, for the sake of those in the USA and Canada, to invent something very similar.

2. Is GAFCON 'Anglicanism reformed'? This is the vision that GAFCON itself puts forward on its website. On its information page about the Jerusalem gathering it states: 'People have asked if we are meeting in Jerusalem to declare a break with Canterbury. The answer is emphatically "No." That would be declaring an unnecessary war... Rather than declaring war, we need to build the structures and relational networks that can move Gospel ministry forward to do evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and business as mission.'

The theme of the conference this year is 'proclaiming Christ faithfully to the nations'. And thus the Jerusalem event will see the launch of various networks covering matters including theological education, church planting, global mission women's ministry and sustainable development. That looks pretty impressive to me.

GAFCON claims – through the number of regular worshippers its bishops represent – to actually constitute the majority of active Anglican church members across the world, so it is arguable it could become a great renewing catalyst. Moreover, the primates of the 'Anglican Global South' group – who represent 25 of the 39 worldwide Anglican provinces – have declared that 'the old governance structures [of the Anglican Communion] are "unable to sustain the common life and unity of the Anglican Churches worldwide",' and that they 'rejoice and pray for the upcoming meeting of GAFCON...and give thanks for this renewal and reformation movement'. This does seem to indicate some momentum.

3. Is GAFCON 'Anglicanism reheated'? I suppose my worry for GAFCON is that it will just turn out to have rewound the clock of Anglicanism back to about 1970. Indeed, I understand some of its leaders have even talked in such terms. That doesn't sound so inspiring to me! Moreover, some of its members are unlikely co-belligerents in many ways, with Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals, who have historically disagreed vehemently, being united on the face of it, for now, by a shared dislike of liberal sexual ethics. Will they be able to go forward together? How will such differences be managed? GAFCON itself would no doubt point to its Jerusalem Declaration as its uniting (and quite wide) basis of faith.

At the end of the day, no individual congregation or church network is perfect. There are strengths and weaknesses in both the Church of England and GAFCON. Many clergy in England, will, like me, hope that the C of E can be revived and renewed, and have no immediate plans to opt out of its existing structures. But I think many of us will also be grateful that GAFCON is there as a potential lifeboat of faith and support – should things not work out as we hope. We shall see.

David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A