Gafcon and women bishops: just a tiff or a real rift?

A meeting of Gafcon in Jerusalem in 2018.GAFCON/Facebook

What's going on with Gafcon? The global organisation of conservative-minded believers formed in reaction to sexual liberalism in parts of the Anglican Communion seems to be experiencing a bit of a turbulent year.

First, a few months ago, there was a row over whether "the deadly 'virus' of homosexuality" – as one African archbishop put it – had "infiltrated" the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) – Gafcon's branch in that part of the world.

Now there appears to be fresh difficulty brewing over the consecration of women as bishops in some parts of Gafcon, with it even being labelled a "salvation issue" by opponents.

The dispute over homosexuality was fairly quickly healed, with the Church of Nigeria and ACNA issuing a joint statement underlining four key areas of agreement. It turned out the row was to do with the distinction between same-sex attraction and same-sex acts. This is an understanding which is clearly delineated in Western church culture, but less so in African evangelical congregations.

But one wonders whether this latest brouhaha can be brought to such a swift conclusion. And here's why: in 2017 the primates of Gafcon recommended that all its constituent provinces should "retain the historic practice of the consecration only of men as bishops until and unless a strong consensus to change emerges after prayer, consultation and continued study of Scripture."

Then more recently, just this month, a communiqué from the Gafcon primates admitted they were experiencing "disagreement and ongoing discussion on the issues of the ordination of women as deacons or priests, and the consecration of women as Bishops". But that was okay, the statement added, because they all agreed "these are not salvation issues".

At which point, step forward Gafcon's Diocese of Fort Worth,, a body of 62 congregations in the US state of Texas. Last week, in response, its standing committee issued a resolution pointing out that since the 2017 statement, three women had been made bishops. This included one, Rose Okeno, as the first diocesan bishop in Gafcon – in Kenya, earlier this month. The Fort Worth statement stressed that it wanted to "strengthen and not whither (sic) our bonds of affection" but at the same time wished to "record our strong objections to the recent consecrations of women" as bishops.

Then, most explosively, Fort Worth went on to object "to the classification of the action as a 'secondary issue'." Citing the 1662 Anglican Prayer Book catechism, which describes both Baptism and Communion as "generally necessary to salvation", Fort Worth claimed the validity of such a sacrament was "contingent upon the minister being a valid priest or bishop". And it stated: "The validity of a sacrament that is generally necessary to salvation is, by definition, a salvation issue." It goes on to call for "faithfulness to the Holy Scriptures and the received tradition".

It's not clear what they mean by those bombshell words about this being "a salvation issue." It is usually understood to mean an issue that can affect a person's eternal salvation, and mean the difference, to put it bluntly, between heaven and hell. So does the Diocese of Fort Worth mean a woman bishop cannot be saved? Or that those who appoint women bishops are destined for eternal perdition? Or that anyone who receives Communion from a female bishop is unsaved? Most likely, I suspect, they are not quite clear themselves on what they mean, as they do not really explain it.

Either way, the reasoning of the Fort Worth committee is doubtful. It's not great theology to build a major argument on the basis of just one line of the Prayer Book, and especially one such as this one, where the meaning is nuanced and has to be carefully understood. (Space forbids a detailed discussion here).

But using the same slightly dubious methodology, one could take another line of the same Prayer Book and argue that it undermines the Fort Worth view. After all, Article 26 of the same Prayer Book's 39 Articles says that the "effect of the sacrament" is unaffected by the worthiness of the person ministering it. Even if a sacrament is "ministered by evil men," the article states, it is still "effectual". So it is hard to see how having a sacrament administered by a godly woman – even if one was to disagree with women's ordination per se – would in and of itself affect the validity of the sacrament.

And, in any case, as for Communion having to be administered by "a valid priest or bishop," well, many evangelicals have long argued that "faithfulness to the Holy Scriptures," to use Fort Worth's term, could and maybe should lead to "the removal of the prohibition which restricts the administration of the Lord's Supper to ordained priests" as it has "no basis in Scripture". John Woodhouse makes out one such cogent case here.

In one sense, this is all a bit of a storm in a teacup. Fort Worth is just one diocese in just one province of Gafcon. And part of the reason for their statement is that it is much more Anglo-Catholic than most of the rest of Gafcon, which is predominantly evangelical. So in one sense it is not unexpected.

But there are some bigger implications. Combining Anglo-Catholic and evangelical theologies – which historically have sat uneasily with one another (to put it mildly) – in one new grouping was always going to be a challenge; now, perhaps, some of its realities are hitting home. One wonders if, in their heart of hearts, some of Gafcon's primates now feel a certain amount of empathy, if not sympathy, for Justin Welby's endeavours to keep the Anglican Communion together!

And Gafcon needs to be careful. For it is easy – oh, so easy – for people of any churchmanship who split from one denomination to start making splitting into a habit. As Garrison Keillor wryly and correctly observed – whatever subsequent scandals may have attached to his name – in his semi-autobiographical novel Lake Wobegon Days, recalling his own Plymouth Brethren upbringing: "Once having tasted the pleasure of being Correct and defending True Doctrine, they kept right on and broke up at every opportunity, until... there were dozens of tiny Brethren groups, none of which were speaking to the others."

Whatever one's views on all these things, Gafcon needs to move swiftly to stop this tiff turning into a full-blown rift. That's because many of their brothers and sisters in Australia, Wales and maybe – sooner or later – in England are looking to it as a potential life-raft. So Gafcon needs to stay seaworthy for the sake of all who may board it in the future.

Still, at least Gafcon has a very long way to go before it reaches the advanced standards of sub-division embodied by the Strict Brethren in Lake Wobegon Days. But, just in passing, out of interest: does anyone in Gafcon have a view on some of the Brethren controversies listed in that novel? Like whether women's slacks are an "abomination" – or whether too many hot baths could be considered "sensual"? Actually, no, please don't say anything... Let's not go there...

David Baker is Contributing Editor to Christian Today and Senior Editor of Evangelicals Now in print and online. He writes here in a purely personal capacity.