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“The glory of God is to love the unworthy,” Ashley Null was nearing the conclusion of his plenary address during the fourth Global Anglican Futures Conference. “The glory of God is to relieve the burdens that we bear even when we don’t understand why we bear them. The nature of God is to love his creation, even though we have made such a mess of it.”1 “That is a great comfort,” I whispered to the person sitting next to me. Making a mess of things is something Anglicans in every age seem particularly adept at doing.
Ours is an ancient tradition. Its roots go much farther back than the Reformation. The See of Canterbury was founded by St. Augustine — not the famous one from North Africa, but the one commissioned by Pope Gregory to evangelize the English. He was the first in an unbroken line of Archbishops of Canterbury since 597.2
Many call the English Reformation the Via Media, not the mid-way between Rome and Protestantism, but the middle path between Luther and Calvin, with the curiosity of the Elizabethan settlement preserving the candles, incense, kneelers, and lace that give Anglicanism its antiquated — some might say fusty — aesthetic. Anglicans are the most peculiar of all Christians, I think. They manage to agree on very little. Yet their prayers form a well-worn way down which so many tread on their way to Jesus.
Not being able to agree on very many things but worshiping together anyway is, nevertheless, one source of our current malady. The way between conformity to doctrine and practice on one side and letting everyone have their own conscience on the other meant that progressivism found its way into the Anglican world a lot more quickly than in other denominations.
To understand the lay of the land, it will be helpful to chronicle some of the history of what is called “global” Anglicanism. Because it’s not true that Anglicans don’t agree on anything. By the power and grace of God, in Kigali, Rwanda, in April 2023, representatives of over 85 percent of the world’s Anglicans came together and agreed that the question of homosexuality that has so divided the Church for twenty-five years is an essential issue and that those churches — including the very heart of the Church, the See of Canterbury itself — that deny the Scripture’s teaching on human sexuality have ceased to hold their place and position in the Communion.
THE ANGLICAN COMMUNION
The sun never set, so the saying goes, on the British Empire because it reached into every corner of the globe. While twilight was fading on English churches in India and Africa, fresh rays crept over Christ Church, Alexandria, where George Washington had his family pew.3 Everywhere the English went they built churches, both as centers for mission and evangelism and because many colonial settlers liked to hear a homily on a Sunday if they felt like it. Gradually those churches, as England granted her colonies independence, gained local control. What is now called the Global South is represented by primates for churches in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Rwanda, and even as far north as Ghana. That’s in Africa alone. India, Southeast Asia, Tasmania, Singapore, Argentina — a few minutes viewing the Anglican Communion website maintained by Canterbury shows a vast, linguistic, and culturally diverse network of churches around the world, whose bishops gather in council, whose worship is shaped by the 1662 Prayer Book, and whose doctrine, to one degree or another, conforms to the 39 Articles of Religion.4
All these churches or “provinces” share communion with Canterbury, including the American version. Why wasn’t the American church called The Anglican Church of America? Because, at the time of the American Revolution, those Americans who still wanted to be “Anglican” became uncomfortable, as you can imagine, with the “Anglo” part. When the revolutionary dust began to settle, American clerics appealed to The Episcopal Church of Scotland for bishops to make the journey to consecrate American bishops. Thus, the version of Anglicanism in the US was called, for many decades, The Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America (PECUSA) and then, sometime in the 1990s, The Episcopal Church (TEC).
THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH
But PECUSA and then TEC were almost immediately infected by the Enlightenment and then progressivism. Through the twentieth century, heterodox views about the authority of the Bible and core tenets of orthodox faith, such as the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, began to fall out of fashion. Some women were secretly and irregularly ordained in 19745 and The Book of Common Prayer was revised in 1979. In the 1980s some bishops began ordaining practicing gay men as priests.6 These innovations began to trouble the rest of the world.
Since 1867 the Archbishop of Canterbury had been calling and convening a meeting of all (or as many who desired to attend) bishops of the worldwide Communion to Lambeth at least once a decade. The Lambeth Conference became one of four “Instruments of Communion.” The Archbishop of Canterbury himself is one of the Instruments. The Primates’ Meeting is another. And the final is called The Anglican Consultative Council, a group of clergy and lay people from around the world of the Communion as a whole.7
In 1998 at the Lambeth Conference, the growing division between TEC and the rest of the Communion became embarrassingly clear. My own Bishop returned from England and led the Adult Forum at the small Episcopal college chaplaincy I attended. A missionary kid from West Africa, I wasn’t up on inter-provincial politics. Still, Episcopalians at the time prided themselves on their pluralism and tolerance. I was therefore shocked by the belittling and patronizing tone with which my American bishop described bishops from Africa and Asia. Their “backward” and “unenlightened” views, he intimated, begat the adoption by the whole Conference of Resolution 1.10, which could not “advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions.” Further, Lambeth 1.10 upheld “faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union,” and exhorted that “abstinence” would be “right for those who are not called to marriage.”8
American Bishops came home from Lambeth hurt and angry. The Global South naively believed that the problem had been solved. And so, a mere five years later, in June 2003, the fabric of the Communion was torn asunder when the Diocese of New Hampshire elected Gene Robinson, a man in an open same-sex relationship, to be their diocesan bishop.9 TEC’s General Convention ratified that election,10 and later in the year Robinson was consecrated by his fellow bishops.
“Why did you vote for the consecration of Gene Robinson?” my husband Matt asked our own bishop in a tense and painful conversation over a Bible opened to Romans 1. “The Jesus I know in my heart,” he responded, “wouldn’t say that kind of thing.”
THE GLOBAL ANGLICAN FUTURES CONFERENCE
We weren’t going to be able to travel together, but somehow, by a last-minute miracle, I was shoving sun hats into a suitcase and writing out directions for our friends who agreed to watch our three children while Matt and I and the baby flew to Jerusalem for the first-ever Global Anglican Futures Conference or GAFCON (2008). It was June again. For another five interminable years, the Communion had disputed what to do about the ordination of Robinson. The consecration had come and gone. TEC’s General Convention recommitted to its path rather than obeying the Communion call to repent. The Archbishop of Canterbury, then Rowan Williams, had promised the Primates that he would certainly deal with the American church, and yet, there they were, at every communion meeting. TEC’s Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori was adopting a scorched-earth policy toward congregations departing TEC.
Where were all these parishes going? Anglicans can’t just move next door and set up as independent churches. This is why the consecration of Robinson was so tragic. No Anglican congregation or diocese is spiritually or ecclesiastically autonomous. Bishops are ordained for the whole church, not just their own dioceses. The whole Communion, therefore, was entangled in heresy by the actions of one member province. In response, African bishops began to rescue American congregations, providing Episcopal oversight and accepting the orders of American clergy onto their own rolls. My church was sheltered by the Anglican Church of Kenya. Rwanda, Nigeria, Tanzania, the Southern Cone, and Southeast Asia each accepted American clergy and congregations. A patchwork Anglican Network of faithful Anglicans spread across the US and Canada. These congregations lost their buildings and endowments, searching for worship space wherever it could be found.
Then, in Jerusalem, in 2008, the GAFCON bishops who gathered adopted The Jerusalem Declaration11 and formed The Anglican Church in North America. The patchwork was stitched together, and we were given an Archbishop and began the work of adopting our own constitution and canons. While not, ourselves, “in communion” with Canterbury, we were “in communion” with some Global South bishops who continued to participate in Anglican Communion meetings. My husband and I got back on the plane and went home to our children, grateful for the provision of Anglicans around the world and a global commitment to the Scriptures.
THE KIGALI COMMITMENT
What does it mean to be an Anglican? For millennia, it meant “responding to God’s revelation through Jesus Christ”12 in communion with the See of Canterbury, the center of a Christian faith grounded in the Word of God, the Sacraments, and common prayer. Is it possible to be an Anglican Christian in communion with a church that denies the basic elements of the Christian faith? What if the church itself ceases to be discernably Christian? What sort of ecclesial identity does that entail?
In February of 2023, after nearly two decades of more and more Western Anglican provinces adopting the heretical view of human sexuality, the Bishops of the Church of England, prodded by Penny Mordaunt13 and other members of Parliament, accepted, in advance of the full Synod, “Prayers for Love and Faith.”14 The bishops didn’t want to overtly affirm same-sex marriage, knowing such a move would further divide a fractured church. Rather, they wanted to find a way to both affirm and not affirm such relationships. They, therefore, wrote prayers that would bless both members in such relationships, without blessing the relationships themselves. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, promoted these prayers and admonished the Synod to adopt them.
GAFCON IV convened a little over a month later and I found myself in a room with nine other Anglicans from around the world, preparing for a long night, and then a long week, of writing. Each GAFCON releases some kind of statement or letter to the church. After the Jerusalem Declaration in 2008, successive Conferences have addressed relevant issues for global Anglicans. This conference was different. Responding to heresy at the very heart of the Communion — the Archbishop of Canterbury himself — was painful and, being a cradle Anglican, personal.
The Kigali Commitment is longer than other GAFCON statements. It rehearses some of the history I’ve outlined here. It rearticulates the doctrine of Scripture that has shaped Anglican worship for more than 500 years. Most of all, however, it redefines Anglican Identity and definitively classifies the question of sexuality as a first-order, Communion-dividing heresy. The Kigali Commitment resets the whole Communion on its biblical foundation without — this causes every Anglican to take a hard swallow — the Archbishop of Canterbury:
We have no confidence that the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the other Instruments of Communion led by him (the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates’ Meetings) are able to provide a godly way forward that will be acceptable to those who are committed to the truthfulness, clarity, sufficiency and authority of Scripture. The Instruments of Communion have failed to maintain true communion based on the Word of God and shared faith in Christ.
All four Instruments propose that the way ahead for the Anglican Communion is to learn to walk together in ‘good disagreement.’ However[,] we reject the claim that two contradictory positions can both be valid in matters affecting salvation. We cannot ‘walk together’ in good disagreement with those who have deliberately chosen to walk away from the ‘faith once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3). The people of God ’walk in his ways,’ ‘walk in the truth,’ and ‘walk in the light,’ all of which require that we do not walk in Christian fellowship with those in darkness (Deuteronomy 8:6; 2 John 4; 1 John 1:7).
Successive Archbishops of Canterbury have failed to guard the faith by inviting bishops to Lambeth who have embraced or promoted practices contrary to Scripture. This failure of church discipline has been compounded by the current Archbishop of Canterbury who has himself welcomed the provision of liturgical resources to bless these practices contrary to Scripture. This renders his leadership role in the Anglican Communion entirely indefensible.15
While I was on the plane, trying to sleep after so many late nights, Lambeth Palace issued a press statement asserting that GAFCON wasn’t allowed to take such a decision. Appealing to a statement made by Archbishop Welby earlier in the year, the office wrote, “no changes to the formal structures of the Anglican Communion can be made unless they are agreed upon by the Instruments of Communion.”16 Later, Archbishop Welby scolded the Anglican Church of Uganda for supporting the Ugandan Parliament’s law regarding homosexuality. He wrote “to express [his] grief and dismay at the Church of Uganda’s support for the Anti-Homosexuality Act.” He went on to say that he made “this public statement with sorrow, and with continuing prayers for reconciliation between our churches and across the Anglican Communion.” He wasn’t intending to impose “Western values on our Ugandan Anglican sisters and brothers,” he insisted. Rather, he wanted only to remind “them of the commitments we have made as Anglicans to treat every person with the care and respect they deserve as children of God.”17
The new chairman of the GAFCON Primates Council, Archbishop Mbanda, shot back swiftly:
We, in Gafcon and GSFA [Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches] had earlier declared unequivocally that we no longer recognise the Archbishop of Canterbury as the head, leader or spokesperson of the Anglican Communion. He has lost every power and authority to dictate to or advise other Primates and Provinces of the Communion who oversee 85% of the Global Communion. It is pertinent to remind Archbishop Welby that Africa is no longer a colony of the ‘British Empire,’ and the Church of England has no jurisdiction over the Anglican Provinces on the continent of Africa. As such, he should stop meddling with the internal affairs of the Anglicans on the continent of Africa.18
THE WAY WE LIVE NOW
Ashley Null sat on a stool and spoke slowly during his plenary address. Null is fond of leading congregations through The Comfortable Words, the four lines of Scripture Thomas Cranmer placed after the Confession of Sin and the Absolution. “Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him,” they begin, and then each verse is declared over the stooped and exhausted congregation:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)
God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (1 Timothy 1:5)
If anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1–2)19
The four verses are meant to be read every time the Absolution is said. They are the perfect undoing of the tangled mess of human sin — the way the heart, mind, and will turn in on themselves to draw the creature away from the Creator. They draw the worshiper inexorably toward Jesus, who steps into the mess and draws the sinner’s gaze up to Himself to stop the endless death spiral of self-justification. It is for this reason, for these precious words, that Anglicans around the world must say no to any person, be he even the Archbishop of Canterbury, who undoes their power by blessing something that the Lord calls sin. No rest is possible for the one who is confused about the source of all blessing.
Anglicans around the world today need not fear for the fate of their communion. Though bishops rise and fall, though national lines are drawn and redrawn, the Word of God never changes, never fades away, will never be corrupted by self-serving human institutions. If you happen by any Anglican congregation in any part of the world, however large or small, you can be sure to find ordinary people submitting their stubborn wills, errant hearts, and confused minds to apprehend the very glory of God. Many of them are praying even now for the Archbishop of Canterbury himself to crack open one of our two favorite books — the Bible and the Prayer Book — and rediscover the riches of God’s grace.
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People, rev. ed. (Square Halo Books, 2020). She blogs about current events and theological trends at Standfirminfaith.com and on her Substack, Demotivations with Anne.
Ashley Null, “Renewing the Power to Love: The Heart of Historic Anglicanism,” GAFCON 23 Livestream, Thursday Morning, April 20, 2023, time mark 4:04:08, https://gafcon23.org/livestream/.
“Augustine of Canterbury,” The British Library, accessed July 14, 2023, https://www.bl.uk/people/augustine.
“Christ Church, Alexandria,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, accessed July 14, 2023, https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/christ-church-alexandria/.
Anglican Communion Member Churches, accessed July 14, 2023, https://www.anglicancommunion.org/structures/member-churches.aspx.
Mary Frances Schjonberg, “Interactive Timeline of the History of Women’s Ordination,” Episcopal News Service, July 28, 2014, https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2014/07/28/ordination-timeline/.
Clay Risen, “John Shelby Spong, 90, Dies; Sought to Open Up the Episcopal Church,” New York Times, September 19, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/19/us/john-shelby-spong-dead.html.
See webpages under “Instruments of Communion,” Anglican Communion, accessed July 18, 2023, https://www.anglicancommunion.org/structures/instruments-of-communion.aspx.Global Anglican
Futures, “Lambeth Resolution 1.10” (English spelling), https://www.gafcon.org/jerusalem-2018/key-documents/resolution-110.
The Anglican Communion Institute, “Statement of the Global South Primates,” Wycliffe College, May 19, 2004, https://www.wycliffecollege.ca/archive/document/statement-global-south-primates.
Resolution 2003-C045, The Acts of Convention, The Archives of the Episcopal Church, accessed July 14, 2023, https://www.episcopalarchives.org/cgi-bin/acts/acts_resolution-complete.pl?resolution=2003-C045.
“The Jerusalem Declaration — June 2008,” GAFCON, accessed July 14, 2023, https://www.gafcon.org/jerusalem-2018/key-documents/jerusalem-declaration.
“What Is Anglicanism,” Anglican Church in North America, accessed July 18, 2023, https://anglicanchurch.net/.
Andrew Tettenborn, “Penny Mordaunt Is Wrong to Lecture the Church of England on Gay Marriage,” The Spectator, January 18, 2023, https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/penny-mordaunt-is-wrong-to-lecture-the-church-of-england-on-same-sex-marriage/.
See “Living in Love and Faith — Moving Forward,” accessed July 14, 2023, https://www.churchofengland.org/resources/living-love-and-faith. See also Ian Paul, “What Exactly Happened at Synod on the Prayers for Love and Faith?,” Anglican Ink, February 11, 2023, https://anglican.ink/2023/02/11/what-exactly-happened-at-synod-on-the-prayers-for-love-and-faith/.
“GAFCON IV: The Kigali Commitment,” GAFCON, April 21, 2023, https://www.gafcon.org/news/gafcon-iv-the-kigali-commitment.
“Lambeth Palace Statement on GAFCON IV Kigali Commitment,” The Archbishop of Canterbury, April 21, 2023, https://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/news/news-and-statements/lambeth-palace-statement-gafcon-iv-kigali-commitment.
“Archbishop of Canterbury’s Statement on the Church of Uganda,” The Archbishop of Canterbury, June 9, 2023, https://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/news/news-and-statements/archbishop-canterburys-statement-church-uganda.
Laurent Mbanda, “Gafcon Response to Archbishop of Canterbury,” GAFCON, June 14, 2023, https://www.gafcon.org/news/gafcon-response-to-archbishop-of-canterbury.
“The Comfortable Words,” The Book of Common Prayer (Huntington Beach, CA: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019), 113–14, https://bcp2019.anglicanchurch.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/BCP-2019-MASTER-5th-PRINTING-05022022-3.pdf.