On some unknown date in the latter half of 1823, during a game of football at Rugby School, William Webb Ellis, did something that no one had done before. He picked up the ball and ran with it. Now, even those of you who don’t like football, know that you can’t do that. It’s against the rules. Goalkeepers can touch the ball with their hands in their own penalty area. Players are able to use their heads, chests, backsides but primarily football is called football because the ball is passed by using the feet. Hence the name.
And so as a result of William Webb-Ellis’s behaviour a new game was formed. It’s called Rugby. The games are similar in many ways; but they are played with different shaped balls and under very different rules. They may have had the same origin, but they are no longer the same.
What’s the point of that story, you may ask?
Having been formed by the evangelistic fervour of British missionaries that took advantage of the British Empire, the many churches and diocese of the Anglican Communion have, for the last few centuries, all played the same game. As Anglicans we ground our faith in a reformed understanding of the Bible as set forth in the 39 articles, the book of common prayer, the ordinal and the historic creeds: The Nicene Creed, the Apostles Creed and the Athanasian creed. These are the things to which ministers in the Church of England and in churches across the Anglican Communion, deacons, priests and bishops, have to give their assent at their ordinations. They define what we believe as Anglicans in terms of our doctrine, and it is from these doctrines that our moral teaching and the way that we live out our faith as Anglican Christians is developed.
Now of course, whilst we share a common heritage and belief and even a liturgical style of worship, Anglican churches around the world are very different, because cultures, music, dress, buildings and languages are different. Yet Anglican churches have been joined together by that reformed understanding of the Bible as explained in the 39 articles, the book of common prayer, the ordinal and the historic creeds. Playing the same game. Until recently.
As Western culture has changed rapidly in recent decades so pressure has come on the church to change its teaching, particularly around the issues of sex, sexuality and moral behaviour. These pressures had particularly force upon the Episcopal Church of the United States and other western nations, and from there, pressure grew on the Anglican Communion to change its collective, Biblical and historic understanding on these issues.
This debate dominated the gathering of archbishops from across the Anglican Communion at the Lambeth conference in 1998. But, perhaps surprisingly, at least to some, the majority of Bishops in the Anglican Church held firm. The conference affirmed what the church had always taught on these issues and called on individual ministers, bishops and churches who wanted to function under different rules to be disciplined and excluded until they repented.
Sadly, that didn’t stop the US Episcopal Church from picking up the ball and running with it. They soon after appointed an openly gay bishop, changed their doctrines to allow for same-sex marriage, and allowed bishops and clergy to be ordained who denied the uniqueness of Jesus, the trustworthiness of the Bible, and the need for the cross. To use the rugby analogy, the Episcopal Church was now playing a very different game with very different rules.
To make matters worse, when faithful Bible believing Anglican churches in the USA decided they could no longer be part of such corrupt, gospel denying church, the US Episcopal Church refused to let them go with grace. Instead, they sued them for their buildings and took all of their financial resources that they could get their hands on.
How would the rest of the Anglican world respond? Sadly, the last 3 archbishops of Canterbury have done nothing but talk. There has been no discipline for those who are now playing under different rules, and no welcome nor practical support for those who have stayed faithful.
However, seeing their brothers and sisters being provoked and persecuted, some branches of the Anglican Church around the world stepped up to the plate and provided episcopal oversight (that’s bishops to take care of these churches), encouragement, training and financial support. And what was perhaps just as significant, this group of global Anglicans made clear that churches that had walked away from the false teaching of the Episcopal Church, were regarded as full Anglican partners. That was the beginning of Gafcon and the reason for the 1st Global Anglican Fellowship Conference in Jerusalem in 2008. It was a coming together of faithful Bible believing Anglicans. Its purpose was to reaffirm their belief in the gospel once and for all delivered to the church and set out in the 39 articles, the book of common prayer, the ordinal and the historic creeds and to encourage one another in that mission.
Since then, as the episcopal churches in Canada and Scotland, to name but 2, have also changed their official doctrines. And whilst Canterbury has done nothing to stop this breaking of collective decisions and drift from orthodox belief, Gafcon and has grown and grown. 2 further conferences have been held: one in Nairobi in 2013, and one in Jerusalem last year.
And whilst it may have begun as a protest movement, Gafcon is now very much a movement for mission, discipleship and growth. It is committed to training and equipping ministers and bishops for their role in leading God’s flock. It is committed to reaching the lost for Christ. It is committed to providing for the needy and standing with the persecuted Christians and speaking out against abuse of power. It is, in my view, the best expression of true Anglicanism in the world today. It is a gloriously international, cross-cultural and gospel-centred movement of which I am proud to be a supporter and a member.
Over the course of the summer, we going to look afresh at many of these contentious issues. These are issues that are live for us in our culture, and over which the Church of England is currently divided. But when we stand firm on what the Christian Church has always taught, we do not stand alone. Our brothers and sister Anglicans, scattered around the world in the Gafcon movement stand with us, firmly, squarely, joyfully, holding out, as the Anglican Church has always done, the good news of Jesus Christ to a lost and suffering world. I’d like to encourage all of you to get to know more about Gafcon and what it stands for. Do visit their website at www.gafcon.org where you will find a wide range of resources and background information. Or come and chat with me.