By Esau McCaulley
The most underreported story about GAFCON is not who will attend the Lambeth Conference or what the conference says about the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is the women of GAFCON whose opinions and ministry have largely been ignored in the last decade of the Anglican Communion’s life.
When one thinks about GAFCON, it is easy to see primates and bishops gathered together to plan the future of Anglican churches. But GAFCON is not simply a meeting. It is a gathering of provinces and branches that engage in joint ministry. In most of the provinces, women are a significant portion of the membership, if not the majority. This means that GAFCON consists of a plurality of women across the globe who are engaging in a large proportion of the Communion’s ministry. It also means that the extent to which GAFCON’s leadership supports and encourages that ministry affects the lives of women and children around the globe.
Women are not the majority of the gathering in Jerusalem, but they do make up a significant number. They are 34 percent of the delegates. There are 606 priests and deacons at GAFCON, 94 of whom are women, making them about 15 percent of that group. (GAFCON’s primates have agreed to a moratorium on the election of women to the episcopate. The former primate of South Sudan consecrated a woman as bishop in his church toward the end of his tenure. The new archbishop has stated his intention to honor the moratorium.)
I sat with wives of bishops and primates and with ordained women and lay leaders to speak about their experiences in their provinces and their perspectives on GAFCON, especially as it relates to their ministries. For each group, I tried to gather lay and ordained in those provinces that ordain women to gain an understanding of the range of experiences.
Chantal Mbanda (archbishop’s wife, president of the Mothers’ Union); Florence M. Aasatura (bishop’s wife, diocesan Mothers’ Union president, chief executive officer of King Faisal Hospital); the Rev. Winnie Murunyi (bishop’s wife)
In many countries the wife of a bishop or primate wife is a very important position carrying significant leadership in the church and society.
“I’m the president of the Mothers’ Union on the provincial level, and I will be working with all the other bishop’s wives to pray together, work together, to think together, and see what we can do to further women’s women,” Mrs. Mbanda said. “During my eight years in my previous diocese I worked with over 4,000 women in the Mothers’ Union to further the five core principles of the Mothers’ Union.”
Those principles are:
- To uphold Christ’s teaching on the nature of marriage and promote its understanding
- To encourage parents to bring up their children in the faith and life of the Church
- To maintain a worldwide fellowship of Christians united in prayer, worship and service
- To promote conditions in society favorable to stable family life and the protection of children
- To help those whose family life has met with adversity
Practically this means focusing on family care. She said the Mothers’ Union also does the important work of looking into “gender-based violence, girls trafficking, and fostering a happy marriage between husband and wife.”
“GAFCON fits within the five objectives, and we see GAFCON within our own ministry because GAFCON supports marriage between a man and woman and that supports us,” Mbanda said. “GAFCON talks of biblical marriage, which mother’s union in Rwanda stands for and so we feel at home here. We are being affirmed.”
Rwanda faces many of the same problems as the United States:
“Sexual assault is a national problem and we stand against it,” Mbanda said. “In the culture, if my child or I are raped, you are not supposed to speak about it. We are encouraging women to be open about it and to get help and to deal with the culprit. We are giving power and taking away shame.”
She said about GAFCON’s meeting in Jerusalem: “It gives me confidence to meet women from around the globe. We feel like we are a part of everything. Seeing GAFCON within the umbrella of supporting family, we see young women, older women, and women from all over the world supporting marriage.”
GAFCON is also important for forming networks: “Being the new primate’s wife, I was able to join a network of 20 archbishops’ wives who can meet and pray together and talk about what is going on. We are working on a statement that will itself be heard.”
Nsakiobi Okoh (primate’s wife, president of Mothers’ Union); Olubimpe Adekunle; Nwokolo Elsie Nonyelie; Gloria Kwashi (leader of women’s ministry network, GAFCON)
Nigeria is the largest province in the Anglican communion. Given its size, the role of the primate’s wife carries tremendous responsibilities. Mrs. Okoh explains that Nigeria “has 165 dioceses, including one in the USA. We have many synods and women’s conferences.” She oversees the work of all women’s ministry in the province.
On the diocesan level this includes women “meeting for prayer and women’s empowerment so that women will not be suffering. We also take care of the work of youth and children. Even the older women and men of the church, we have preferences and we discuss our opinions.”
The women’s outreach group does important work as well: “We want to wage a war against sexual abuse and violence against women by men or anyone who think that they can do such things. We go on air to say no to such acts and to empower our women.”
“GAFCON has given us a mandate to proclaim Christ faithfully to the nation,” she said. “We center on youth and children. We mobilize mothers to make sure that the children are taught every Sunday. We organize seminars and outreaches. We go to schools to battle against drugs, prostitution, and cultism. GAFCON has given us the mandate to go out and do it more.”
Gloria Kwashi has been charged with leading the network that focuses on Mothers’ Union members and other women leaders. She will focus on healthy marriages. She said that in Nigeria “men have gone to bless their marriages because of the witness of their wives. They are seeing the value of marriage as one man and one woman.”
She will also focus on looking after “women who have faced adversity.” Preventing sexual violence and assault will be a large portion of her ministry. She will also focus on countries in which property rights are taken away from women when their husbands die, “because we believe that when two are married they become one. What belongs to the husband belongs to them both.”
GAFCON is vital to Mrs. Kwashi’s work. “I know that GAFCON is ready to support women because it is especially concerned with the church’s teaching on marriage and they support the women’s network,” she said. “In my country women make up the majority of the church and do much of the work. The life of the church is in the hands of women.”
The Rev. Canon Hellen Susan Olwa and Canon Hannah Gidudu Lunyolo (bishop’s wife)
Like the other provinces, Uganda tackles social issues and evangelism.
Canon Lunyolo said her diocese started a “saving scheme to eliminate poverty. We have eight groups with 70 members. We are hoping that they use money to start projects. When they get money they will be able to support God’s work.”
Uganda too has to deal with sexual assault and violence against women.
“I have a passion for girls,” Lunyolo said. “I feel very bad when girls are hijacked on their way to school. For that reason we are starting a school called Hosanna Girls High School. We will put our girls there so that they can be counseled and achieve at the highest level.”
She said the Ugandan government has made a push to increase the education of girls and the church has supported this initiative enthusiastically. As in Nigeria, Ugandan Anglicans visit local schools to reach out to youth.
“If you teach [girls] the Scriptures they will be empowered to help themselves and others,” Canon Olwa said. “The Bible says without knowledge people perish. Therefore, GAFCON’s emphasis on the Bible is empowering to women.”
They were heartened by the fact that the women’s ministry network was one of the first networks formed by GAFCON. They says that it shows that “we have a desk, a place.”
The Rev. Canon Andrea Milliard; Liz Gray (senior pastor, Incarnation Anglican); Jenny Noyes (executive director, New Wineskins Missionary Network)
“It was great to be with so many like-minded, Jesus-loving, mission-focused Anglicans,” Jenny Noyes said. She also focused on the joy and the family atmosphere of the gathering.
She noted that the focus has been on ordained leadership, but “in the Anglican church, the laity has often done a lot of work. In global missions, which is my area, the majority of missionaries are women.”
GAFCON’s focus on mission supports her vocation to raise up people for global mission work.
Gray said she “loved the international feel of the conference. Since so much of our theology has been written by white Western men, it is enriching to my soul to see people from different backgrounds speaking to the truth of the gospel.”
She also spoke of the joy of meeting ordained women from around the world, calling it “a sisterhood that I didn’t know that I had.”
Canon Milliard also attended the GAFCON meeting in Nairobi. Being in Jerusalem has been different. She said that “in the story of Jesus, he empowered so many women and they led with him. Being here in Jerusalem and remembering that story has been powerful.”