Bishop Harold Miller reflects on his experience of the recent GAFCON Conference.
I have just returned from the third Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON) in Jerusalem, which took place from 18–22 June. It was a wonderful experience to be with so many Anglicans from all over the world and I wanted to share some reflections and observations.
As was mentioned at the conference, this was the largest gathering of Anglicans for over 50 years, since the 1962 Toronto Anglican Congress, and probably one of the largest worldwide Anglican gatherings of all time. The sheer logistics of this are incredible, not least in taking a photograph of the almost 2000 participants on the Temple Mount. Some years ago, I was invited to be part of a group set up by the Archbishop of Canterbury of the time, to look at the possibility of there being another Anglican Congress, like the 1962 one in Toronto. After a great deal of work being done on possible venues, logistics and a programme, it was determined that the cost would be too high, so it never happened. Therefore the very existence of this large five–yearly conference is something quite amazing.
Secondly, the conference is very largely based around worship, bible teaching, plenaries and seminars. The worship is very liturgical, with an early daily Eucharist (at 6am!) in each of the hotels, followed by Morning Prayer at the start of the morning plenary gathering. I don’t think I have ever said the Creed so many times in one week! There is no doubt that the worship was thoroughly ‘prayer book’ in structure and character, but also peppered with the most wonderful and inspirational singing, sometimes English in style, sometimes African. The bible exposition was thoughtful, careful and generally excellent. Indeed, it emphasised the reality that one of the key purposes of the Global Anglican Futures Conference is to bring spiritual renewal, and to inspire zeal for mission.
Thirdly, the privilege of meeting people from so many cultures, backgrounds and nationalities was both humbling and encouraging. To hear about their life and church situations, and especially to hear the testimony of those who come from places of persecution, where our sisters and brothers have been treated harshly and even martyred for their faith in Christ, is deeply humbling. In truth, we in the West have very little idea of what real persecution is like, and worldwide gatherings which enable us to hear real life stories of faith in difficult circumstances are nothing less than inspiring.
Fourthly, as with any conference, there are dominant voices. In the case of Gafcon, the first of these is Africa (which is of course the continent in which Christianity is growing most quickly at this period in our history), and especially the very large and strong Anglican churches in Nigeria (The Church of Nigeria has more than 160 bishops and 18–20 million members,) and East Africa (particularly Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda – churches with which members of the Church of Ireland have been linked for many years). There is definitely a sense of ‘coming of age’ of the African churches, of the end of colonialism, and of firmly and determinedly not following western agendas. The other dominant voices are the diocese of Sydney, whose former archbishop, Peter Jensen, has just completed his term as secretary of the movement, handing over to the magnetic archbishop Ben Kwashi); and the Anglican Church in North America and its offshoots. However, no nation dominated entirely, and around 50 different nations were represented.
Fifthly, Gafcon is perceived as a very important resource and fellowship by individuals and churches who have stood for conservative Christian teaching and values in parts of the world where provinces have changed their doctrine and ethics. This has been largely, but not uniquely, in terms of marriage. Where doctrine and practice have changed, those who have not been able to go along with the new ‘teaching’ have often found themselves isolated, and no longer felt able to stay in the churches concerned. This has meant loss of buildings, removal of ministerial orders, court cases, loss of income, and more. In many cases, there has been the need for these people to find a way of continuing to be Anglican, as they are committed Anglicans in theology, worship, church order and living, and many have been so for their entire lives.
Sixth, Gafcon is not monochrome in churchmanship, style or on secondary issues. It includes those who come from an Anglo–Catholic persuasion, those who are more protestant and reformed and those who are more ‘charismatic’. There are some who ordain women, some who do not, and some with a variety of views on other issues, just as is the case with the entirety of the Anglican Communion. There are times when people may be aware of the differences, and there may even be good theological discussions, but at this point there is a very respectful living together with a range of views on these issues.
Seventh, might I give a personal perspective on my own experience over the last week. Although people have spoken quite openly and frankly about issues, in the entire week of personal conversations with a whole variety of different people from different places, I never once heard anyone speak harshly, in anger, aggressively, or in a demeaning way of any other person. I heard of hurt, disappointment and sadness, but saw a spirit of forgiveness, love and blessing of others, alongside a determination to stand firm in what they believe. This for me was one of the most powerful experiences of the week which, on the whole, I found nourishing and enriching.