On the frontline – Reflections from GAFCON
Reflections from the Global Anglican Future Conference, Nairobi, 21 to 26th October 2013, Matt Watts
I'm writing as I sit in All Saints Cathedral, Nairobi at the end of a very busy conference. In the pew behind me, an African delegate is stretched out asleep, presumably getting some rest before a long journey home. This is the hottest day so far, and the cathedral is definitely the coolest and the quietest place to be. Quiet that is until my friend behind me has begun to snore.
Staying in Kenya has been an intense cocktail of experiences. The wonderfully warm welcome of our African hosts. The majesty of giraffes strolling through the nearby national park. The jostling traffic swerving at the last moment to avoid pedestrians ambling across the road. The sheer volume of the revivalist meeting taking place across the road from our hotel at 1.30am this morning. And the fantastic conference facilities adjoining this cathedral, a church where 7000 Anglicans gather to worship each Sunday. I also met up with our mission partner Anna Tovey and hear about her hopes to return here next year.
And so to the conference itself. 1358 Anglicans are gathered here this week, including 331 bishops. That's a lot of purple! My take home message from GAFCON is that the Anglicans I have met here are frontline Anglicans. This thought crystallised for me as I sat in the conference auditorium waiting for morning worship to start. Up until this week I've never been to an Anglican worship service where the front row fills up first. But here, people want to be where the action is. The church fills up from the front. And so that caused me to reflect on the other ways in which the people I have met here are frontline Anglicans.
Firstly, there are many here who are in the frontline of persecution. We heard heart-rending stories from South Sudan, Pakistan and Nigeria about civil war, slaughter of innocent Christians and burning of churches. My old friend from theological college, Bishop Francis of Rokon, South Sudan, told me of the random attacks on Christians in the north of his country, causing many people to flee their homes.
Dr Patrick Sookdheo of the Barnabas Fund talked about the imperative for us all to support Christian brothers and sisters suffering for their faith. And we were reminded several times that here is no authentic discipleship without suffering. We have much to learn from the persecuted church.
Secondly, many Christians I met here are at the frontline of evangelism. The conference began with delegates sharing testimony of the East African Revival, a period from 1930 to 1970 where the Anglican church repented of its sluggish faith and compromised witness and discovered a new power in the gospel, resulting in huge growth. We heard that there can be no revival without repentance. And as delegates we were called to repent both individually and corporately in a powerful way in the final Holy Communion service. I was also impacted by stories from the Anglican Church in North America, a new movement which has chosen to leave the official Episcopal Church in the USA for reasons of conscience, and has experienced a renewed vigour in churchplanting and personal evangelism. The boldness of African Christians in sharing their faith encouraged me to think and pray about how we make the most of the visit of Sam, Margaret and Kiziwana Tsumwsiege to our parish next year. They can help us to fulfil Jesus's great commission which was the theme of the conference: "Go and make disciples of all nations..." (Matthew 28:19)
Thirdly, Anglicans I met here were serious about being in the frontline work of challenging the secular culture of the West, which is increasingly hostile to Christians. I was impacted by a conversation with a lawyer from the UK who represents Christians suffering discrimination. Amongst other things she told me about Christian nurses losing their jobs for praying with patients, an employee of British Airways dismissed for wearing a cross to work, and in the last week 3 men locked up in police cells for preaching on the streets in England. As part of the week we were asked to choose a "mini-conference" to attend. I chose to join one entitled, "Gospel and Culture: How can we re-evagelise the West?". This provided lots of fertile soil for my ongoing reflection, so prepare to hear more about this in the months ahead. In particular I realised that in the New Zealand church often we ask "How can we make the gospel relevant to our culture?" when we should be asking "How can we challenge the false assumptions of our culture so that the unchanging gospel can be clearly heard?"
Fourthly, many of the Anglicans I met here are in the frontline of the struggles within the worldwide Anglican Communion. GAFCON was born out of a situation where The Episcopal Church in the USA defied the agreed position of the Anglican Communion on same-sex relationships (Lambeth Conference 1998) by consecrating a bishop who had divorced his wife and entered into a homosexual relationship. As a result many parishes left The Episcopal Church as a matter of conscience, but then ironically found themselves sidelined by the official structures of the Anglican Communion. The first GAFCON conference (2008) became a means of supporting those parishes, leading to the setting up of the parallel Anglican Church in North America. If you want to find out more about the outworking of this situation, the Nairobi Communique, drafted and approved at the conference, is available online at www.gafcon.org. Whilst many people find this aspect of GAFCON controversial, I count it a privilege to have interacted with faithful Anglicans who have found themselves on the frontline of this battle, aware that we may face similar issues in New Zealand in the near future.
Not everything about GAFCON was wholesome. Nor did I agree with everything that was said from the front. Some of the Nigerian bishops showed a lack of courtesy when dealing with the conference volunteers. One of the speakers at the mini-conference I attended advocated what I felt was a reductonist and deficient doctrine of the church. But in all, this has been a very happy, challenging and equipping time. I feel ready to face the challenges that are ahead and to lead our parish in the task of Jesus's great commission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember that I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:19-20)