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Reflections on the National Anglican Conference
reprinted from the September 2002 edition of Essentials


Reflections on the National Anglican Conference

Two people share their experiences of the NAC, Sydney, July 2002
   I was quite looking forward to what I was describing as the "Anglican Jamboree". It was great to see and be able to spend time with Anglicans I know from around the country in a context that wasn't synodical in structure.
   It was interesting to think about who wasn't at the National Anglican Conference and to wonder why. A number of people I would consider as "national church powerbrokers" were notable by their absence as was most of the Diocese of Sydney. Sue Bazzana works with the Church Missionary Society in Melbourne
   Sydney as a venue was probably never going to work because so many people outside the Diocese have preconceptions about coming to events in Sydney. It was certainly a risky choice on the part of the organising committee.
  The NAC structure aims to be about alternative models of getting together and seeks to be more consultative and interactive in the ways people engage with each other. I really enjoy that and think at the level of interaction this conference contributed to dialogue between parts of the Anglican church that may not otherwise speak to each other.  
   This is the second time the conference model has been tried and while the numbers were significantly down on the first attempt (in Canberra), I personally think it is worth another go.   
   I was a bit surprised that the conference seemed to avoid what I think are the real issues facing our church at this time. There was no mention from the main platform of issues like sexual abuse within the church, of the issues facing country Dioceses in terms of ministry for the next 10 years and the incredibly different approaches to the Bible and the authority of the word of God. General Synod is not the best venue to have discussion about these issues, so I was a bit disappointed that we didn't talk about some of them within the interactive, discussion based forum that the conference provided.   
   It was great to be able to visit congregations within the Diocese of Sydney on Sunday morning and to experience worship and teaching in the context of a real live Christian community. I was amused that the buses to Christ Church St Laurence and St James King St were the first filled. Showed just how much we Anglicans like getting out of our comfort zone! I had a great time at St Johns Darlinghurst and was really proud of its Christian witness in this part of the city.   
   Sunday worship in Sydney parishes was probably the biggest culture shock for many of the participants at the conference. I thought it was a great idea to actually engage in worship with a real Sydney parish and hopefully thereby see a "real" parish and not just our idea of how Sydney churches function.   
   The National Anglican Conference, held in July in Sydney, was a mixed bag. It lacked the excitement and atmosphere of the first conference in Canberra in 1997. Its numbers were about 450, under half what was expected and hoped for, resulting in an apparently significant loss. Paul Barker is Archdeacon of Box Hill and Vicar of Holy Trinity Doncaster
   Several of the talks in the plenary sessions were stimulating. Possibly the speaker who gained the widest appreciation was feminist Bible commentator Phyllis Trible. Her exposition of Jonah, under the title of God and Violence, was stimulating, provocative and highly engaging. She seriously attempted to deal faithfully with the biblical text though ultimately, to me, she was less than rigorous. Her omission of comment on the final verse of Jonah meant that her presentation of the book lacked a critical factor and her launching pad of Deuteronomy 30 failed to do justice to that text in light of Deuteronomy 27-29. Nonetheless, she was the pick of the presenters.
   John Stott gave a typically masterful presentation on the topic of fellowship. David Gitari's Bible studies ranged in quality. Shane Gould's autobiographical presentation was disappointing from the point of view of the place of Christian faith in her life. More seemed owed to Edward de Bono. Tom Frame's discussion of the military and war was superb.   
   One of the features of the main sessions was hearing numerous stories of ministry in different places. The highlight was the presentation by indigenous peoples, a very moving account, but several other stories seemed lacking in theological basis and gospel focus.   
   The Secretary of the Anglican Consultative Council, Canon John Peterson, spoke on Christian-Muslim relations. I found his address almost astonishingly naive. He focused on the common heritage of Christians and Muslims in the sons of Abraham and seemed to imply there was no fundamental difference between the two groups and that the common kinship ought to be realised in friendship. His word studies, for example linking Hagar and 'the alien' were also utterly unpersuasive. Sadly he seemed to me seriously to underplay the threat of Islam and failed to understand its militancy. I fear that this is where the liberal, pluralist, universalist agenda will do significant damage.   
   All participants were 'randomly' divided into groups of 8-10 to meet, chat, discuss and pray throughout the conference. In my group, I think I was the only evangelical and some of the almost anti-evangelical comments were rather sad to hear. Difficult though this part of a conference can be, it seems to me crucial for evangelicals to be involved, showing a coherent, loving and sensible biblical faith and practice, as well as reminding the church that there are even evangelicals outside Sydney.   
   A disappointing feature of the conference was the not-surprising lack of Sydney delegates. I valued the contacts I made and strengthened with some Sydney friends but would have been so much more encouraged by more such contacts. I guess when a particular Christian fellowship (diocese or parish or whatever) is strong, it tends to be self-sufficient and inward looking. I know that is a danger for my parish in relation to smaller parishes nearby. The same, I suppose, is felt by Sydney. But I was reminded that we need each other, richer or poorer, larger or smaller, and I am challenged to try to be loving for needier brothers' and sisters' sakes, to give and not simply receive. I am so aware that other evangelical colleagues in other parts of Australia are in greater need than we are. I want to build bridges of support and encourage others to do the same.   
   Overall I felt the conference was flat. Its music selection was hardly inspiring, praising the church more than God and singing about social justice more than God's grace in Christ. I suppose that is a reflection of where so much of the Anglican church in Australia is at.   
   I suspect there is some lethargy about such events. I hope there is another one, however. Our geography and under-population in Australia contribute to our tribalism (unlike England where the concept of a national church is more of a reality). There is no substitute for people contacts and such conferences, regardless of the content on the platform, are good opportunities for this. As a Melbournian, I wonder whether the next conference will be here since Sydney and Canberra have had a turn. I would welcome it if so.   
   I was disappointed that EFAC (Australia) did not capitalise on this conference and organise an event for evangelicals other than a hastily arranged and poorly attended chat with David Gitari. It may be time for EFAC to organise another national conference since the last one, with John Piper, was 6 years ago.   

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