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Report on Neac 04

reprinted from the Spring-Summer 2003-04 edition of Essentials


   Two thousand evangelicals, dozens of speeches, a gaudy Victorian dance hall surrounded by pokies and dreary wet Blackpool, England conspired to become NEAC4, the fourth National (English) Evangelical Anglican Congress in September. This was an intriguing congress. Though it was an English event for Church of England evangelicals (with three antipodean strays I detected: Peter Jensen, Robert Forsyth and myself and a couple of expatriates), the issues of the worldwide Anglican communion cast a shadow over this congress. Paul Barker is Archdeacon of Box Hill, Vicar of Doncaster, Melbourne
   The conference began with controversy. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, opened the congress with some words of welcome and a prayer. Apparently thirty people boycotted this session to pray elsewhere. People had spoken about a significant number boycotting the whole conference but the hall was comfortably full. Rowan Williams was humorous and gracious. Indeed he received an astonishingly warm reception with sustained applause. I was quite surprised. Needless to say the English media gave large coverage to his presence that first evening in headlines suggesting he was saying that evangelicals should shut up and listen. I must have heard a different Archbishop. Don't always believe the media. The same could be said for the gracious speech from David Hope, Archbishop of York, and the wide-of-the-truth reporting of the media about his speech.   
   The congress theme was Bible, Cross and Mission and it seemed to me that the organisers bent over backwards to stress the fundamental and incontrovertible evangelical essentials. This was a rally for evangelical (interpreted broadly) unity. Each of the topics was addressed by a bishop and a theologian. The addresses varied in levels of stimulation. Personally I found Anthony Thistelton and Peter Jensen clearest and most thought-provoking. Alister McGrath was most strident against the liberalism of Canada and ECUSA and urged evangelicals everywhere to get involved. His was a ringing clarion call to evangelical action.   
   Despite the desire to press unity, yet another 'evangelical' network group emerged from the late night bars of Blackpool. This one, called 'Fulcrum' was for 'open' evangelicals to balance 'Reform', the more conservative evangelical political network.   
   Two sessions stand out. In one, on the theme of persecution, there was a telephone hookup to David Short in Vancouver and discussion about the New Westminster situation. In the same session, Peter Moore, Dean of Trinity Evangelical School of Ministry in Pittsburgh, spoke at length about the persecution within ECUSA of evangelicals. Sadly this left too little time for Josiah Fearon, Archbishop of Kaduna, to speak on persecution in Nigeria. Nonetheless, the session was sobering. Evangelicals face increasing persecution in the West. We need to be ready.   
  The last evening was devoted to the topic of homosexuality. The structure and content of this session was superb. Professor Edith Humphrey, a Canadian teaching in the USA, was stunning in her orthodox defence of biblical sexual standards regarding homosexuality. Professor Gordon Wenham gave a clear analysis of the relevance of the Old Testament texts on homosexuality with a typically blunt description of those who argue otherwise advocating paganism in another guise (widely reported in the English media the next day). Then Martin Hallet, who runs a counseling and support organisation for Christian homosexuals wanting to be celibate and live Christian lives gave a warm, moving pastoral response to the issue.  
   It was feel-good conference, stressing and urging unity. The music was exceptionally well played and the Bible studies non-controversial. I realized that there is a stronger charismatic evangelical part of the C of E than I suspect there is in the Australian Anglican church. I wondered frequently why the congress was organised. (It was arranged well before the election of Rowan Williams and the Gene Robinson and Jeffrey John matters arose.) As a show of unity, it was probably significant. It produced no manifestos, wrote no political statements and delivered no ultimatums. Indeed the current dilemmas facing the Anglican church were far from dominant in the conference.   
   There were too many speeches, papers, workshops and seminars. There was little opportunity to pray or to get to know other people. Someone commented that we were forced to listen so we couldn't cause trouble by speaking too much.   
   In Australia, distance and numbers conspire to make difficult evangelical unity beyond our diocesan boundaries. Many of us suffer because of that. Where we are strong, we have little concern for others. Where we are weak, we often feel unsupported. Maybe it is time for another EFAC National shindig where we can strengthen each other in the increasingly turbulent and troubled times we evangelicals face in the Anglican Church.   



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