This year’s Anglican Future Conference for Australia and New Zealand has begun in Melbourne as a joint venture between the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion (EFAC) and the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (FCA) Australia. Over 460 delegates are here from every State and Territory of Australia, including 40 from New Zealand. As you look around the room it’s fair to say that every key player in the conservative wing of the church is here.
Richard Condie, Vicar of St Jude’s Carlton and Archdeacon in Melbourne, welcomed the delegates telling them and foreshadowing the key areas we will be addressing; Our missionary context in the 21st Century, current issues for the church and imagining our future.
(Former) Bishop Stephen Hale then greeted the delegates, calling the conference “a significant national event” and there’s certainly a real sense of anticipation in the room about what the next 3 days will hold.
Perhaps one of the most anticipated speakers, or at least one who was always going to garner some interest, was the Primate of Australia, Archbishop Philip Freier of Melbourne. He gave the opening address to a full conference hall. What would he say? Most importantly would he acknowledge the key issues that have, in many sense, catalysed the coming together of all these people?
Freier began with what is known here in Australia as “Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country“, a brief remark often made in public address acknowledging the aboriginal heritage and prior ownership in the local area. What then followed was described to me by a delegate as “Welcome to Middle-Ground Country”. Freier’s position is a difficult one, Melbourne itself is an incredibly diverse diocese and the Archbishop must often tread a very difficult path between what many consider to be extremes.
There was much to affirm, but only as far as it went. Freier reminded us that in a world where so many things are contingent Christian believers understand Christian life is contingent on the free gift of Jesus. But that free gift was never clearly defined in a way that many in the room would be able to loudly cheer. An overview of “the gospel proclamation” moved past the Cross without speaking clearly of the blood of Christ paying for our sins, indeed sin was never transparently set out as bringing humanity under the wrath of God that Jesus saves us from.
Even a little later when Freier directly spoke of “the redemptive death of the Lord Jesus Christ”, it was described as a “message signed with blood that frees all who accept it” without any affirmation of quite how in any way the blood of Christ achieves that freedom.
Freier spoke on a number of occassions of the current persecution against Christians, particularly under ISIS, citing the cry of the martyrs in Rev. 6:10, “how long?”. The cry, he told us “remains in the keeping of God [until] justice will find it’s measure of human evil and sin”.
Delegates’ responses were mixed. One wrote a tweet calling it “Fantastic, Scripture-soaked and encouraging” but another, more jaded, described it to me as “theological platitudes” and their opinion was shared by a number of others. One Melbourne delegate referred me to Freier’s statement that “the Diocese of Melbourne has a vision to make the word of God known (drawing from Col. 1:25ff)”. “What you need to look at “, they told me, “is what that actually looks like on the ground. Our Archbishop isn’t encouraging us to get involved in Bible studies, he prefers ‘public breakfast conversations‘. The next public conversation is about ‘Economics for a sustainable future'”. The frustration in this delegate’s voice was clearly discernable.
There was no mention of the current crises afflicting the global communion and threatening to press upon us in Australia (and currently pushing upon New Zealand).
The morning Bible studies are being taught by Kanishka Raffel who ministers in Perth. Kanishka is taking us from 2Peter and the opening study this morning was wonderful, pointing us to “a short letter of urgency”. Kanishka showed us how knowledge of Jesus, from the Scriptures, is key to Peter’s encouragement to remembering and holding fast to Jesus’ promises in the first chapter.
But as good as Raffel’s preaching was, the highlight of the morning had to be the first of three talks by Rev Canon Dr Ashley Null. Ashley is, without a doubt, the world’s leading scholar looking at the work of Thomas Cranmer, first protestant Archbishop of Cranmer. He is currently working on compiling and editing Cranmer’s private papers for publication. Ashley showed us the English Reformer’s view of Scripture; something he described as a “legacy of Scriptural authority and power written into the formularies, to work in successive generations”.
This conviction was apparent to all around them. Their early detractors, Null told us, disparagingly nicknamed them “gospellers”. It was an insult they were happy to bear.
Another key distinction of the early English Reformers was a change in understanding of Jesus’ relationship to the Church. For the medievals, Jesus had formed an institution (the church) that transmitted and added to the message so that people could be saved. But for the Reformers, they read the Bible and saw that Jesus preached a message which gathered a people; the church.
Thus Cranmer insisted upon Morning and Evening Prayer to “effectively shape the patterns of the English people to sit under the tap of the Holy Spirit”.
I think it’s already clear to all here (at least all that I’ve spoken to) that Dr Null is proving to be a simply excellent choice of conference speaker.
How will this end up being applied? Well it’s obvious that the Conference is not least about being serious about gospel work. The afternoon had a number of different seminars with speakers talking to us about engaging with 21st Century Australia and New Zealand. There’s some really good sociological research being discussed and some great analysis of social trends and other key issues we’re facing.
We’re not only reminding ourselves of who we are as Anglicans, but also thinking hard about that great Cranmerian principle. As Ashley Null put it, “Scripture is a message that is unchancing, but the church must effectively explain that message to it’s own culture.”
The evening session, hosted by former Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen, focussed on the tensions and pressures others are struggling with around the Communion in order to better understand them, support them and to prepare should similar events happen here. We heard from Archbishop Eliud Wabukala, Primate of Kenya and chair of GAFCON, friends in the Church of England, John Yates II in the US, bishops in Recifé and Canada and then finally from those in New Zealand working out how to respond to recent decisions in their General Synod to move forward on producing liturgy for same-sex blessings.
For me personally, it was encouraging to see that those around me were fully aware of things I’ve been reporting on for years. The better we understand and learn from those who have suffered before us, the better we will do in forging a path ahead here. Perhaps the English Reformers will be our pattern in this as well? They were second generation Reformers, able to watch what had happened on the continent and learn from them. The newly forming Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans in Australia are also learning from our brothers and sisters around the world who have had the privielege of being the first to be suffer in various ways. If that makes for a wise response from us here as the same pressures arise then it is one more blessing to be garnered from their faithful work.
Lots more tomorrow, including 2 big interviews!
feature image Roger Fitzhardinge