I remember when Elizabeth and I visited the Grand Canyon (if you have not you should definitely go). At the end of the day in which it seemed at every single vantage point, in every possible way, there was more to take in, we came to a lookout and there was the sign: “it seems too grand a statement even for nature to make.”
That sentiment fits well with all epic events and visits—there are so many perspectives you can never take them all in, and then if you could the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Gafcon 2018, one of the largest international gatherings of Anglicans in the last 5 decades, was just such an epic event. So read widely, take in all the livestream daily and other videos, and then realize even for those of us who were there it was just so much more.
I offer only my vantage point, trusting you will drink deeply from the good well of all the resources out there to get a better sense of the whole.
Consider the people. There were those whom you did know, and those who were new, and the sheer joy on both of those scores for me personally was immense.
Imagine—there was Vaughan Roberts, who I first met in the early 1990’s at Saint Ebbe’s, Oxford, when he was a curate (he is now a distinguished preacher and author). And up one day came Bishop Ray Smith and his wife Shirley whom I hadn’t seen since the mid 1980’s! These kinds of joyous reunions went on all conference long.
Then there were new people, most notably me for my daily prayer group which consisted of 2 Americans, 2 Australians, 2 Ugandans and 2 Nigerians. What different contexts and yet what a common bond in Christ and what beautiful prayers were prayed!
I should also mention my roommate, Sam Ferguson, assistant pastor for research and teaching at The Falls Church Anglican in Falls Church, Virginia. We had so much fun talking together that by the end I had him conversing with my wife via Facetime so he could tell her I was indeed behaving. Sam is one of the promising up and coming leaders in North American Anglicanism and is at present pursuing a PhD at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where he is focused on the relevant and vital subject of biblical anthropology. (I am very pleased to say that when I was finalizing this reflection, Sam had been called to be the new rector of Falls Church, succeeding one of the true giants among the senior leaders of North American Anglican evangelicalism, John Yates).
The worship every morning was unforgettable in its contagious joy. We were led by a choir from Nigeria who wore different colors for each morning, all of which matched—and oh how they lifted us into the Lord’s presence. It was a chance to experience the rich embodiment of Psalm 122:1 ‘I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”
In terms of the plenary sessions, a number of elements stood out. Our theme all through the conference was proclaiming Christ faithfully to the nations and this was emphasized in many facets and ways–as for example when we welcomed continents and they would flash all the countries from a given continent who were at Gafcon 2018 up on the screen. By far the most moving moment of the whole gathering for me personally was when we were encouraged to pray the Lord’s prayer in our own language and nearby one could hear maybe 60-100 different dialects and languages. It was an awesome reminder that our God is a global God and he calls us to go to the whole world which he has made.
The authority of the Bible and the importance of letting the text speak on its own terms was another important feature of the major presentations. For myself I would highlight the presentations of Richard Coekin, David Short and Michael Raiter as excellent examples of people who were working hard to unearth the treasures of the text with theological depth and integrity.
As if all this was wasn’t enough, there were the individual seminar sessions, and I would like to say a word about the one I was asked to do. I was paired with evangelist Rico Tice, whom I had never met until we worked together in presenting on the Christian understanding of hell. It was Rico’s idea when we spoke over the phone before the conference to interview me as one who had devoted three years of his life to doctoral research on hell. This made for a very engaging format for the participants, especially when it was paired with Rico’s own evangelistic presentation on hell in which he went into detail about how he presents Jesus’ clear teaching on the possibility of missing one’s destiny to his own friends.
Of all the elements that emerged from the questions which came from the floor in the second half of our presentation, the one which seemed to have the most traction was the idea of practical universalism. This is the idea of the parish who says they take the clear New teaching on hell seriously but in practical terms they never present classes or sermons about it, or engage their friends in serious witness for the kingdom where hell features in a meaningful way. In such a case there is no difference between that parish and one which denies hell altogether in terms of the day to day life of the Christians in the community.
Our challenge is to reclaim the doctrine of hell in the twentieth century and lovingly warn people that rejecting Christ is a choice of eternal significance. It was of special interest in this regard that the doctrine of hell was regularly mentioned by a number of the plenary speakers at Gafcon 2018.
The mention of hell had a logical fit in the overarching structure of Gafcon2018. Because the unsearchable riches of Christ are the most precious gift in the universe, not to receive them would be the greatest loss. This was yet another reminder of the importance of proclaiming Christ faithfully to the nations, the conference theme.