Gerry O’Brien reports on Evangelicals in good heart at Blackpool
Blackpool’s Winter Gardens, a renowned venue for party conferences, hosted a somewhat different event at the end of September. When Archbishop Rowan Williams arrived on the opening evening, he received a warm welcome from nearly two thousand Anglican Evangelicals gathered from across the country and around the world. The fourth National Evangelical Anglican Congress was under way.
Many of the delegates were too young to remember Keele (1967), Nottingham (1977) or Caister (1988) but Evangelicals of every shape, size and hue were gathered to explore the congress theme of ‘Bible, Cross and Mission’.
Thirty bishops put in an appearance, including the Archbishop of York, who made an impassioned plea for the importance of the quiet time. The Archbishop of Kaduna in Nigeria, Josiah Fearon, described life for Christians under Sharia law. His interviewer pressed him about his personal safety. He seemed reluctant to speak out, but eventually he conceded, very humbly, that ‘If I die, that doesn’t matter.’ It was the first of many moving moments that made NEAC so memorable.
The main sessions, the twenty-seven seminars and the fifty-three forums used over 150 speakers. Networking seemed to go on all day and long into the night – in fact on only one of the four nights did I get back to my hotel before midnight. There was a nightly video diary of the Congress which amongst other things featured theologian Paul Blackham on the rollercoaster and the Bishop of Maidstone in a wig. There was Adrian Plass, who appeared on stage in a maroon shirt with the unforgettable deadpan comment, ‘The next person who comes up and says that they didn’t know I was a bishop will get a thick ear.’
Heavyweight congress addresses on the centrality of the cross came from the likes of Paul Gardner, Archdeacon of Exeter; James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool; David Peterson, Principal of Oak Hill College; Wallace Benn, Bishop of Lewes; Peter Jensen, Archbishop of Sydney; Professor Tony Thiselton of Nottingham University, Professor Alister McGrath of Oxford University and Tom Wright, the new Bishop of Durham.
So now the final curtain has fallen, to the strains of ‘Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim till all the world adores his sacred name,’ what are my abiding memories of NEAC?
First there was the praise and worship, masterminded by Steve James, who when he is not leading worship at NEAC, Spring Harvest, Word Alive or Keswick is Rector of Bebington on the Wirral. Can you imagine the transformation of the ornate ballroom at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool, with two thousand voices singing praise to God?
Second – there was Rowan Williams commending the congress theme of bible, cross and mission. He told us that it is through those that we hear God speaking to us.
Third – there was Monday evening when issues surrounding sexuality were addressed in a powerful, yet pastoral way. As we listened to Professor Edith Humphrey of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Professor Gordon Wenham and Revd Andrew Goddard, one could sense a purposeful confidence in the scriptures spreading through the auditorium. You could have heard a pin drop.
Fourth – the Sunday afternoon recording of Morning Worship, to be broadcast on Sunday 28th September. See if it is still on the BBC website because Morning Worship introduced not by a vicar but by Adrian Plass will really lift your spirits.
Fifth – the opportunities to let our collective hair down. Adrian Plass put on a hilarious one-man show on Saturday night. On Monday evening two teams of congress personalities staged the panel game to end all panel games with their own version of ‘I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue.’ It had us in stitches.
Sixth – the presence of John Stott, architect of the whole NEAC concept some forty years ago. His was a low profile this time but the congress was ready to pay its homage to this giant of the Evangelical world in our midst.
Seventh – the opportunity to hear from Anglicans in the front line in New Westminster and in the USA. We heard of Bishop Michael Ingham sending a locksmith to change the locks on one church, but the ladies arranging the flowers persuaded him to change them back again. Anglicanism in North America is enough to make you weep, but such incidents do encourage you to believe that God has a sense of humour.
Eighth – the truly amazing press reporting. If you read The Times or the Guardian, you won’t have the slightest inkling of what the congress was really about. I was actually there in the sessions – and I was actually awake. I’m not sure whether the same could be said for the people who wrote the copy which was published in those broadsheets.
Perhaps the real highlight was the Sunday morning communion service. At the end the sound system burst into a glorious rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus and a spectacular light show had the Bishop of Southwell and the Bishop of Lewes surrounded by roaring flames. It looked like a re-enactment of Daniel and his friends in the fiery furnace. Then, all at once there was brilliant white light and then starbursts as if fireworks were exploding all over the hall. It was not at all like church the previous Sunday.
The abiding feeling though must be that Evangelicals have unity within their grasp after two decades of squabbling. We still have many differences and many issues where we do not see eye to eye, but thrown together by the current crises within the Anglican Communion, I think we have discovered that we can make common cause on a whole host of issues where the essentials of our faith are at stake.
Evangelicals have long been used to being a despised minority, but, as we were reminded, seventy per cent of ordinands on our full time college courses are now Evangelicals. That is some minority and all of us who espouse an orthodox and traditional faith should take heart.
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod and a member of CEEC (Church of England Evangelical Council) which organized the congress.