GAFCON: In Will's Words

This blog post is a little late. That's ok. It is summertime after all. Also, it is long. Grab a cup of coffee and take your time.

I was blessed to spend June 16-23 in Jerusalem, Israel at the third GAFCON meeting. It all started last August 2017 when I received a phone call from the Very Rev. Dr. Laurie Thompson, Dean President at Trinity School for Ministry. He was in Scotland at the time and called to ask if I would be willing to represent Trinity at GAFCON 2018. I immediately jumped at the opportunity. In all honesty, I had no idea where GAFCON was going to be held this year. I had to look up online. All I knew was that this was one experience that I wasn't going to pass up. When I found out that we were meeting in Jerusalem it made the trip all that much more exciting. I knew that it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity, but in all honesty, I really had no idea what was in store for me.

Fast-forward to Friday, June 15th, 2018. I hopped in the truck before the sun was up and began the drive up to PA. We have a few missionaries house sitting for us up in Ambridge while I am doing my summer internship at St. John's. I had to meet them and get them settled into the house before I left. Saturday afternoon, June 16th, Laurie, the Rev. Dr. Joel Scandrett, and I met at the Pittsburg airport to begin our journey. The travel plans were simple. Fly from PIT to Newark, have a short layover, and then fly to Tel-Aviv. After a long trip, made longer by an almost 12-hour delay (which included a 3-hour nap in a swanky Newark hotel owned by none other than Best Western), we finally arrived at the Royal Ramada hotel in Jerusalem around 3:30 AM Monday the 18th. I managed to get a couple hours of sleep, wake up, grab a quick bite to eat and make it in time for the closing of Morning Prayer. The fact that I made it in time for the first plenary speaking was a huge success in my book. I was now technically 2 days removed from my most recent full night's sleep, and I was running on adrenaline. It was the sheer excitement of being in Jerusalem with 1950 other Anglicans from across the globe that was keeping me awake.

Rather than describe in detail the teachings that I was able to experience while I was there, I would like to just point out that all of the daily expositions of scripture and plenary talks are available online. At the end of this blog post, you will find a link to all of the videos. Please take the time to watch whichever one(s) you'd like. I recommend all of them, but particularly the expository teachings. If you want more information, email me.

From day one I was absolutely amazed by the amount of support that I received from everyone I spoke with. It was great to reconnect with many of the foreign bishops and priests who I had the pleasure of meeting during my four and a half years out at St. Christopher. That said, the vast majority of the people there were all new to me. As I went through the week, introducing myself to hundreds of new people, nearly everyone I spoke to expressed two sentiments when I shared my name and where I was from. First, they all expressed a knowledge of our schism with the Episcopal Church (TEC for short) which was surprisingly thorough. Second, all of them expressed encouragement in some form. More often than not, the individuals I spoke with shared that they have been praying for us, Bishop Mark Lawrence, and the diocese for years. To have a total stranger share that they have lifted you in prayer for years was often overwhelming. I would come to learn that many of them have experienced significant struggles in their own churches. Many of the individuals from Africa, Asia, and throughout the Global South have experienced far greater struggles than our legal battles, and yet they pray for us. Even as I write this blog, many of them have returned home to face persecution. I must say if there was any doubt in my mind that there is a strong and faithful contingent within the Anglican Communion that understands and supports us before this trip, that doubt is long gone now.

Aside from the teachings of the week, we had one authorized extracurricular excursion and several more spontaneous excursions in the city throughout the week.

Monday and Tuesday:
I spent most of my time outside of the conference recuperating from the travel. Monday evening I went back to the room to lie down briefly before dinner and woke up Tuesday morning at 4:00 AM. I was not able to go back to sleep, so I chose to participate in an optional 6:00 AM service of Holy Eucharist at the hotel. Needless to say, following the service I was a little more hungry than normal, so I ate a very full breakfast. Tuesday evening I grabbed dinner with Laurie and had some great conversation with several people over drinks afterward. It was an opportunity to establish relationships with several people who I am bound to work within the future.

Wednesday Afternoon:
All GAFCON participants were able to choose one of four tours in the region. I chose to go to The Jordan River to see the sight of Jesus' baptism, Qumran, and the Dead Sea. I managed to get on the same bus as Laurie, as well as Fr. Bob and Mama Lynn Lawrence. Traveling through the region was a sight to see. It was incredible to watch just how quickly the landscape changed from the lush green areas around the city of Jerusalem to the vast and desolate desert. Just as striking was the change in scenery when we neared Jericho, a city surrounded by massive plantations full of date palm trees. The lushness of the Jordan River Valley was striking as well.

One thing they don't prepare you for when you visit the Jordan River are the remnants of the days when tensions were high along the border between Israel and Jordan. At any point, you could look somewhere and see some sort of old observation tower. Also, the old mine fields still exist surrounded by fencing and warning signs that remind clueless tourists not to wander off the beaten path. I couldn't help but wonder if someone was still watching us as we gleefully stepped into the muddy brown water.

From there we took the short drive to Qumran. Standing at the foot of the mountains, whose caves hid the Dead Sea Scrolls for hundreds of years, it made sense how the scrolls could have been preserved so well. It also made sense how they could stay hidden for centuries.

Following a walk through of the ruins at Qumran, we then descended to our final elevation of -423 meters. That is a whopping 1,388 feet below sea level. It was there that I took a float in the Dead Sea. An interesting announcement was made as we drove up to the parking lot that the Dead Sea is dropping at a rate of 3 meters per year! It is anticipated that eventually, the lake will reach a sort of equilibrium level, but that will be a matter of years. Yes, you do really float almost at or above the surface. Yes, any little nick in your skin burns. Yes, it stings if it gets in your eyes. Yes, it does feel as if your body is coated in some sort of petroleum-based oil. But if you go, you simply must get in. It would be like going to Camp St. Christopher and not getting in the Mud Pit.

After a quick shower and dinner at the hotel, I joined Laurie, Dr. Leslie Thyberg, Canon Dr. John Macdonald, and Jim Oakes of Five Talents. We grabbed a couple cabs and headed to sit at the rooftop wine and cheese bar at the Notre Dame Center of Jerusalem. I spent most of the evening talking with Leslie and Jim about a myriad of topics from ministry and calling to church planting and the future of the Anglican church worldwide. Along the way, we would discover that Israeli wine is rather good. It is far from surprising though that a region which has been making wine for thousands and thousands of years does so well.

Thursday:
In the morning I woke up early and met a group of folks in the lobby of our hotel. One of my former professors, the Rev. Dr. Peter Walker, led us in a trip to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We hopped on a bus and were dropped off just outside the Old City near the Jaffa Gate. From there our trip started with us standing outside the Jaffa Gate, looking at the original bedrock that Jesus stood on when he was tried. We were standing in much the same location that many members of the crowd stood when they shouted out, "crucify him!"

We then walked through what has since been added into the footprint of the "Old City," and carefully (for fear of slipping on the very well worn stones walkway) descended down to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As we walked through the city we also walked through the last hours of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Along the way, I was overwhelmed by the weightiness of the crucifixion and the passion narrative. It is one thing to understand the timeline and complexities of the narrative in relation to our own sins and forgiveness. It is quite another to walk the journey that Christ so arduously took on Good Friday. It was particularly striking to do so in the quieter hours and cool of the early morning before the shops had opened up. In the oddly comfortable quiet of the morning, I was able to completely focus and reflect on the gravity and beauty of the story. I was overwhelmed that my sins were put upon that very cross out of perfect love. The biblical narrative made so much more sense as I walked that small road, gazed upon the small crown of Golgotha, and peered into an open 1st-century era tomb. No, it wasn't the actual tomb Jesus was put in, well probably not, but through the experience it all made sense.

We then walked through what has since been added into the footprint of the "Old City," and carefully (for fear of slipping on the very well worn stones walkway) descended down to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As we walked through the city we also walked through the last hours of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Along the way, I was overwhelmed by the weightiness of the crucifixion and the passion narrative. It is one thing to understand the timeline and complexities of the narrative in relation to our own sins and forgiveness. It is quite another to walk the journey that Christ so arduously took on Good Friday. It was particularly striking to do so in the quieter hours and cool of the early morning before the shops had opened up. In the oddly comfortable quiet of the morning, I was able to completely focus and reflect on the gravity and beauty of the story. I was overwhelmed that my sins were put upon that very cross out of perfect love. The biblical narrative made so much more sense as I walked that small road, gazed upon the small crown of Golgotha, and peered into an open 1st-century era tomb. No, it wasn't the actual tomb Jesus was put in, well probably not, but through the experience it all made sense.
 

That afternoon, after a workshop, the entire conference was bused to the South Temple Steps, just outside the walls of the Old City, for the group photo. Let me just say that I have a great amount of respect for the leadership of GAFCON being able to choreograph the buses. Within an hour of walking out of the International Convention Center, I was in my place and we were ready to take the photo. To do that with a group of nearly 2000 people from across the globe is a miracle in and of itself. To stand on those steps, where thousands upon thousands of Jesus entered into the Temple was amazing. To then look to my left, across the valley, at the Mount of Olives where Jesus ascended into Heaven left me speechless.

After the photo and the amazing worship that followed (imagine singing Amazing Grace on the South Temple Steps with almost 2000 others and hearing it echo across the Kidron Valley), we had a short worship service, sang Amazing Grace, and then proceeded through the Old City. The goal we were given was to walk briskly through the city, board another bus, and head back to the convention center. Unfortunately, I'm not much for following rigorous itineraries while traveling. Neither is my good friend, Leslie. We met up with another friend, Kirsten Gardner, and slowly strolled through the Armenian district of the Old City. Once we neared the Jaffa Gate we bumped into a few familiar faces and decided to have dinner at the Armenian Tavern with them. Bishop Jim Hobby, his wife the Rev. Shari Hobby, Laurie, Leslie, Kirsten, Jenny Noyes, and I shared some great table fellowship and had some delicious food. Along the way, we also bumped into Canon Jack Luminog and several others who were taking time to fully experience the wonderful Armenian cuisine as well.

Friday:
Friday was the last day of the conference. One thing that anyone who has yet to spend time in Jerusalem must know is that Shabbat, the Sabbath, is still very much a big deal. Shabbat begins at sundown on Friday, and preparations begin mid-afternoon. In order to prepare for Shabbat, the conference ended promptly at 3:00. This allowed time for everyone to leave the premises before the whole city pretty much shut down. Following the closing Leslie and I met several new friends, and Seth Zimmerman (an old friend and church planter in the Pittsburg area) at a local brewery called the BeerBazaar just in time to have one drink before they closed for Shabbat. From about 4:30 until dinner time Leslie and I walked through Jerusalem, back to the Old City, and then to the American Colony Hotel's restaurant which was one of only a handful of places open for dinner.

For the most part, we watched the city slowly shut down. As it did, the Israelis hurried to buy all they would need for the Shabbat. Soon the electric train stopped, and people walked, ran, or biked along the same roads where the trains had run all week long. It was really incredible to see how everyone slowly came together in their neighborhoods and began to transition into their routine of evening prayer. On our way to dinner, a call to prayer cried out from somewhere nearby. One thing that surprised me throughout the trip was just how safe I felt at all times. Despite what I was told about relations in the region, the Israelis and the Palestinians all seemed to get along just fine in Jerusalem. That isn't to say that everything is cupcakes and rainbows throughout the region, but at least in Jerusalem, the people have figured out a balance in which everyone can live, despite significant cultural and religious differences. No, they don't embrace one another's traditions. No, they don't "coexist" as the bumper sticker might lead us to believe we can/should. What they have found is at least a semblance of peace, for the time being at least.

Dinner Friday night was great. I had some amazing chicken tajine at the American Colony Hotel and sat with several members of the ACNA's committee for catechesis. I am especially thankful for the conversations we had regarding catechesis and church planting. Many of them are involved in just that. More specifically, listening to some of the stories that Fr. Lee Nelson had was particularly helpful as I look at what the Lord may be calling me to do following my experience in seminary. He is, quite simply, doing great things in ministry, planting churches throughout the country, and emphasizing the importance of catechesis. I'd be more than happy to share more in detail, but that is a conversation to be had over a cup of coffee if you're interested.

Final Thoughts:
It is so hard to summarize my experience. I met so many incredible people, experienced so much, and at the same time I hardly even scratched the surface. All I know is that I cannot wait to go back. I want to walk those streets again and watch the children play in the park on Shabbat. I want to get up to the Sea of Galilee, and then travel around the region more. The list goes on and on. That said, I am so incredibly thankful for the experience I had. I pray that the relationships built through GAFCON, and the decisions made might lead to revival throughout the Anglican Communion. We are all back in our homes now, and for the most part, everything is back to normal. The question now is what does the future hold for God's church and how did my trip affect the ways in which I am able to share the Gospel? Hopefully, I was able to represent Trinity well and faithfully in order that we might continue to grow and equip people to faithfully proclaim the Gospel. Hopefully, I established relationships which will be not only lifelong but everlasting. Hopefully, I can return back to Israel and continue to learn more. Next time Sara is going to go with me though.

Links to Teachings:
GAFCON Has provided the entire Live Feed from each day, the Expository teachings of scripture, the Plenary talks, and a variety of other resources. To access them all, click here.

See more photos from the trip here