With representatives from 46 countries and 27 indigenous groups, the announced theme, “A Celebration of Life for a Reign of Justice and Peace,” became a reality in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil from March 28 through April 4. While various stories and pictures by those participating from the Diocese of South Dakota chronicle this important event, in what follows I shall attempt a few brief reflections on my experience of the Anglican Encounter.
From its inception, the planning committee for the Encounter experienced difficulty in trying to translate a vision of a world-wide gathering of men and women into a planned conference. Problems of money, distance, time and linguistic and cultural differences presented the committee with the difficult tasks of developing a program, overcoming logistical problems and working with a very small local planning group. Despite these difficulties a spirit of cooperation prevailed. At times, members of the planning committee entertained serious doubts as to whether or not the Encounter would actually take place given the lack of funds and some resistance to the idea itself, as well as the sheer complexity of the task in organizing and preparing for the diversity of the needs of the participants.
As I reflect on the work of the planning committee, its fears, its anxieties and many of the problems that attended our attempts to coordinate such diversity, it strikes me that the Encounter itself served as one small location of the larger problem of celebrating diversity, while at the same time calling for a reconciliation leading to unity between peoples, churches or nations.
In short, I have a renewed appreciation and respect for those who put together summit conferences of global proportion. Beyond the size and shape of a conference table, assumptions are challenged when one attempts to plan for a conference represented by such cultural diversity.
The unifying factor that transcended these differences was the Bible study and our shared worship. Without common prayer and grounding our self in scripture, which was the way each day began, I suspect little would have happened to encourage and promote the dialogue and trust that was needed to begin to see the different experiences that work against establishing a reign of justice and peace throughout the world. It was only by the grace of God and an openness to the spirit, that was so apparent throughout the conference, that communication and communion were realized.
After the first two days of the conference, many experienced the frustration of the heat, humidity and lack of air conditioning, as well as the shortage of water coupled with difficulty in communicating with other persons owing to the language differences. Again, another insight came in the words of a Brazilian woman, who noted that these were not mere “inconveniences” but the norm for those living in Salvador.
Nor was the diversity confined to cultural differences. The range of theological expectations perhaps varied even more. There were those who came expecting an extensive prayer vigil, while others came with shouts and cries inviting participants to begin a revolution. In short, the entire theological spectrum seemed to be present. Rather than being a point of division, separation and argumentation, such diversity was received, accepted and acknowledged. While there was not agreement on the varied agenda that different participants brought and presented, there was a sense that each of the presentations and each of the days, with its own theme presented by a particular part of the Americas, resulted in a larger contribution needed in addressing the call for a celebration of life in the face of senseless and heedless violence and destruction. This very willingness and acceptance which characterized the conference perhaps best expressed the theme of celebrating life rather than attacking from an ideological or theological perspective those whose opinions and commitments differed from one group to another.
Although the constituency was considerably different, with the conference being made up primarily of women of the Anglican Communion, I did experience a certain deja vu in thinking of the Anglican Encounter vis-a-vis the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops in 1988. The similarity was a recognition of how global awareness tends to judge parochial and national interest. Said differently, many of the concerns that we in the United States feel are central, paramount and global are, in fact, often born of our own special interests and cultural concerns. Many others who addressed violence against women, children, the earth and the poor helped me to see our concerns as a Church and our issues as a nation in relationship to other manifestations of deeper global issues that destroy rather than promote the sanctity of life.
A final and important insight was a sense of gratitude for having other persons from the Diocese of South Dakota at the Encounter. Between our breakfast meetings and other gatherings throughout the course of the conference, being able to share with Gloria Pearson, Cordelia Red Owl, Inez Harris, Jo Hall and Ruth Alexander in a more informal but important way is something that will be brought back to our diocese and offered to others.
Will there be another Anglican Encounter? It is hard to say at this time. There were calls for Anglican Encounter II. Although the representation by different peoples from around the Anglican Communion was an unexpected joy, participation was disappointing both in terms of sheer numbers, as well as the number of men present. For those reasons there should be another Anglican Encounter of a second kind and perhaps a third kind as well. On the other hand, there are those events that all of us have experienced that take on a special significance in that we are changed by participation in them and, by virtue of that change, feel compelled to share it with others. There is the possibility that the themes, the workshops, and the essence of this gathering might provide encounters of a stirring kind for others, as participants return to their provinces, dioceses and local parishes. Like many such encounters of a stirring kind, the symbol of this gathering of Anglicans from around the world may be as important, or more important, than the events that comprise the actual conference itself. The efficacy of this Encounter will be tested in the days and years to come.