The Network for Inter Faith Concerns of the Anglican Communion is one of several networks working within Anglican structures. Others include the Family network and the Refugee network. Each has its own history and ethos, a bit like the provinces of the communion itself, and each operates in distinctive ways.
NIFCON was founded in 1993, with discussions taking place from 23rd January 1992 onwards. Its beginnings are very much related to Lambeth 1988, when the Inter Faith area was present for the first time in a substantive if limited way. Resolution 20 of that conference affirmed the four principles of dialogue which originated in the World Council of Churches, and went on to assert:
Acknowledging that such dialogue, which is not a substitute for evangelism, may well be a contribution in helping people of different faiths to make common cause in resolving issues of peace making, social justice and religious liberty, we further commend each Province to initiate such dialogue in partnership with other Christian churches where appropriate.
Pages 92-98 of the Lambeth 88 Report are an extensive explication of these four principles, as they pertain particularly to Islam and Judaism, the 'Abrahamic faiths' (more detail in that area is found in Appendix 6 of the report). However paragraph 62 affirms that many Christians have found their faith deepened and their understanding of the human condition broadened by dialogue with Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism, an area not opened up much at the Conference, and Asian members in particular are encouraged to share the new insights they have gained by such encounter. NIFCON has always attempted to hold a balance between religions as indicated in this report.
The four principles are:
Such a list provides an approach to people of other faiths which has now stood the test of time. It covers the areas of human relationships, spirituality, service and appropriate witness.
The primary and stated aim of NIFCON at this stage was to respond to Resolution 20. It was to encourage dialogue and witness in all its forms across the communion. In the background papers this is stated as being 'particularly in the face of the changing realities in the relationships between different religious communities in different socio-political situations in which the churches of the Anglican Communion find themselves.
The request to establish NIFCON came from the then Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, Sam Van Culin. He convened a meeting at Partnership House London, including representatives of CMS and USPG, Roger Symon from the Archbishop's Office, and the Principals of the two Anglican Selly Oak Colleges, Colin Chapman of Crowther Hall and Andrew Wingate of the College of the Ascension. His proposal was to use the existing Centre for Anglican Communion Studies based in these two colleges to house the network in its beginnings. Selly Oak had the advantage of having experienced persons on the staff or doing postgraduate study from all around the Anglican Communion, thus providing a natural place for networking possibilities. It also had a long established academic tradition in the inter faith area, and in particular housed the world renowned Centre for the Study of Islam and Muslim Christian Relations. Donald Anderson of the ACC wrote "The Selly Oak Colleges provide a place of safe encounter, study and inter-faith dialogue for people away from their own often heavily charged local situations."
CMS and USPG both provided some seed money, space and staff support - ACC could provide support but not money, and the Network was established in December 1993. The terms of reference refers to Resolution 23 of the meeting of ACC and Primates earlier in the year calling for the setting up of a network of correspondents throughout the Communion, and this was the initial task of the first very part-time convenor, Nigel Pounde, who was loaned by Lichfield Diocese. From the beginning he spent much time raising the relatively small sum of money at first needed - £4000 in 1993/4.
His other main task was to produce a Newsletter, which was 'to gather and disseminate information about relations with people of other faiths across the Anglican Communion ... and to draw up an agenda that reflects accurately the concerns of the provinces. It was hoped that the network would encourage study, discussion and reflection on such concerns, using the resources of Selly Oak and elsewhere, and also encourage interchange across the Communion. The hope was expressed that NIFCON could consider the possibility of planning a Consultation on Inter Faith issues to precede Lambeth 1998. An advisory group was set up, Birmingham based, and also including 5 corresponding members from around the communion.
ACC10, held in Panama in 1996, was an important time in the history of NIFCON. The Consultative Council responded to Resolution 19B of the joint Primates and ACC Standing Committee, which asked them to 'examine the Resolutions related to the former ACC and Lambeth Conferences with regard to Inter-faith concerns' and urged ACC10 to take measures to strengthen NIFCON. The time was urgent, they said, to encourage the Anglican Communion to engage in Inter-Faith dialogue. They recommended a strengthening of its funding and personnel base 'on a more permanent and secure basis than is the case at present.'
By now NIFCON was fully responsible to ACC and had always received full support from ACC staff, including the two Secretary Generals through the 1990s. However, no direct funding was given to this, or indeed other networks. The request to ACC 10 in Panama was not immediately realised. This meant that the very part time convenorship held by Nigel Pounde had to be continued on the same basis by his successor John Sargant from Salisbury Diocese, who took over in early 1997.
Most of the energy during his early period was to prepare for Lambeth 1998. Here inter faith concerns had a high profile and one which did not polarise the conference but enabled it to see the importance of the concerns throughout the communion, especially in relationship to Muslim-Christian relations. The NIFCON Support Group worked hard in preparation and execution of the programme at Lambeth, and the leaders in enabling the conference in this area were Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, now a President of NIFCON, Colin Chapman and John Sargant.
The result was Resolution V.36 which spelled out in detail what it believed to be a genuinely Christian approach to other faiths, and the special possibilities for Anglicans in this area. Of special relevance to us, it recognised the status of NIFCON, affirmed and strengthened its role, and gave it the additional task of monitoring Muslim-Christian relations in the Communion and to report on this regularly to the Primates and the ACC. Other networks were encouraged to consider the inter-faith aspects of their work. ACC were called upon to consider how to resource NIFCON adequately in terms of personnel and finance.
Residential meetings of NIFCON at Launde Abbey, Leicestershire in October 2000 and November 2001 set key targets for the next few years. John L. Peterson's continued efforts, backed up by the invaluable groundwork of the UK Support Group, together with contributions from individual members of the Compass Rose Society (USA) has at last secured funding and enabled the appointment of paid staff if - only on a part time basis. With the launch of the website www.anglicannifcon.org in May 2002 it is hoped to expand on the role of the previous Newsletter.
The task of dialogue, witness, information sharing, networking and serious theological and missiological reflection is urgent. So also there is the added challenge of giving inspiration, encouraging the sharing of resources, and enabling prayer across the communion, which NIFCON has pinpointed as vital. Much is happening. Much more needs to happen if we are to live up to the history of our Anglican forebears in this field, as the task becomes more and more pressing in the increasingly polarised religious world of the beginning of this new century. The four principles of dialogue provide a framework, nor should we be afraid of affirming the place of appropriate evangelism. A few years ago the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of his four 'building bridges of dialogue', which are worth repeating at the end of this report. He wrote of 'friendship not hostility; understanding not ignorance; reciprocity not exclusivism; co-operation not confrontation.'
Such a challenge is that which faces the Communion in differing ways through out the provinces. NIFCON seeks the means of, at least in a modest way, helping in that process.
Writen by Andrew Wingate January 2001 (Updated Susanne Mitchell June 2002)