We were privileged to recently attend the 7th World Congress of Families held in Sydney’s unique Eveleigh Locomotive Workshops at Redfern. Around 800 people from all around the world attended over the three days (15 – 18th May).
Previous congresses have been in Prague (1997), Geneva (1999), Mexico City (2004), Warsaw (2007), Amsterdam (2009) and Madrid (2012).
Reflecting back on the congress, universal is the first word that springs to mind. The speakers were from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds covering a myriad of topics on both the micro and macro level affecting families. Throughout, though, both research and practice pointed to the essential part the natural family plays in a healthy society and the need for the economy to serve the family and not the other way around.
Words of hope came from African and Russian delegates. While generally-speaking in Western countries the natural family and religion is in crisis, Theresa Okafor from Nigeria, spoke of her desire to see Africa give back to the West its lost heritage. Missionaries had made a significant impact for her own life. “I’m a twin, and in some parts of Africa, they were seen as evil. I’m alive, in part, because of the Scottish missionaries,” she said. She then went on to itemize characteristics of African culture (outside South Africa) which need to be resurrected in the West. During the 20th century the majority of churches were destroyed in Russia but the swing around in faith is dramatic: in Moscow alone there is now a need for 200 more churches to be built! Russia is dismayed to see the West willingly give up what they had forcefully taken from them and are now reclaiming.
William May’s talk Getting the Marriage Conversation Right indicated a way forward in upholding marriage. To continue to defend marriage amidst a campaign of silence and intimidation we need to learn new ways of communicating about marriage. For instance, the definition, marriage unites a man and a woman with each other and any children born from their union, is now being constructively adopted in the current debate. Marriage is worth fighting for and we were rightly reminded history hasn’t been written yet!
Unfortunately, much of our health education is based on instilling fear with predictably poor results. Louise Kirk from England highlighted the need for virtues based education to start early so that children can learn what trust and love look like and also begin to appreciate the wonderful gift of their fertility long before their hormones start raging. Her curriculum Alive to the World is now available from Freedom Press in Australia.
Birth Control is not typically seen as a Protestant issue, but this has not always been so. Historically all Christian churches were aligned on the birth control question, that is, until the twentieth century. A new documentary by Protestants exploring the history of birth control Birth Control:How did we get here? was one of the lunchtime options available to conference attendees. Copies were purchased for both Auckland and Wellington Centres in time before they all sold out. Watch the trailer here:
Another highlight for everyone was hearing first hand from Jose Ureta about the French experience surrounding the marriage debate and especially how the young 20 and 30 year olds have risen up to defend marriage. Drawing 1.5 million people these marches have been the largest ever in France’s history. One European leader has described the French response to the attempt to eliminate marriage as “Europe’s most beautiful surprise.” Besides the Marches for All, the young people have also spontaneously initiated The Watchers (Les Veilleurs) groups of young adults sitting in their town centres at night singing by candlelight (usually until they are removed!). Present at the conference also was a young French man living in Sydney who explained that this movement has spread to other cities around the world including Sydney. Wherever there are French young people gatherings are organized to coincide with the Marches in France. The question was asked why? The young man explained this generation see themselves as victims of divorce, moral relativism and poor education and they want to see and be part of a new cultural revolution. There has been an awakening and they are ready to reject moral relativism and fight for family values. The theatre spontaneously erupted into the French national anthem as a way of acknowledging and celebrating their valour!
Organization of this Congress was a joint project between New Zealand and Australia. Starting with the traditional welcome by the local Indigenous people to the many local speakers, Australasia’s contribution was significant. Tasman speakers in the plenary sessions included:
• Peter Meurs the Director of Development of Fortescue Metals Group attributes the unexpected success of his company to the company’s family ethos. Particularly inspirational was their practical steps of supporting numbers of indigenous people and consequently their families to break free from inter-generational unemployment.
• In his unique and entertaining style, Ian Grant, offered parents encouragement in his presentation Parenting: a Journey of Love for Life.
• Australians Byron and Francine Pirola, from Smart Loving, opened up the inner world of the marriage relationship and shared some of their Smart Loving Tips.
• Former Deputy Prime Minister of Australia for six years, John Anderson, gave one of the best addresses of the conference. The breakdown of the family is really only symptomatic of a breakdown of truth and absolutes. He lamented the current lack of reasoned debate in the public sphere which is a natural ramification of a rejection of objective truth and absolute values. Our age is one of self-obsession, funding unsustainable entitlements, borrowing against our children’s future. He indicated three things as the way forward: Firstly, to recommit to truth, secondly, to engage in reasoned debate, and, thirdly to remember who we are fighting for: our children (and grandchildren).
There were plenty of lighter moments enjoyed. The characteristic Australian and New Zealand flavour was evident with the trans-Tasman banter whenever New Zealanders took to the stage. Not showing any bias but New Zealand’s Bob McCroskie outwitted the Australians more than once. Lunch time activities among other presentations included a fashion parade from The Dress Shoppe http://www.tds.com and a live theatre, The Tale of Two Brains. Friday night saw the premiere of the movie Return to the Hiding Place the story of Dutch Resistance fighter Hans Poley who found refuge in Corrie ten Boom’s house during the Nazi occupation. There were plenty of display tables and opportunities to talk with and meet people during the breaks.
Over the three days many modern day myths were exposed. On day one Bishop Peter Elliott stressed Blessed Pope John Paul II’s call for a ‘family politics” in Familiaris Consortio which counteracts the false claims that the family is ‘a private matter’ and that the individual and not the family is the basic cell of society. The World Congress of Families is one endeavour to strengthen the family, the basic living cell of society, by promoting public discussion on research and all matters affecting the family today. At the end of each WCF a declaration is proclaimed to summarize the discussion. The 2013 Declaration can be read in full here.
As part of the closing ceremony the Russian delegates made a delightful presentation of several Russian dolls, each one a family of seven, to key organizers of this congress. The 2014 World Congress of Families is to be held in Russia, with none other than the Kremlin being the venue.