This Conference is so packed with things to do that there is a temptation to skip the odd event just to create some personal space etc. Those who took such an opportunity tonight will have rued their decision, for they have missed an extraordinarily memorable evening with Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, – he was electric.
The Chief Rabbi’s theme was the ‘covenant’ relationship. In a passionate and demanding address he described the two types of covenant to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures – the covenant of fate which was attested to Noah through the rainbow and the covenant of faith with Moses and Abraham. Two memorable images have stayed particularly in my mind – that through covenant , solitude is redeemed and how a ‘contract’ leads to betterment, whereas a ‘covenant’ leads to transformation.
The whole lecture, along with the questions and answer session, was so full of nuggets of wisdom that it needs time to absorb it all – but the message came through powerfully – there needs to be a covenant of fact between all peoples of faith enabling them to move away from a violent and divisive past, to work together in the face of the challenges of poverty, hunger, disease and environmental disaster.
He urged the Anglican Communion to stay together as a sign of unity in diversity and it may well be that his theme of a covenant of fate, even if you can’t achieve a covenant of faith, may offer a way forward. The two standing ovations which he received, at the end of his lecture and then after the questions , were spontaneous responses from a large group of faith leaders to another faith leader who had inspired us in our task.
We certainly need some encouragement. The afternoon hearings about finding a way forward with the issues of church order and homosexuality were not exactly encouraging with fairly entrenched positions being re-stated in a hall without air-conditioning and akin to a sauna. There were just two memorable offerings, both from evangelicals, which gave us a different path to consider. The first was from Duncan Gray, Bishop of Mississippi, who, perhaps because he is used to the heat, was on sparkling form. He is opposed fundamentally to the liberal agenda, but he is not prepared to divide the church, drawing on St Paul, he affirmed that in relation to the parts of ECUSA with whom he disagrees, he still contends that “I need you – for my salvation and for the salvation of the world.”
The second offering came from the Eugene Sutton, the Bishop of Maryland. He reminded us that his forbears had been taken into slavery and shipped to America to suffer dreadfully by people with the Bible under their arms. He cautioned us to remember that you can use the Bible to oppress. Good stuff from a self-professed evangical who assured us that he sits under the authority of scripture.