Lambeth Reflections

5 August 2008

Looking back on the Lambeth Conference two days after it closed, I feel even more convinced that we used our time well.  The key thing in my mind is that, with issues before us which could have led to fundamental division, we were counter-cultural and did not get drawn down a path which would have ended up with ‘winners and losers’.

The temptation to resolve a number of issues, not least the gay issue, was ever before the conference and its designers.  It was a path which would have suited some and which was eagerly anticipated by the press.  Such a path would, however, have led to division – for it would have brought resolution but at the cost of losing parts of the Communion.

As I see it, although the divisions within the Communion have been portrayed as the ‘orthodox’ versus the ‘liberals’, this is a parody.  They are just different ways of understanding how the God we encounter in Jesus Christ works in and through history.  They stem from a shared belief that God was in Christ and that the Spirit leads us into truth. The division comes about whether the work of the Spirit has been completed or whether we continue being led into truth as an ongoing process of the Spirit as it leads us to discover and understand more about salvation,  the human condition and its context.

We live in a culture of ‘winners and losers’, it is most evident politics – but does it make it a better world?.  It is a culture which drives the market, shapes the globalisation of economics and which is champion by those who most frequently found amongst the winners.  The culture of ‘winners and losers’ is a culture of division and injustice, especially when one group are constantly amongst the losers.  There is little evidence that the culture of ‘winners and losers’ leads to peace, harmony, human flourishing or justice for the poor.  It is a competitive culture leading to the survival and success of those who are better educated, more confident and for those who can attract majorities without really engaging with the truth.  It is a culture which is loved by those who enjoy  division and who thrive on conflict.

The indaba process which has dominated this Conference, with all its imperfections and frustrations, has enabled the overwhelming majority of bishops within the Anglican Communion to engage with each other.  In my study group we approached the key question of biblical authority from vastly different stand points, but we engaged with, shared and respected each other’s sincerity and faith.

Whilst the Conference did not produce grand statements, resolutions or answers – it did produce Bishops prepared to listen to and understand the complexity of each other’s faith and position.  The divisions and issues have not gone away, but we have sat closely with God and this will serve us well when the time is right for us to address these things.  We have renewed a common mind about poverty, injustice and the integrity of creation.  We have explored having a covenant relationship – creating a space in which we can relate to each other in the Communion.  Most importantly we came away with no thirst or desire to separate, but rather we appear more determined to keep a common voice to witness, support and encourage each other in the 130 countries of the Communion.

Finally we have been enriched by each other – as one Bishop put it “We are the product of this Conference”.  So it has not been about resolutions or paper work, but the people who have the great privilege of being Bishops in mission and in serving God’s Church.

We have also had a opportunity to be appropriately counter-cultural,  for there are no winners and losers in Christ, but all are one in his love.

Lambeth Day 16

1 August 2008

Those who have been supporting the process of Bible Study followed by an Indaba were vindicated this morning.  I sat, listened and contributed as one of 40 bishops engaging with issues in human sexuality.  As far as I could tell, everyone was able to make a contribution and the challenges facing us were clarified.  There was no ‘grandstanding’ and people were able to make their contribution without having to run the gauntlet of a plenary of 660 bishops  – which would have ensured that only a minority were heard.

In my Indaba, one thing about which there was unanimity was that our attitude to homosexual people must be positive, generous and full of Christian love.  There, however, the unanimity ended.   In my Bible Study group there had been a recognition that we are each trying to be faithful to God and to our understanding of the nature and authority of scripture. By the time we came to the Indaba I detected the underlying presumption that a ‘real Christian’ is essentially fundamentalist when it comes to using the Bible.

The discussion was however very helpful in enabling both sides to hear the problems faced by the other.  The problems are essentially both theological and cultural – but culture can be a vicious thing.  So we encountered one Bishop who shared his concern that, if the Communion was understood to be accepting of homosexual practice, then he would have no credibility amongst the people of his Diocese and he would be deposed.  It also became evident that homosexuality in many parts of the world remains taboo and so the Church cannot even raise the subject.   In many countries in the Communion homosexual practice remains illegal and again the Church cannot be seen to be accepting it.

Yet we also heard from cultures where homosexuality has become an accepted expression within the spectrum of human sexuality and so a Church which is perceived to be ‘anti-gay’ is seen to be prejudiced and hypocritical in its call for justice and peace.  One Bishop shared his concern that young adults in his congregations were looking for a Church which is inclusive and that they would leave if he went back without this issue having been resolved to enable their church to be an inclusive one.

Where is all this going?  Well, the one thing which has become apparent is that there is no general appetite for a ‘winners and losers’ outcome about this issue.  It may well be that the time is still not right for a clear way forward to be found.  That will frustrate the press (who are back here again in large numbers now that we are on to sex) and those who want a clear resolution.

Sometimes it takes a very long time for the Church to absorb the challenges which modernity thrusts at us. The discussions about homosexuality have been going on within the Communion for about 30 years – which feels a very long time. We need to remember however that the Church is still trying to accommodate the theological implications of  a Sun-centered theory of the universe which Galileo posed in about 1610, of Darwin’s theory of evolution from  the 1840s, of the double helix in the 1950s and of Lemaître’s Big Bang theory from the 1920/30s.  Perhaps we need to just allow ourselves the time needed to find a balanced way to accommodate issues in human sexuality, in the same way as we have found ways to accommodate evolutionists and creationists within the theological spectrum which is part of the Anglican identity.

The Archbishop of Burundi started the day with a memorable sermon which ended with the words “…..before the Communion was, I am.”   Whatever comes out of the Conference about these matters, in the end we have been Christ centred in all this and there has been no room for those who would wish to demonise those with whom they disagree.

Lambeth Day 15

31 July 2008

The conference ends in four days time and concern that there should be a ‘product’ from the Conference is mounting.  I find it ironic that whilst such concern comes from across the spectrum of opinion here, it includes those who are convinced that the church must not be influenced by contemporary culture.  Yet this idea that you cannot meet without a purpose and an outcome is totally driven by contemporary culture, influenced by an economy which only values an activity if it ‘feeds the bottom line’.

It is regrettable that over the years The Lambeth Conference has become associated with some kind of legislature for the Communion, with its resolutions being given the status of law….the question “do you subscribe Lambeth 1.10?” has at times taken on a McCarthyistic character.  So an expectation has developed that on Sunday evening we will be coming down the mountain (well, hill actually) on which this campus is set, with tablets under our arms having solved questions about the use and interpretation of the Bible which have challenged the church throughout its history.

In a world which falls so far short of what God intended and with so many people, each made in the image of God, not sharing in the God-given blessings of life, we need to value people of faith coming together to renew their commitment to God, to each other and to building the Kingdom of God.  We will have totally sold out to the ephemeral values of our age if we fail to celebrate the intrinsic value of worship, prayer, study and the recommitment of bishops in mission to their leadership of the church, as it works for the Kingdom of God.

The work to gather the reflections from all the Indaba Groups goes on and the panel, which has been drawn from the groups, has been working into the night drafting a communiqué which will reflect the work which has been done within those Groups.   It will provide an important record of what has taken place here – but for me, the real product has been what has occurred within the Conference, which has no cash value, but ‘feeds the bottom line’ of a Church which works in the power of the Spirit.

Lambeth Day 12

28 July 2008

This morning some Bishops went to parishes in and around Canterbury to share in their Sunday worship, whilst others were at the Cathedral.  I joined that latter group and stayed to enjoy the hospitality of the Cathedral with a buffet lunch served in the precincts.  I get the feeling that we are all in need of a quieter more restful day.

We have had a week and a half of building relationships and trust, now we need to capitalise on all this as we map a way forward for the Communion.  We are here as leaders of the Communion and that means more than just being friendly.  The key question is how do we structure the Communion without creating a centralising ‘magisterium’ of teaching and order,  which would undermine the nature of the bonds which holds us together as a worldwide Communion.

Although there has been much attention on issues in human sexuality, which are of course important, in many ways these discussions have guided  us to the complex questions about the Anglican Communion and its comprehensiveness.

One of the gifts which the Anglican Communion has offered to God and to the world has been our ability to hold together a diversity of responses to the God whom we have encountered in Jesus Christ.  Diversity which has been worked out in the way in which we have made our decisions about the order of the church.  We have been a Church which has been held together by belief, as contained in the historic creeds and the historic formularies, and not by agreeing to particular statements about that faith in each generation.   This has always frustrated those who like clarity and structure to the content of faith.

There is pressure from those in the Communion who would be happier with statements or confessions of faith, but many of us are wary of such a move as that requires churches to ‘opt in’, whereas a family is something from which you choose to ‘opt out’.   So it is going to be a busy week, but my observation is that we have been well prepared for it by the worship, prayer and personal engagements which have been the substance of the Conference thus far.

Lambeth Day 8

24 July 2008

Although it feels as though we have been here forever, today is actually only day three of the Conference itself and for me it marks a turning point.  Both in my Bible Study Group and in the Indaba Group, the quality of the engagement and the positive energy within the conversations has changed and we started to look at the issue which tacitly dominates the agenda of the Conference – homosexuality.

The day started with an amazingly upbeat Eucharist led by the Episcopal Church of Cuba and which undoubtedly contributed to the texture of the morning.  The story of the woman taken in adultery in John’s Gospel was a good vehicle to take the Bible study group into a discussion of a statement by the Sudanese Bishops in which they expressed their opposition to the consecration of a practicing homosexual as a bishop.  Whilst the majority of my group shared the concerns of the Sudanese, the engagement was much more about how we can ensure that the Communion remains intact.

I was moved by the very positive statements being made about the value of the Anglican Communion.  We considered how provinces having a different attitude to these things may not be an issue which can be resolved, but we went onto consider how we can find a future together.  Whilst we didn’t even begin to resolve the issues, we did achieve a quality of engagement which will frustrate those looking for conflict and schism.

At the Indaba we were considering ‘Bishops and Social justice’.  Gone were the rather disconnected and reluctant conversations of yesterday and in came a positive response to the questions.  Again we heard moving stories from those who minister on the frontline of human suffering.  We heard of the church’s involvement with the disastrous impact of HIV/Aids.  We heard of the care being given to orphans, of the programmes of education and of a positive commitment to the challenges being faced by the church in different parts of the Communion.

One thing which came through was the strength of a global family of churches being committed to human flourishing.   We were at one in recognising each and every person as an outward and visible sign of God’s grace, in other words that we are each a sacrament and that we should be treated and cared for as such.  Again, although the members of my group represent both sides of the issues concerning human sexuality, there was no thirst for division, but rather a desire to reinforce the links which hold the Communion together in a common cause of mission.

One good day doesn’t solve our problems, but it does suggest that the Indaba process may yet prove to be a positive way of us working together at the challenges we face as the Anglican Communion.   The voices of the sceptics, the cynics and the disaffected can still be heard and will probably end up being the most reported, even if they are a minority, but I was greatly encouraged by my experiences today.  So tomorrow were off to London to see the Queen and, should she ask, I will be able to reassure her that we are making progress!

Lambeth Day 7

23 July 2008

Choreographers need an enormous amount of co-operation from their dancers before the product of their work can be enjoyed by both the participants and the audience.  As we get used to the dance of the Lambeth Conference Indaba process, talking and listening with each other, it was apparent today that not all of the performers have learnt the steps of this particular dance. So there was a certain amount of stepping on toes, being in the wrong place, missing the beat and ending up without a partner.

Those who have quickly picked up the steps and dance movements were frustrated at the ponderous footwork of those more used to dancing to their own rhythms.  The different styles of dancing have also been apparent, with some are clearly more comfortable with the set pieces of the ballet,  rather than the interaction of this participatory dance which is so full of polyrhythms.  As with so much about the Anglican Communion, the cultural agenda leads to much misunderstanding and people feeling wrong footed.

So we are still learning the steps and a great deal of patience is going to be needed from those who are keen to get on with the main performance.  Those who want to rush ahead before we are all ready may just spoil the dance which has been so carefully crafted for us.

There is a fascinating connectivity between conversations each day – today the word which kept reappearing in the Bible study, at my Indaba Group and then in the afternoon self-select session with Brain McLaren was ‘authenticity’.  So my thought from the day is that evangelism has to be rooted in authenticity, lest it just becomes recruitment.  I am glad to say that this recognition seemed to be owned from across the cultures of the Communion……….perhaps we’re beginning to dance.

Lambeth Day 5

21 July 2008

Now that the Conference proper has got under way you have to be careful where you walk! No stone has been left unturned by journalists looking for conflict.

At the opening session yesterday afternoon the serious questions facing the Anglican Communion were laid out before us.  The presenting issue is of course about human sexuality, but the underlying and real issues are about authority, identity and power – issues which lurk around every family and which, I think, are part and parcel of the ebb and flow of family relationships.

The most encouraging thing which came through to me yesterday was that, whilst there are clear disagreements here, there is no thirst for conflict – in fact quite the reverse.  This is bad news for journalists looking for copy.  The standing ovation as Archbishop Rowan started his Presidential Address was a clear affirmation of his standing within a family which wants to stay together.

We had the process for listening and engaging with each other over the coming two weeks explained to us. It appears to be a far more robust process than it first appeared.  It is clear that the disagreements are going to be addressed, but is such a way that enables us all to be involved, rather than through large plenary sessions which of their nature exclude opinion and contribution by the majority.

The opening Eucharist in Canterbury Cathedral was Anglican worship at its best – dignified, vibrant, engaging and prayerful.  The interweaving of traditional and modern was seamless, as was the interplay of languages.  It really did feel offered to the glory of God – and that’s what worship should be all about.

There’s a long way to go in this conference, but I ended the first day encouraged that we are a Communion which is worth working hard to retain.  At the heart of this worldwide family is a real desire to be faithful to our vocation and to our part in God’s mission, being here does give you that bigger picture of what that means to the diversity of people which make up this Communion.  I just hope that the journalistic thirst for sensational copy will not distort that picture.

Lambeth Day 1

17 July 2008

Well, we have arrived here at Canterbury and, apart from some inconsequential registration hiccups, all is going well.  The one thing which has immediately struck me is the diversity of the Anglican Communion as reflected in the Bishops and their spouses. The inevitable queues speak eloquently of the numbers who have committed themselves to this conference and to engaging with each other in studying the Bible and being together.

It is quite clear that this conference has been set up as an opportunity to listen to each other.  I encountered one journalist who was clearly looking for conflict and was a little disconcerted to find that the group I was with were very much wanting to commit themselves to listening, sharing and understanding. So we are set to be counter cultural as listening, sharing and understanding appear to be in short supply in our fast, media rich world!

One can’t help feeling that the minority who have stayed away are missing a significant moment and our listening and understanding will be diminished by us not having their contribution.  I have already has some great conversations with Bishops from different parts of the world and it all bodes well for the coming days.

………and for those who are wondering, the three Bishops from the Diocese of Lincoln have arrived safe and sound!