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.

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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 10

26 July 2008

A characteristic which appears to be common to all bishops is that they have opinions.  So, if you take 650 bishops and bring them to a campus in Kent, you have 650 opinions about most matters you discuss.  If, as a commentator on church matters, you want to run a particular slant to a story, then you are almost guaranteed to find an opinion to support the line you are taking – even though it may only be a 1/650th of the truth.

As we poise midway through this Lambeth Conference this appears to be exactly what is happening here at Canterbury and a distorted picture is emerging about Indaba Groups, the Bible Studies and the Conference outcomes.

I can report that I am really enjoying both my Bible study group and the Indaba Group – they are good opportunities to share experiences, clarify what others are thinking and they give focus as we address key areas for our mission and ministry.  Most important of all, they are forums for building relationships and, in a Communion which is fundamentally about relationships then, that is no bad thing.  So this 1/650th of the conference is encouraged by the process and valuing an outcome which feels deeply spiritual, as we build bonds of fellowship and trust.

There are those who want to rush forward to address the BIG issue, sweeping aside less important issues for the Communion.  But how could we meet as a worldwide communion and not be engaged with the challenge for the world coming from global warming?  Earlier this evening Professor Chris Rapley , Director of the Science Museum, encouraged the Communion to fill the vacuum of moral leadership in the world as we face of the mounting evidence that unless we change the way we release carbon dioxide, then the damage to the planet’s atmosphere is going bring disastrous consequences.

Over the past 10 days I have met so many bishops who are clearly leaders in their community.  Together, we represent a body of leadership which is well placed to give the moral leadership which is so absent from the politicians.  To do so we would have to re-order our priorities.  Issues within human sexuality are important, how we shape our Communion and cope the variety of approaches to the authority of scripture is important – but our stewardship of God’s gift in creation is fundamentally important for a church whose vocation comes from the one who came that we might have life and have it abundantly.

So the Conference goes on, my Indaba Group has moved off process and is finding its own way to address the issues, whilst my Bible Study Group has become an increasingly good place to be.  The outcomes are at present ‘soft’, which is frustrating for those who want ‘hard’ outcomes.  I think that these will follow quite swiftly, but they will have more ownership because they will come from the relationships which this conference appears to be fostering.

I was talking with another Bishop earlier today and he agrees with this analysis – so this blog represents 2/650ths of the opinions here at Lambeth.


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.