My visit to Lambeth Palace Library got me thinking
Anyone who has ever toiled as a Minutes secretary to any organisation will realise the pain of trying to encapsulate complicated many-sided discussions, to be relieved when the Chairperson sums up and the gathering achieves a neat list of future actions. On a larger scale, the process of the Lambeth Conference is similar. With an agenda, topics to be discussed, and then Calls to be made, actions specified.
What is different is that, unlike most organisations recording their Minutes, the Anglican Communion is huge (80m plus members) and spread across the globe (165 countries) and operating in many different languages (at least nine interpreters assisted during the proceedings).
Furthermore, there are many people, both members of the communion and not, who are eager to know what the Conference is calling for. The members want to know because these are calls for their action. The non-members are interested because they are aware of the possible impact of the social influence of the Anglicans, both locally and globally.
Sex sells newspapers
The Press were particularly interested in how the call on Human Dignity would play out. It was known that issues about homosexuality have caused divisions for the last two decades, since the proclamation at the 1998 Lambeth Conference (1.10) which dubs gay sex sinful and unscriptural, bans clergy from conducting marriage rites for homosexual couples, and forbids the promotion of homosexuals as clergy or bishops.
Primates and Bishops in the global south, linking in an organisation called GSFAC (Global South Fellowship of the Anglican Communion) issued a statement reaffirming Lambeth 1.10 while Archbishop Welby issued statements which straddle the two sides. The final statement more or less says, “we agree to differ”.
The Daily Mail and Twitter, both of which thrive on conflict, predictably flared up by reporting the words of Sandi Toksvig (the TV host who is in a lesbian relationship) giving this as the reason why she will never go into a Church of England again. It is a pity that this row is the main news of Lambeth which reached the general public in the UK. Predictably the sexed-up story jumped into the limelight, and the general Press lost interest as the conference moved on to other topics. The religious press, for instance The Church Times, gave fuller and more balanced articles on this topic.
Christian unity and inter-faith relations
After the day at Lambeth Palace, the next two topics were Christian unity and inter-faith relations. Participants from other churches were involved with the Bishops in discussing the Calls, both those who are “in communion” the Anglican Church, such as Lutherans, United Church of India, Old Catholics, as well as those “in dialogue” such as Roman Catholic and Orthodox.
Indeed, a paper from an RC Cardinal was the starter for the Christian Unity topic. He recalled that from Lambeth 1920 came the call for “visible Christian unity” and RCs were reluctant at first but he then referenced a Lutheran on “common good” which said “thank you for showing us the way.” “We agreed we want unity, but of what kind?” Pluralism is post-modern (ref Lyotard). Maybe what is needed is “reconciled diversity.” In 1920 the problem was competing missionaries in some parts of the world. If these form barriers to evangelism, then paths to unity are urgent. Unity must serve mission.
Ecumenism of blood
Some of the responses to questions revealed concrete examples and situations. In Nigeria, where thousands of Christians are being killed by jihadists or bandits, they suffer “an ecumenism of blood.” It does not matter which congregation they come from; they are killed for being Christians. Justice is a Christian theme and church leaders often speak together on this in various trouble-spots.
On matters that used to be contentious in the late twentieth century, such as the ordination of women, the visible presence of so many women bishops and archbishops at Lambeth shows the progress on this within the Anglican communion, bringing it closer to Methodists and Lutherans who led the way on this. Even the Roman Catholics have progressive movement towards this.
Moving in concentric circles
There was a speaker from the Lutheran federation (Anna Burghardt) who ran through the history of collaboration between Anglicans and Lutherans. Visible unity need not be institutional but is “koinonia” (common life together). Faith and Order (as from WCC 1968 agenda) runs alongside Life and Work. A church moves in concentric circles from outer to inner, and at the centre is Christ.
An example of churches working together came from the Bishop of the Amazon, where the church is among indigenous communities who are being pushed off their lands with ambushes and murders. A letter was written to the conference from the Ecumenical Caravan. She concluded with a prayer accompanied by traditional maracas rattles.
Speaking from experience
One feature of each topic on the agenda of Lambeth was that speakers could be found who could speak of it from life experience. The Bishop of Chelmsford, Guli Francis-Dehqani, came to England as a refugee after the Iranian revolution suppressed the tiny Anglican churches of Iran, killed her brother, and drove her father, Bishop Dehqani-Tafti, into exile.
She referred to the Bible readings of 1 Peter, which proclaims how suffering brings us closer to Christ. She is still in touch with Iranian Christians five decades later, who are living out their faith in such difficult circumstances. We must not be immune to the suffering of persecuted Christians.
Examples of collaboration
About dialogue with Muslims, she asks if they are willing to condemn the mistreatment of Christians, just as Christians can be asked about the Crusades. Christians should not be closed communities. We do work together with other faiths, recently over Covid and over the COP22 conference. A Bishop from a diocese in Tanzania, where about 50% of the population is Muslim, spoke of local cooperation in youth groups cleaning up streets.
The Bishop of Amritsar (N India) which stretches across states that are Sikh, Muslim and Hindu, spoke of common dialogues over shared problems like poverty and climate change. She also described movingly how Christians held roof-top services during the pandemic.
The primate from Canada explained that they had decided to remove the statement in the Prayer book (said every Maundy Thursday) about the conversion of the Jews. They replaced it with a prayer composed in consultation with Jews which begins “O God who didst choose Israel…” and invited a Chief Rabbi to address the Synod.
The Bishop from Egypt described collaboration over social and community projects. There is also a new study centre set up in collaboration with Al Azhar, the leading Islamic University. However, Christians are given minority status in Egypt, and there needs to be progress in citizenship matters, in senior government positions and in the freedom to build new churches.
Doers of the word, not merely hearers
I was impressed at how the day’s discussions joined “faith and order” to “life and work.” This was not at all a church just looking inward and using its own esoteric language. These are people with stories to tell reaching out across the world. A pity that the only notion of it so many people in the UK will get is that there was a row about homosexuality.