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Presidential Address to the Opening of General Synod February 2008

Monday 11th February 2008

Videos and transcripts of the presidential address by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, at the opening of the General Synod.

'The prevailing attitude...was one of heavy disagreement with a number of things which the [speaker] had not said'.  Ronald Knox's description of discussion at a student society in the nineteen thirties has a certain familiarity after the last few days; but given that public comment and criticism has been cast in such highly-coloured terms, I've thought it right to say a few words to Synod this afternoon about what was and wasn't said last week and what the questions were which I had hoped might benefit from some airing.

Some of what has been heard is a very long way indeed from what was actually said in the Royal Courts of Justice last Thursday.  But I must of course take responsibility for any unclarity in either that text or in the radio interview, and for any misleading choice of words that has helped to cause distress or misunderstanding among the public at large and especially among my fellow Christians .  It's Lent, and one of the great penitential phrases of the Psalms will be in all our minds – 'Who can tell how oft he offendeth?  Cleanse thou me from my secret faults'.  I'm deeply grateful to many of you for the support as well as the challenges I've received this weekend, and for your willingness to treat all this as a serious issue that deserves attention.  But I believe quite strongly that it is not inappropriate for a pastor of the Church of England to address issues around the perceived concerns of other religious communities and to try and bring them into better public focus.

I hope anyway that you'll bear with me now if I pick up a couple of points which I think have been distorted in the discussion.

The lecture was written as an opening contribution to a series on Islam and English Law mounted by the Temple Church and London University.  As such, it posed the question to the legal establishment of whether attempts to accommodate aspects of Islamic law would create an area where the law of the land doesn't run.  This, I said, would certainly be the case if any practice under Islamic law had the effect of removing from any individual the rights they were entitled to enjoy as a citizen of the UK; and I concluded that nothing should be recognised which had that effect.  We are not talking about parallel jurisdictions; and I tried to make clear that there could be no 'blank cheques' in this regard, in particular as regards some of the sensitive questions about the status and liberties of women.  The law of the land still guarantees for all the basic components of human dignity.  

So the question remains of whether certain additional choices could and should be made available under the law of the United Kingdom for resolving disputes and regulating transactions. It would be analogous to what is already possible in terms of the legal recognition of certain kinds of financial transactions under Islamic regulation (including special provision around mortgage arrangements).  And it would create a helpful interaction between the courts and the practice of Muslim legal scholars in this country.

If – and please note that word – this were thought to be a useful direction in which to move, there would be plenty of work still to be done, with the greatest care, on what would and would not be possible and appropriate areas for such co-operation.  I noted, for example, that traditional Muslim attitudes to 'apostasy' posed a very serious question (recognised by many Muslim scholars today), and that honest discussion of this was imperative.                  

I have had a fair amount of recent first-hand contact with Christian minorities in Muslim majority countries which has left me with no illusions about the sufferings they can and do face, even when there is a national legal framework that fully recognises their liberties.  But I noted that many Muslim majority countries do distinguish clearly between the rights of citizens overall and the duties accepted by some citizens of obedience to Islamic law.  It is this that encourages me to think that there may be ways of engaging with the world of Islamic law on something other than an all-or-nothing basis. 

I hoped also, though, to raise a wider question about the relation between faith and law.  We have taken it for granted that the law protects the consciences of religious believers, and all that I said last week needs to be read in that context (I mentioned the conscience clauses about abortion in the medical professions).  So, while there is no dispute about our common allegiance to the law of the land, that law still recognises that religious communities form the consciences of believers and has not pressed for universal compliance with aspects of civil law where conscientious matters are in question.  However, there are signs that this cannot necessarily be taken quite so easily for granted as the assumptions of our society become more secular.  I think we ought to keep an eye on this trend; and if we do, we shall have to do more thinking about the models of society and law we work with.  It's an area where Christians and people of other faiths ought to be doing some reflecting together.

Well, much more could be said, but I wanted simply to offer a bit more of a framework for thinking about this controversy.   As I implied earlier, part of both the burden and the privilege of being the Church we are in the nation we're in is that we are often looked to for some coherent voice on behalf of all the faith communities living here.  And that is a considerable privilege, and I hope we can use it well - however clumsily it may have been deployed in this instance.  If we can attempt to speak for the liberties and consciences of others in this country as well as our own, we shall I believe be doing something we as a Church are called to do in Christ's name, witnessing to his Lordship and not compromising it.

Perhaps you'll allow me now to pass on to what I originally intended to say this afternoon. 

It was always inevitable that 2008 should be in many ways dominated by the Lambeth Conference; and while it should not push away all the matters that are locally urgent for us here in England, it doesn't hurt for us to reflect briefly on what the significance of the Conference is for us – and what we might both contribute and learn.

But to start with, I want to say just a few words about the kind of conference that is envisaged, in part repeating some of the things I said last month at the public launch of the programme.  The challenge has been to devise a structure for our time together that manages both to address the major issues and to refresh and inspire those who will attend.  The twofold focus is equipping bishops for leadership and strengthening the identity and confidence of the communion.  That's why there is less emphasis on subject-oriented large groups: the primary need will be to get to know each other sufficiently well to confront the divisive matters that are around, and so there will be a larger number of slightly smaller groups.  Taking a leaf from the South African book, we're calling these extended indaba groups – the word used for community consultation and decision-making.  And there will also be, as always, the Bible study groups, which have been in many previous conferences the most important element of all; their focus will be the Gospel of John – assisted by the commentary of one of the members of this Synod, Dr Richard Burridge, which has been printed in a special edition for the use of the conference.  The hope is that many others in the Communion will share in meditation on this text in the months leading up to Lambeth.  There will of course be extended discussion of the proposals around the Covenant which we shall be discussing in this Synod also.  We shall have the opportunity of several plenary sessions but we are planning fewer resolutions; and we have invited a number of high-profile speakers from public life as well as from other Christian communions to address us. 

The Conference begins with a couple of days' retreat.  Some critics have complained that Lambeth is too focused on prayer and reflection and not enough on decision-making; but I am bound to say that I regard this as an extraordinary thing to say about any Christian gathering – as if we could make any decision worthy of the gospel without the utmost attention to listening together to God.  I partly understand that some feel there may be an attempt to appeal to the need for prayer and reflection as an alibi for not grasping the nettles; but I would gently but firmly say that it is also possible to use a rhetoric about needing decisive action as an alibi for waiting on God.  I simply pray that we'll get the balance as right as we can.

I respect the consciences of those who have said they do not feel able to attend because there will be those present who have in their view acted against the disciplinary and doctrinal consensus of the communion.  Needless to say, I regret such a decision, since I believe we should be seeking God's mind for the Communion in prayer and study together; but it simply reminds us that even the most 'successful' Lambeth Conference leaves us with work still to be done in rebuilding relationships.  The decision of some to be absent not only shows the deep differences over theology and ethics that have so strained our connections; it also reflects, uncomfortably for us, some of the legacy of hurt that is felt by some of our provinces at what is experienced as patronising or manipulative or insensitive actions and attitudes on the part of many of the churches of the 'West' or 'North' – not only the Episcopal Church in the USA, but us as well.  That's hard to hear, but we have to hear it and to offer apologies and seek for better understanding.  Lambeth can't be the end of the story; and if at Lambeth we try to do proper justice to the idea of a Covenant, it must be in the light of that need for a more serious and profound mutuality between us all.

I've said in other contexts something about why all this matters; let me illustrate it by looking briefly at one particular situation. What I've just said about the legacy of bruised feelings and half-buried resentments is, of course, one of the things that so complicates our political, never mind our ecclesiastical, relationships with the post-colonial world.  And nowhere is this more apparent than in Zimbabwe at the moment.  A history scarred by exploitation and deep racial injustice can all too easily be used, as it has been there, to turn aside every criticism and even to refuse any proper help when a local regime has fallen victim to its own incompetence, corruption and self-delusion.  It has been that much harder for many in this country to know how to respond to the needs of Zimbabwe for fear of simply reinforcing stereotypes of colonial patronage or misunderstanding.  We have tried to take our cues from those on the ground locally who are seeking justice and change.

In many circumstances, the local Church would be the first group we'd turn to in this attempt to listen and understand.  But as we're well aware, this has not been straightforward in Zimbabwe: we have had some in leadership positions who have been uncritically supportive of a violent and lawless administration.  But one of the most welcome developments of recent months has been that the Anglican Church has rallied very remarkably to repudiate the excesses of the former Bishop of Harare, and has installed a deeply respected and courageous elder statesman of the Zimbabwean Church, Bishop Sebastian Bakare, as chief pastor in Harare.  The Province's efforts to cleanse and renew the situation have been met by the expected levels of intimidatory behaviour on the part of some of Bishop Kunonga's supporters, but the process of reconstruction has gone forward, with, happily, some support from the courts.

Bishop Sebastian is with us today, and it is a privilege to greet him on behalf of this Synod and the Church of England.  Sebastian, we want to assure you of our profound support for you and our gratitude for your courage and integrity; please let all our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe know how much they are in our prayers and thoughts here.  And I am conscious too that there are many Zimbabweans who have fled to the UK, who sometimes feel almost as vulnerable in the land where they have taken refuge as they did back home; I want to assure them also of our welcome and sympathy as a Church.

The records of Bishop Kunonga's administration in Harare make unhappy reading – a story of conflicts and threats and the refusal of both outside challenge and outside help.  Last year, he announced his decision to separate from the Province of Central Africa, citing in support the 'liberalism' of that Province on issues of sexual morality.  This at least simplified some issues; I had already indicated that I should not be happy to invite him to Lambeth while serious charges in the ecclesiastical courts were still unanswered, but his decision has left him isolated from the life of the Communion, and his episcopal acts cannot now be recognised as part of that life. But his preposterous charge against his province illustrates exactly something I noted last year in this Synod – the possibility of using conflicts in the Communion as an excuse to pursue self-seeking agendas in various contexts, and the great danger this poses in divided or fragile local churches.  We saw it in Sudan, and now here it is in Central Africa; it underlines the need to find ways of resolving or containing disputes in the communion that do not leave quite so much room for opportunistic posturing of this kind.

In recovering the moral initiative so decisively in Zimbabwe, the Central African Province has drawn deeply on its own resources, but it has also benefited from the solidarity and practical support given from elsewhere in the Communion – notably from the diocese of Southwark in our own Church, and, of course, from the unforgettably dramatic and effective public support of Archbishop Sentamu.  The possibility of appealing in times of crisis and inner struggle to sister churches is a crucial element in the life of any church that calls itself catholic; and I have to repeat that when I underline the importance of recovering a proper sense of what it is for the Communion to be a catholic body, this is near the heart of what I have in mind.  The Archbishop of York's decision last week to respond to an urgent call from Kenya to go and assist there with mediation and peacemaking is simply another instance of what this means.  And, if I may mention it only briefly, the work that has grown up around Lambeth Palace in the last three years to service the development needs of several African Provinces by helping to broker aid from various sources is grounded in the same vision of active catholicity as a form of mutual service; it gives me a chance to pay public tribute to the dedication and imagination of the international development team at Lambeth and those who have worked with them, often at some risk and hardship.

My point is that our mutuality in the Communion – and in communion itself – is not a matter of ecclesiastical housekeeping: it's also about helping one another to be the Church in any given place; that is, to be a community whose loyalties are to the Kingdom, not to any kind of cultural or political partisanship.  It means hearing critical questions from elsewhere and not dismissing them as ignorant or irrelevant; it means challenging one another to act with integrity; but it also means a degree of care and hesitation about assuming at one that you know how things work in another context.  Now our current style of electronic global communication is manifestly not designed to nurture these virtues, and it can have a toxic effect on all sorts of other areas of communicating with each other; and we remain, thanks to original sin, much in love with talking about, rather than with, one another at the best of times.  My deepest hope and prayer for Lambeth is that it will be a decisively counter-cultural event.  Whether or not we arrive at some unimaginable solution to both our theological and our structural challenges, I hope we shall at least have shown that it is possible to think and speak with one another in the presence of God.  Now I think about it, that is of course what Synod itself seeks to do.  So please continue to pray for the Lambeth Conference – pray that it may find new ways forward that will restore and deepen confidence in our Communion and trust between us, and that it may help to open up reconciliation for those who have felt injured or marginalised in any setting; but pray even more that it will be a context where, by thinking and speaking together in the presence of God, all of us may be set free to be more fully the Church God calls us to be wherever we may find ourselves – which is also of course the real issue in what I spoke about in the earlier part of this address.  So may God in this Lenten season help us move more deeply into the mystery of our baptism into the fellowship of the Crucified and Risen Christ.

© Rowan Williams 2008

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