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The Archbishop's Retreat Addresses Parts I & II

Thursday 17th July 2008

The first two of five addresses given by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the retreat that began the Fourteenth Lambeth Conference.

'God's mission and a bishop's discipleship'

17 July 2008


I'm going to be reflecting especially on some of the passages and ideas that we find in the letters of St Paul. I believe quite strongly that the letters of Paul are a good place to begin in thinking about what it is to be a disciple and an apostle. And since this is also the Pauline year for our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, this may perhaps also be a little bit of ecumenical courtesy as well.

In Galatians 1:16 St Paul uses what is at first sight a rather strange phrase. He speaks of the God '...who set me apart from birth, called me by his grace, and was pleased to reveal his Son in me.' Some translations lose their nerve and simply say, 'reveal his Son to me'. But there's no two ways about it: the Greek text speaks of the God who revealed his Son in me. And so the basis of everything I want to say in these few days lies in that verse. Everything starts here because every calling—every vocation in the Church of God—is a calling to be a place where God's Son is revealed. And that is because there is more to be revealed of the Son of God than any one life, or any one book, or any one church can reveal. You remember the end of St John's Gospel: if all the things which Jesus did were written down, the whole world could not contain the books which would be written (John 21.25). And each one of us is one of those books, in which are written the things which Jesus has done, and is doing. Each one of us is a place in which the Son of God is revealed.

And so I would encourage you to begin your prayer and your thinking in this retreat very simply by reflecting on where you have seen the Son of God revealed: in what places, in which persons, where is it that we have recognized the Son of God? And when we ask that question we begin to wonder how we recognize the Son of God. How do we recognize in our world the Jesus of the gospels? There are many ways of answering that question: but here are some thoughts which may help us.

First, the Jesus of the gospels is one who offers healing and forgiveness in the name of God. And so one of the simplest exercises we can perform, is to reflect on, and to give thanks for, all those people who have spoken healing and forgiveness to us in the name of God: those in whom the Son of God has been revealed because they have been set free by God to speak to us the words of that set us free of sin, fear, doubt, whatever.

And the second way in which we might recognize the Jesus of the gospels is that Jesus is someone who promises. In the words and the work of Jesus in the gospels, God's own future has come close to us. The kingdom of God is upon us, within our reach: and it happens sometimes in our Christian lives that we are given a glimpse of God's future; that we see in some situation or life, in the face of some person, something that tells us where the whole purpose of God is leading.

A few years ago I wrote about some of those encounters and experiences which made me feel that I have seen the Church, moments when somehow the Body of Christ has come together in prayer, and action, and witness, in such a way that you can say, 'Yes. This is what it was meant to be. This is what it will be, by God's grace.' I spoke at that time of my memory of the great Jubilee 2000 action in Birmingham, where all those Christian groups from around this country that had been campaigning about the reduction of global debt gathered together for prayer and witness in the streets of one of our great cities. And I felt at the end of that day that I had seen the Church. But much more modestly, each one of us will have seen in somebody's face a sense of where God's purpose is moving; will have seen the face of a fellow believer somehow transparent to God's love and purpose in a way that allows us to say, 'I have seen a disciple', 'I have seen what a human face is like in which God's glory has been revealed.'

So let's think, with gratitude of those situations and those persons in whom we have seen something of that vision of the end, the purpose, where all things are going, those rather rare human faces where you can say, 'That's what it's about; that's what I pray I shall grow towards; that is the image of God.' But when we've said that, we recognize in the same moment that the Christ of the gospels is also the Christ who speaks of judgement. The Christ of the gospels is one who demands repentance and change: and perhaps the most uncomfortable aspect of our encounter with Christ is our encounter with those people and those situations that say to us 'You must change your life.' And that often happens, doesn't it, not when someone is shouting at us to repent and change our ways, but precisely when we see the kingdom alive and real in a person or a situation, and we know we're not there and we must grow and change into it. The moments when I have most deeply felt myself to be judged, have not on the whole been moments when someone is telling me in great detail how wrong I am (an experience not wholly unknown in my life!). They are rather those moments when I have seen such an abundance of love and generosity in someone else that I know how far away I am, and how much I must change. But that is judgement.

So, we might begin, in the quiet of this morning, reflecting on some of these things. Where have we seen and felt the healing and forgiving touch of Christ? In whose faces have we seen the promise of the end, of the kingdom? In whose words, in which settings, have we felt ourselves exposed, helpless, convicted, called to change? And I say all this because it's always good to begin with thanks; to give thanks for those in whom we've seen the Son of God revealed: that is the foundation on which we build our confidence in the work and prayer that lies ahead of us. To begin with thanks is to begin by putting aside our fears, our uncertainties, and just to recognize the gift has been given. It's the simplest thing in the world and it is the hardest, because we love our fears and our anxieties, and it's sometimes hard work just to say that for this time I will only give thanks. For this short time I will only say to the Lord, 'Thank you for what is given - for what remains given, and cannot be shaken.'

I was speaking last week to someone going through a deeply draining and difficult personal situation. And we spoke together of how one could pray in the middle of that situation, and what she said was that God always creates a new situation when we pray. We may not recognize it or understand it, but when we pray God makes the situation new: and that continuous gift given us as we pray, that— in this time together—must be the focus of our reflection. And of course that means also that we are to give thanks for one another: not just for the people we are glad to see here, but also for the people we are not so glad to see here, the people about whom we want to say, 'I'm not sure how they got here', and the people we want to avoid as well as the people we want to meet. God simply asks us in this time of prayer and quiet to take a deep breath, and to say 'thank you for each and every person here' in the hope and the trust that in each of us the Son of God will be revealed in our time together. And, as I suggested last night, we also thank God for those in our Anglican fellowship who have chosen not to be here or who are not able to be here, and we pray with the same earnestness and seriousness to see the Son of God revealed in them.

But I want to move to two specific things that take us a little further on, and which may prepare the way for some of the things we'll be reflecting about later in this retreat. The first is very simple. As you give thanks, give thanks especially for the bishops who confirmed and ordained you. If you're like me I suspect that you don't do that often enough, but it is to me a great grace to think that, against many probabilities, one of Christ's apostolic servants was the instrument in God's hands of certain gifts of the Holy Spirit to me. So today, call to mind the bishops who confirmed and ordained you and thank God for the gift of the Holy Spirit at the hands of their ministry.

The second thing is a little more complex. So far, I've spoken of things which in many ways are common to any and every Christian: the call to be where God can reveal his Son, and the call to recognize the ministry and presence of God's Son in the lives of others. But what is it that is specific, that is unique about the way God reveals his Son in the ministry of a bishop? God reveals his Son in the work of the bishop praying the Holy Spirit on God's people because the bishop stands in that place where into his or her hands the prayers of the Church are placed. The bishop is there to gather, to bring Christ's people together and to speak their prayer with and for them to God the Father. That means that our own ways of letting God's Son be revealed in us as bishops—in and through healing and forgiveness and promise and challenge—are always going to be connected with the way in which we stand holding the prayer of God's people. When we stand at the Lord's Table presiding at the Holy Communion, we are offering the healing and the forgiveness of Christ. What is revealed in us is Christ's welcome to his table. What is revealed is what one of the early saints of the Church called 'the medicine that makes us immortal', the ultimate healing that takes us beyond death. What is revealed as we stand at Christ's table is the promise that this is the feast of Heaven, this is the banquet of the Kingdom where the Son of God breaks bread and pours out wine with his people for ever; where all the hungry are drawn in to be fed, where the needs of the whole creation are satisfied by the outpouring of Christ's life. That is the promise at the very centre of the Holy Communion and of every sacramental act which we perform – the future among us now.

I wonder whether we ever think as we lay on hands in confirmation and at ordination that we are bringing God's future into existence in someone's life. If we were conscious of that every time we did it, I think we would be too frightened to do it, and the people before us would be too frightened to kneel in front of us. But that is what happens in the sacraments of the Church. We pray the Spirit to bring God's future here. And as we preside at the Lord's Table and perform the mysteries of the new covenant, we also act out and make present the judgement of God. When we celebrate the Holy Communion (and we can't say this too often) we place ourselves with Jesus upon the night that he was betrayed; we place ourselves with Jesus in the company of those disciples who for forsook him and ran away; and the broken bread and the wine poured out—the welcome extended—both judges us and heals us. With the presence of Christ at his table, we know ourselves beloved and we know ourselves judged, all at once.

So God reveals his Son in us as bishops when we stand there holding and speaking the prayers of God's people which suggests to us, I believe, that the Christ we reveal in our specific calling and ministry as bishops is the Christ whose body is real in time and eternity, the Christ who is the head of the Church, the Christ in whom all things hold together. The ministry we exercise, the Christ who is real in us in that ministry, is the Christ who gathers God's children from the corners of the earth into his kingdom.

In the second session today I shall want to reflect a little bit further on what it is for God to reveal in us the Son of God as the Christ who gathers. That, surely, is at the heart of what is different, what is specific, about our being bishops. But for now, I encourage you to go back into that thanksgiving that God has revealed his Son in us – thanksgiving for those others in whom the Son of God is revealed; thanksgiving for the healing we have received at the hands of God in Christ; thanksgiving for being called to account, to judgement; thanksgiving that God's future is not an abstract and distant thing which we glimpse from afar, but is real in the lives of other believers, and is real—from time to time surprisingly and wonderfully real—in some of the circumstances in which we live, the places where we see the Church happening, where we see the kingdom in its reality. And in, and through all that, give thanks for one another.


Each believer is called to be a place where God's Son is revealed. In us as bishops, what is distinctive is that the aspect of God's Son that is revealed is the gathering Christ – the Christ upon whom all reality converges, comes together. As we seek to minister in the Church, we seek for God's Son to be revealed in us, but we seek for God's Son to be revealed as the hope of humanity: that is, for God's Son to be revealed as the body of all God's children, past, present and future, called into a very particular kind of fellowship. And this is a missionary matter for us as bishops, because that is the mission of God, to draw together the scattered children into one family.

But how do we do this? We do it, visibly and symbolically, in the liturgy, when we preside at the sacraments. But that must be the sign of something deeper, something about how we live and grow as human beings. And for this, my clue in St Paul's letters comes from II Corinthians 11:28—29: 'Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?'

The care that we are called to give to God's people, the flock that God has purchased with his own blood, is a care that breaks down the barriers of our own defences. The only way, it seems, of being a 'successful' apostle, is to be an apostle who is quite unable to distance him or herself from the weakness of everybody else. And how much more comforting it would be, if we knew we could be successful followers of Christ by being able to say 'thank goodness I'm not like them!' But here St Paul says, 'to be a faithful apostle is to be invaded by the weakness and the failure of others'. If there is any success about this, it is to do with our hearts being opened up to the way in which others are being held back, are failing, are being hurt in their discipleship, and in their humanity. If God's Son is to be revealed in us, God's Son is revealed in our vulnerability not the toughness of our defences, the fluency of our solutions or the success of our schemes, but in our freedom (and I choose the word very carefully) to let the grief and the struggle of others come in to us.

Why is this so? It's not because being an apostle is something reserved for people in love with suffering; not because being a bishop is something reserved for those who have a taste for misery. It is because the new humanity that is in Jesus Christ and into which we seek to live is a humanity in which we bear one another's burdens so as to fulfil the law of Christ. The new humanity is a vulnerable place, where if any one loses, is hurt or is held back, everyone loses, is hurt, or is held back.

And what an extraordinary missionary commission that is: not to march out into the world and say 'rally around me and your problems will be solved'; but to say 'rally around Jesus Christ and your boundaries will be open, your defences will be down, and your loss will be the loss of all because your life is bound up with the life of all – because where we stand in the Church is where Jesus reveals himself as head of the body, the one in whom life flows from person to person, the gift and the cost all alike. We stand as apostolic ministers, to show that that is God's future for humanity: life flowing from each to each as cost and pain flow from each to each, all contained and held within the life of Christ himself, which takes up all the pain in infinite love.

That pair of verses from II Corinthians 11 should, I believe, be on our hearts and minds, not only daily, but hourly. The Lord through Moses told the Israelites to bind the Commandments on their forearms and their foreheads. Well, if we as Christians used tephillim like the Hebrews, we would bind those verses on our foreheads – we would bind them on our mitres as bishops! The care of all the churches; 'who is weak and I am not weak?', 'who is made to sin and I do not burn inwardly?' There is the energy of the body of Christ.

And it certainly leaves us in a very strange and demanding place as bishops. It means that as bishops we are deeply unreliable allies. I mean by that, that many groups, many individuals, many causes will want us on their side. And as bishops, we always have to say that there is more than just being on your side. I don't have to elaborate what this means in our daily pastoral practice. Haven't we all lived through those situations where (for example) a priest of our community, embroiled in a dispute with another priest or with their own parishioners, will want us to support them without question, without qualification? And at some point, we are going to have to say, 'There's more to this than just your interest. I have to let you down in the name of Jesus, because for the sake of the health and the fullness of the body, everyone in this situation needs to change, to be converted and to grow.' And once again, if you are like me as a bishop, you will find that appallingly difficult. And you will look back on your ministry, as I look back on mine, conscious of the many times when I have tried to avoid saying just that.

We would all like to be good and reliable allies, and yet God says, 'You're never just the prisoner of one person, one agenda, one cause, one nation, one political perspective. You are always the person who has that 'something more' to add in the name of the body of the Christ who gathers.'

To make of that 'something more' than just uneasy compromise, hesitation or dithering, something that has an edge, that can even be prophetic, is a great challenge. And yet, we must know that if we are indeed in that place where we stand for the 'gathering Christ', that place where we show forth a humanity in which life and suffering flow together, then we are never going to be just the servants of this group or that group, this individual or that individual. And in so doing we say to the world, 'This is the Church of God, not a sub-department of this nation or this cause. It is the New Creation'. It would be much simpler if one could say of the Church (as people sometimes like to say) that it is an association of people who agree about every item in the following list, or (as has often been said in the past, not least by the Church of England) that we are the church of this nation and that's really all that matters to us.

Here I have to tell you a little story about another denomination, which shall be nameless. I attended many years ago an international conference, at one point in which somebody said 'the purpose of the Church is the overthrow of capitalism'. And some uneasy voice at the back of my mind wondered '... so what does the Church do on the first day of socialism?' It is very tempting to think that the purpose of the Church is what I can solidify and get hold of in my terms. And that's why bishops are bad allies, and always asking awkward questions about uncritical kinds of belonging, why we are always summoning people to be faithful to Christ and to each other and to God's future, and sorting out a lot of those other loyalties afterwards.

This is something to do with that central and fundamental aspect of all our discipleship, which is about belonging to Christ. And here I turn once again to St Paul- this time to Philippians 3.12: 'Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on, to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.' I have been taken hold of by Christ, I belong to Christ. And that belonging is something deeper and more significant than any other kind of belonging. Christ has made me his own, and whether as a believer in general, as a pastor in particular, or as a bishop very much in particular, it is that being taken hold of that shapes and surrounds the ministry we seek to exercise.

Belonging to Christ who has taken hold of me: that is the form of our holiness, because holiness is not a matter of what we achieve, not a matter of habits of unworldliness or moral excellence. Holiness is 'being taken hold of by Jesus Christ' and seeking, moment by moment, not to let go of the One who has taken hold of me. It's because of that that our ministry as bishops will always have about it that questioning quality. It's a difficult balance. I will want to be passionately with this person or that, passionately committed to my society, my tribe, my friends. I will want to be there for them in the name of Jesus. And yet to be there for them in the name of Jesus is to bring a question as well as an affirmation. If any of you has a formula about how to get that balance right, I shall be very glad to hear it! But in a sense of course, that is exactly where we ought to find ourselves. This is not about formulas; it is about the daily effort to be open to the One who has taken hold of us.

Let me go back to where I began. The bishop is someone in whom the Son of God is revealed as the 'gathering Christ'. The bishop is therefore someone around whom it should be possible to see what the Church is. We talk about bishops as signs of unity: and quite often what we mean by that is not a lot more than an understanding of the bishop as a harassed chairman of endless committees who is doomed to seek for a consensus that is always escaping. If that's all it means for the bishop to be a sign of unity, we are (to quote St Paul out of context) 'of all people the most to be pitied'. But what if we are meant to be a sign of unity in a rather different and a rather deeper way? What if we are meant to be a sign of that unity of the new humanity in which there are no defensive boundaries between the life and the pain of diverse people and communities? What if we are meant to be signs of that unity, where, in Christ and through the Spirit, human lives flow together to announce God's glory?

When we say we believe in 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church' surely we mean more by that 'one'than the bare fact (if it is a fact, which it isn't) that there is just one Christian institution. We mean, surely, a oneness which is bound up with the holiness, the apostolic quality, the catholic quality, a oneness that is about quality of relation and of life. And if we as bishops are to be signs of unity, I believe that is the nature of the unity we have to show. And that is why our ministry and mission is a sign of hope and a challenge for conversion to the whole world around.

If we were simply to turn to the world and say 'the Church is one: humanity must be one', if we had no more to say than that, I'm not sure that this would necessarily sound like good news. But because we're not just talking about that quantitative unity of people gathered for the sake of being together, but about a quality of unity in which each person is diminished by the pain of another and each person is enriched by the holiness of another. That's the unity which is good news: good news in our contemporary world in a very special sense, because our world is one in which, in practice, it's getting more and more possible for people to say, 'I am not affected by the pain of other people; living where I do I am not affected by the poverty of those in another continent.

The way that our world works, as many people have said in recent years, seems to be a way in which the boundaries and barriers are rising higher between different parts of the human race. It is a world in which very few voices are saying that the death of a child in Africa or the suffering of a woman in Myanmar, diminish the human reality of the child or woman in Britain or South Africa or Brazil, and the other way around. There are very few voices saying that in our world. And if our Church is not saying that, and its bishops are not saying that, God forgive us, and God help us. That's unity. There is our calling to let the Son of God be revealed in us, to be the sign of a unity that brings alive that deep sense of connectedness in the human world, to let the 'gathering Christ' be revealed in us, the one Christ in whom all these lives hold together.

In a period of reflection and quiet, turn over in your minds the question of where you have felt the difficulty of the pressure to belong to something less than Christ, and to take sides. Also, think prayerfully of those individuals and communities whose poverty and suffering diminishes you, and those you serve. Hold them in mind. Jesus speaks of the blessedness of people who are hungry and thirsty for justice. And of course what that means is that when there is no justice, we all suffer. We all go unfed, un-nourished, when another suffers injustice. Ask for God, who blesses those hungry and thirsty for justice, to give you more of that hunger and that thirst.

And, tomorrow I'd like to build a little bit further on this, on the themes of discipleship and belonging. I'd like to think with you about the Christlike quality of being both a friend and a stranger. If you want to think a little and prepare, may I suggest two Bible passages you might overnight like to look at? They're quite short: Matthew 10:24-31 and I Corinthians 9: 19-23. I hope you might also overnight turn back to those great and luminous words in II Corinthians 11 and Philippians 3. Turn them over in your minds with thanksgiving to the Christ who has taken hold of us.

Let us pray

God, we thank you that you have made us ministers of promise, and that you have entrusted us with the words and the actions that show to the world the reality of new creation: as we baptize, as we preside at the Lord's table, as we confirm and ordain, give us, we beg you, the courage we need both to be on the side of all people, and to be able to question and enlarge their perspectives. Above all, hold us close to yourself and give us the strength to hold on to you: to you that have taken hold of us in Jesus Christ, to you the love that will not let us go, to you bound to the world as if by nails driven into wood, to you the promise, the future, the beginning and the end. Amen.

© Rowan Williams 2008

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