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Archbishop's Presidential Address to the 14th Meeting of the ACC

Monday 11th May 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury reflects on the achievements of the ACC meeting.

Listen to the Archbishop's Address [12MB]

What have we achieved? What are the challenges we've discovered? What are the lessons we've learned? 

There's no absolute measure for achievement. In critical times quite small things may be quite large achievements. And so, if we reflect on what we've done in the last ten days, then it may be that even some apparently very routine things are real achievements. We've got up every morning; and we've prayed every morning; we've read scripture together; we've affirmed our will to stay in relation; and we've done some planning. We have sent forward work on the aid and development alliance, on theological education, on evangelism and church growth, on the Bible in the Church. We've agreed on the follow-up to the work of the Windsor Continuation Group. We've even agreed on the substance of the Covenant, including, and we should remember this, the timescale for that work. 

Now, if someone diagnosed as terminally ill had prayed and planned, and given evidence of new energy, and rising from their bed to make and begin new things, we might just possibly question a diagnosis of terminal outlook. There's been very little hint in the last ten days that, for example, unless Section 4 of the Covenant were delivered now in exactly the form proposed, none of the rest would matter; that work together on development or theological understanding or on the Bible in the Church depended on getting all the rest sorted at this moment, and I'll say a bit more about that later. But it remains true, I believe, that our willingness in certain areas to act as one and to discover more deeply how we pray as one, is, by God's Grace and Gift, and for no other reason I'm sure, an achievement. Small things, but life-giving things. And the Bible has a great deal to say about the day of small things and the work of God in small things and apparently routine things. So I do want to begin this evening's reflection in gratitude: that we have been given the grace, the charity, and the liberty to plan together and pray together. To put it in a slightly different way, we have not in this meeting given evidence of any belief that we have no future together. 

The question is of course what that future will look like, and needless to say, that is where we pass on to the challenges. Because there's no point in being too sanguine. Nobody's moved very much in the last ten days. Our problems are not guaranteed a solution through what we have done, and while we thank God with all our hearts for what has been given to us, by God in our prayer, through our fellowship with each other, there remains in a good few areas an intensely felt stand-off between groups in our Communion. The other day we were giving quite intense attention to the situation in the Holy Land, and at moments in that discussion I thought there are echoes of language we hear nearer home; echoes of perceptions around.  Emergencies means all the rules and standards are suspended. We can't discuss while there are tanks on the lawn. We can't discuss when there are facts on the ground. We've conceded something and you haven't moved. If you were where we are, you'd see the absolute moral imperative of acting as we've done. Well, thank God our divisions and our fears are not as deep and as poisonous as those between communities in the Holy Land. But I think you may see why some of the language occasionally awakes echoes, and I don't even begin to speculate on who might like to identify themselves with which party in this debate, except to say that on the whole we identify with the victims who are their victims. 

But looking at the Holy Land may also give us one or two clues about how life continues to be at work. What is it in that tragic and terrible situation in the Holy Land that gets underneath that rhetoric of rival victim sufferings, rival resentments? Many of you will have quite direct experience of some of what does get under that in the Holy Land. I've spoken in other contexts about the extraordinary work of the Families Forum in the Holy Land – the way in which people who have suffered traumatic loss in the conflict in the Holy Land have been able to meet one another on the basis of that very loss; have been able to find one another in the very depth of the suffering that they've endured. Something begins to shift when people who bear the heaviest cost on both sides of the conflict are somehow able to recognise one another. A couple of years ago in my study at Lambeth I listened to two people sitting on the sofa in the study – one an Israeli mother whose son had been killed by a Palestinian sniper, the other a young Palestinian man whose brother had been killed by an Israeli soldier. They were travelling in Britain together to speak about the absolute imperative necessity of being with one another. 

Now, who are the people who bear the deepest costs in our conflicts in the Anglican Communion? It's a question to which there is actually no short answer, but I simply put it before you for some reflection. But there are some who would say that in this conflict the credibility of Christianity itself is at stake. There are some who bear the cost in this way: they will say that Christian credibility is shattered by the sense of rejection and scapegoating which they experience, and that includes a great many of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. The cost they feel is often they cannot commend the Christianity that they long to believe in because they feel that they are bound up in a system and a community where scapegoating and rejection are very deeply engrained. And then there are those for whom the credibility of Christianity is at stake in another way, those for whom the cost is felt like this: that the decisions that others have made in other parts of the world have put them in a position where they cannot commend the Christianity they long to share with their neighbours with any ease or confidence because they feel that fellow Christians have somehow undermined their witness. Deep cost – different costs – but here is the first big challenge. How can those who share that sense of cost and that sense of profound anxiety about how to make the Gospel credible – how are they to come together at least for some recognition and respect to emerge? How are they to come together so that they can recognise the cost that the other bears, and also recognise the deep seriousness about Jesus and his Gospel that they share? As with so many observations of this sort, I have to add immediately I know that won't solve the problem. All I know is that it's part of the imperative of dealing with this in a Christian way, not just in terms of managing something or glossing over something. 

And really it's in that context that some of our earlier remarks might make sense. If we talk about moratoria or, God help us, ceasefires, or whatever. If we talk about all the immensely complicated and tangled web of stuff that we're dealing with around the Windsor Continuation Group and the Covenant. If we want to talk about that at all, it is only useful and serious if it is part of the background for that exercise of recognition: the recognition of the reality of the cost, the recognition of the reality of a passion about Jesus. And as we go back to our Provinces thinking about the work we've done, and thinking about the quagmires of detail and procedure that we waded through last Friday, the only thing we can say, I suspect, in defence of all that is something like this: we did it because we hoped that through all these procedures, Christian people would be able to recognise each other a bit more fully, a bit more generously, and a bit more hopefully. So as we try and bracket, just for a moment, the idea that we're bound to be betraying something central by even trying to find where these encounters can happen, if we bracket that for a bit, that challenge remains. The Listening Process, yes, but of course good listening is a listening that really allows the other person to speak. It hardly needs saying, but I say it all the same. Archbishops are employed to tell you what you know already really.

But then what about a second challenge, because I think that is coming up over the horizon as we speak about all this, and it is even in some ways more uncomfortable. We've talked about the Covenant, and we have sanctioned a measure of delay about some of its details, though as I said earlier, we have affirmed our commitment to the basic timetable. And in connection with that I would want to say with great emphasis, don't please put off discussion of the Covenant simply because of that detail we are finalising. The texts are out there. Please pray them through and talk them through, starting now. The official processes will no doubt take longer and be more complex. We are trying – and the Secretary General and I have already discussed a timetable for this in some detail – we are trying to make sure that any delay is as brief as possible. But meanwhile the texts are on the table. Talk about them. Begin the discernment. Begin that intelligent engagement with those texts as soon as you can. 

But of course, one reason why I suspect we are just a bit reluctant, some of us, many of us, to start engagement with the detail is that of course much of what we've been thinking about the Covenant does underline for us that the possibility of division is there. The possibility at least of certain kinds of division. Some people speak of the future of the Communion as a federation – a much more dispersed association than it now is. An association within which some groups are more strongly bound to one another and some groups less strongly bound. I suspect that may very well be if not all Provinces do sign up to the Covenant, and I hasten to add that's not what I hope. It is what I think we have to reflect on as a real possibility. But if that is a possibility – that the Communion shifts towards an agglomeration of more strongly bonded and less strongly bonded Provinces or constituent parts – if that is where we are heading – the second challenge is how do we preserve the structures that will allow us to do what we still want to do together? Because I said at the beginning, it is quite clear that there is an awful lot that we do want to do together, and I believe very strongly that even if we are facing a more diverse or divided future, we shall still want to do those things. I really don't believe that if not every Province signs up to the Covenant in the years ahead, that means that the development or the educational work we do together instantly disappears; that we shall no longer want to do that with each other. 

So what are the structures, the protocols that will allow those relations to continue? How do the Instruments of Communion – this body, the Primates' Meeting, the Lambeth Conference – how do they continue as organs of life-giving exchange, even if other coalitions and other alliances emerge? Because, believe me, we are going to need organs of life-giving exchange whatever happens. So my plea is, don't write off those Instruments of Communion whatever may happen in the years ahead. In your Provinces and in your relations with one another and your conversations with each other, keep thinking about how the most life-giving kinds of exchange are made possible. Oh, and think also about what makes life-giving exchange impossible, because what makes it impossible is a ceaseless rhetoric of fear and competition directed backwards and forwards in our fellowship. And that is fatal to life-giving exchange if all we have to speak of is fear or competition, rivalry and resentment, there will not be the flow of life and so we will not be able to do together the things we shall still, believe me, want to do together. So we behave with each other as hopefully and respectfully as we can, and dare I say it, we ought to behave together as Anglicans as hopefully and respectfully as if we were dealing with other kinds of Christians, because we are nine times out of ten a great deal more polite about other Christians than we are about each other in the Communion these days!

But that takes us into the final area – what have we learned? And I don't simply mean what have we learned in terms of process, though it does seem to me that we've learned yet again that one of the things we're not terribly good at is resolution passing. I'd suggest, purely practically that for the next ACC we might very well have a little briefing in advance about procedures, and perhaps some time right at the beginning of the meeting – it's a highly practical suggestion and very modest – right at the beginning of the meeting to explain a bit about how resolution procedures work. But that's a smallish thing. I think that we have learned, as many of us learned at the Lambeth Conference, to recognise that relations need to be deep enough, worked at enough, to survive possible shifts in structure and alignment. We've learned something of our value to one another, not only in terms of cooperation on the kind of practical projects I've suggested, but simply in terms of learning about God from one another. In case we've forgotten, it's worth reminding ourselves that the Bible seems fairly clear that we are given to one another as believers so that we may know and experience more of God than we would on our own. Basic New Testament theology, I believe. And so we've learned, unsurprisingly that we need to work on those relations if we are to be able to receive what God wants to give us. 

But I think we've also learned a good deal from the degree to which we've found ourselves rooted for this time in the life of our host Church. It's not only the particular things we've learned from engaging with our brothers and sisters here in Jamaica, it's also that we've been I think quite simply conscious that here is a local Church and local Churches matter. Indeed, they are what matters in many, many ways. We've simply been privileged to see what an ordinary local Church does, and I'm sure that our hosts won't mind if I say that the Church in this island and this Province is in most respects neither greatly better nor greatly worse than local Churches in many other parts of the world. You are, happily, Christians like us – that is, intermittently holy and intermittently a mess. And God be thanked for that. We've been reminded of what the real Church looks like, and saving your presence, the real Church doesn't always look like the ACC at work, any more than it looks like the Archbishop of Canterbury I hasten to add. The real Church happens here on the ground. And the experience of this real, local Church offers us at least one very striking and very potent metaphor for what we're all about. This is a part of the world where natural devastation makes structures very vulnerable. Structures – physical structures – come and go. Earthquakes and hurricanes deal with them repeatedly, and yet the Church continues, and renews its pledge of divine faithfulness to the place where it is set. Now that's something that I certainly want to take away and pray and think about a great deal. And it's a reminder that Anglicanism does indeed have a deep investment in the particularities of places and cultures, not in an exclusive, fearful way, but simply in a recognition that the Gospel truly is a word that can be translated into any language. And perhaps in recent years, for understandable reasons, we've become so preoccupied with talking about the autonomy of Provinces in a defensive way that we've lost sight of the positive side of that, which is the particularity of Provinces. Talk about autonomy and you are already, so to speak, defending against incursion. Talk about particularity and you're talking about the gift you have to share. And somehow we have to balance that out a bit again, I believe. 

But that learning which we've been going through in our happy and fruitful relationship with our host Church here, that learning has been underpinned by what I hope and trust is the deeper learning that has come through our engagement with the Gospel of St Mark in these days. And the last thing I want to say is really based on Mark. The other day in one of the Bible Studies, we were reminded of those marginal characters in Mark's Gospel who see the point when the disciples don't. Mark's Gospel has been called many things – it's been called a Passion story with an extended preface, and it's been called a celebration of the stupidity of the twelve. The people who see the point – the Syrophoenician woman, blind Bartimaeus, and of course the centurion of the cross, whose words we heard earlier this evening – the people who see the point are the people the disciples do not expect to see the point. Their obsessiveness about getting their questions answered and their future sorted out and their status assured, their obsessiveness is challenged again and again by the clear simplicity of those who simply see in Jesus where there is bread to be had for nourishment. The Gospel of Mark is bad news for Christian elites, all of whom need to grow by being humbled: Archbishops, ACC members, experts of whatever kind, even commentators on the Anglican Communion. This is a learning that is focused on success and failure – how to understand them and how to misunderstand them. An English Roman Catholic nun, Maria Boulding, wrote memorably a few years ago that the alternatives for Christians were not success or failure, but glorious failure and miserable failure. Glorious failure is the recognition that we fall again and again and have a Lord and Saviour whose promise is so inexhaustible that we can pick ourselves up and begin the world all over again, newly created. Miserable failure takes many forms, including the form of telling ourselves that we haven't really failed at all. The Apostles of Mark are greatly at risk of being miserable failures, but presumably Mark's Gospel is written because the Apostles finally decided they were going to be glorious failures. That is, they finally decided that the story they were going to tell was of how they had misunderstood and abandoned and betrayed their Lord who had still loved them and returned to them. That is what I call being a glorious failure – that's the story if you believe the ancient tradition that St Peter handed on to Mark the Evangelist. The story of a glorious failure.

So if as we look back on these ten days we ask ourselves has this been a failure or a success, maybe we should step back and think a few Mark-shaped thoughts. And maybe if we ask is the Anglican Communion at the moment a failure or a success, we should ask the same thing. Because the Gospel seems to be saying to us: first face your failure; your failure, not your neighbour's; your failure, your turning away; not theirs, not his, not hers; then ask how can it be made glorious? And maybe that's another thing to take back to our Provinces. They're going to love you for this, if you go back to your Province and say, 'What we really need to be talking about is our failures in this Province'. You will be so popular – they'll never send you to a meeting again! But perhaps, just perhaps, thinking about those potentially glorious failures, opens us out onto the prayer that turns us back to Christ-like self-giving that lets the glory through. That's what we hope for in our fellowship, our very fragile, very flawed, very precarious Anglican fellowship.  We hope for the failure that lets the glory through, because we face it, we name it, we open ourselves to God and say, 'Do with us what you will so that your name may be glorified and your kingdom advanced'.

Let us bless the Lord.

© Rowan Williams 2009

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