Reflections on Angola, Africa and the Communion
Saturday 17th March 2007Transcript of an interview conducted by Dan Damon for the BBC Radio World Service programme Reporting Religion
Dan Damon: What was the biggest impression [of your recent visit]?
Archbishop: What surprised me was I think that the feeling of the people in Angola seemed rather more positive than in some post conflict situations I've been in, thinking back to a visit to Sierra Leone a couple of years ago, a greater energy around in civil society overall; a greater sense of what might still be achievable, and that was encouraging.
Dan Damon: How did they treat you in Angola?
Archbishop: Well I don't think they quite knew what to make of me! But I seemed to be the first Anglican Archbishop who's visited there because the Anglican community is very small in that country. There was a kind of fascination of what all of this was about, and a real interest in government and some of the NGO circles, simply in talking about what kind of partnerships were now going to be feasible between the Anglican Church and these agencies. One of the things that we've been doing is trying to scale up the level of partnerships - so we've worked very closely with the World Food Programme in organising feeding centres through church schools in Sudan, and we're working similarly with Anglican Church in Burundi with that in mind and so we're looking at what possibilities may open up in Angola as well.
Dan Damon: And you went because you wanted to make some points about Africa, about the Church's role in Africa, about the Church's role in the Millennium Development Goals - what is the relationship between the Anglican Communion and those goals?
Archbishop: The Millennium Development Goals are oriented to lifting a substantial part of the burden of poverty and disease in the developing world; that is attacking questions of child poverty, of epidemic disease and economic viability in developing countries. The Church I think has a very specific role in dealing with both education and child poverty; it has the opportunities, especially in Africa, of holding together educational and practical care - school feeding programmes, health education programmes, sex education programmes given the HIV AIDS question; and so the church I think has an unparalleled wide outreach. I think what's really at the heart of this is the conviction which certainly I've found getting stronger in me in recent years, if you want to deliver the Millennium Development Goals, then in Africa you have no option but to work with and through the churches as they are the most universal and the most credible civil society organisations in context after context, country after country. And I think for the role of women in particular, in Africa the Church has been utterly indispensable.
Dan Damon: How important with all of that going on is the unity of the Anglican Communion? What does it mean to have a global movement for justice, which is a Church?
Archbishop: I think this is crucial. I think that the motivation of all of this development work in Africa, it's about a particular vision of a globally just society; it's about a sense of profound responsibility for each other, and the unity of the Church in that context doesn't mean papering over the cracks in an institution just so people hang on to their jobs and their structures, it means keeping open the networks, the channels that exist between different parts of the Communion so that this kind of resourcing can go on. And again, to take a couple of specific examples, when I visit Angola or further afield, as in Pakistan, sometimes it's possible because the Archbishop of Canterbury is a high profile visitor, it becomes possible for me to take a local church leader in to meet a president, or a cabinet minister, in a way that they wouldn't necessarily have the clout to do on their own. So, Monday, I was able to go with the Bishop of Angola to the President of the National Assembly and, so to, speak, introduce, the work of the Anglican Church in Angola to the President of the Assembly. In Pakistan I can remember one particularly lively exchange where I went in with a local bishop to meet a provincial governor and it was really an occasion for me to simply to say to the local bishop "Ok now you tell the provincial governor what you've been telling me about the problems of Christians in this area!". So that kind of opening doors is part of the international ministry of the Archbishop of Canterbury; so I think in so far as the unity of the Communion is about that, yes, it's an important and crucial thing.
Dan Damon: So how frustrating is it then for you, with all of that work to do, for this obsession on sexuality to keep cropping up? And presumably during your trip, because it's Africa, because Africa is one of the places from which the tension is coming, it came up again?
Archbishop: Well as a matter of fact it didn't really in the last week or so, partly because in Angola these are problems which do feel very remote and academic, given the immediacy of the need of the country, so we didn't discuss these things. So, yes, it is frustrating that this is an issue, which could dominate some international agendas at the level of Church leadership. There's no short cut as I think I said in the Church of England Synod a couple of weeks ago, unless there's some kind of holding solution for some of these problems. Quite a lot of this other work is imperilled or held up in some way, even if it's only because some people's energy is diverted into it.
Dan Damon: We heard from the Bishop of Botswana not long ago on our programme who said that this was moving the Church's focus in the wrong way; these issues you've talked about of AIDS, poverty, justice, human rights, those were being lost because of this debate about gays basically.
Archbishop: Fortunately I don't think they are being lost because it's very clear that there's an enormous amount going on. It doesn't stop happening simply because Archbishops scratch at each other. But in the public perception the Church, I think, is rather damaged by this picture of a body that's interested in its internal housekeeping, and you might say other people's internal housekeeping in another sense. And that does us no favours.
Dan Damon: What about the view that you could have put your foot down; you could have said 'developed societies where diversity of relationship, including same sex, are healthier societies, more free societies, we're not going to allow our faith to be a reason to exclude people from that,' that you should be more emphatic?
Archbishop: I think a lot of questions are begged about any strategy that basically says 'well we know we got it right', to the developing world, because in so many ways we manifestly haven't. We need to earn a bit of credibility before we can say that with any real conviction. And without wanting to say 'Oh we can't move a step without absolutely universal consensus', the fact is, I think that the moving forward of the American [Episcopal] Church on one particular issue about the eligibility of practising gay people to be bishops, moving ahead like that has, in fact, both complicated and almost stifled real debate because a lot of other provinces are saying 'well you've made up your minds, what's the point of talking?' And that shuts down something that ought to be opening up for understanding and reflection.
Dan Damon: There are those in the churches in Africa who say you can't lead in these areas; you can't get people to follow you if you're not sticking to the pure form of scripture which was brought there by the missionaries. And on the question of homosexuality, that means you simply cannot countenance this and any suggestion that there can be compromise is just re-writing scripture?
Archbishop: There's quite a lot of feeling in some of the African churches that being clear about homosexuality is just inseparable, it's woven in with loyalty to historic faith, and also commitment to a viable healthy sexual ethic in sexually chaotic societies ravaged by sexually transmitted diseases. And I can fully understand why it has that kind of emotional force for so many of the African churches. I think many of us in Britain and the US simply do not register just why that works and just why it works in the way it does and the kind of society you are looking at. It's very unwelcome to a lot of liberal Western people. It's very difficult, and at times people will say things that I and others will find extremely hard to hear because they sound like blanket bigotry.
Dan Damon: This is the satanic attack stuff?
Archbishop: It comes from that very powerful sense you can't just pick and choose with the Gospel, the Gospel missionaries preached was an integral Gospel for belief and action. So that's there, it's a very important factor, at the same time I wouldn't say that that was universal in Africa. There are plenty who say, and who've said to me, 'yes of course it's an important point and, no, we are not going to change our minds about this, but please can we talk about something else?' Now from where I sit one of the difficulties is, well two of the difficulties perhaps, trying to interpret different speakers to each other, which is often a chairman's doom. You have to try and say 'well I think what they're trying to say is..' and to get a level of seriousness about that. And because that can't happen if people feel the goal posts are being changed while the conversation is going on, that's why I'm trying to make sure people don't take decisions that seem to foreclose it. The other issue is, I think, trying to tease apart for some of my brothers and sisters, the fact that it is possible to be compassionate, affirming of homosexual people as human beings, but that doesn't immediately commit you to a single liberal agenda of some kind in the American style.
Dan Damon: You don't seem affected by some quite unpleasant attacks; even on our programme there have been suggestions that you're being bullied that you're being pushed around?
Archbishop: Well of course these are hurtful; there are no two ways about that. I take sort of modest comfort from the fact that it's almost as disagreeable from both sides of the argument; both those who think I'm being too soft on the conservatives and those who think I'm being too soft on the liberals say much the same thing. Of course it's hurtful, but I actually have a very, very strong commitment to the kind of Church I believe in, which is a Church capable of dealing with conflict, perhaps openly and embarrassingly sometimes, but also holding to due process, unity and order. And that may not be the best way to grab headlines or satisfy campaigning groups, but it's actually what I believe the Church needs to be.
Dan Damon: Let's come back to a couple of the events during your trip; you went to Zanzibar to the slave pits?
Archbishop: The two things in Zanzibar which stuck with me I think were the sight of the little roundel of red marble in front of the altar in the cathedral which marks where the whipping post stood in the old slave market and that was where slaves were beaten to test their powers of resistance; a profoundly inhuman memory and, quite deliberately, the cathedral was built on top of it to say that this is a memory of such sin, such violence, such horror. The only thing you can do with it is to put it there in front of the altar and say 'that level of human inhumanity needs healing from the deepest places available, from the faith that we bring to this'. And I think there was a very strong sense in those who built that cathedral they were reclaiming enemy territory; But then going into the pits where the slaves were held, where 40, 45, 50 women and children could be held in a room which felt crowded with ten of us in it; you just think of the not only the levels of physical suffering that were endured by people who were being held there but also levels of sheer terror. And you think of 40, 50 women and children in that space, not knowing what was going to happen, terrified out of their wits, standing in their own excrement, in the dark for 48 hours or more and to think, once upon a time, people thought that was justified, and that is such a moral shock.
Dan Damon: You're going on a march to commemorate the churches 200th anniversary of its involvement in the campaign to end slavery, but of course slavery is not over yet, actually is it?
Archbishop: Slavery is not over and of course part of the commemoration is acknowledging that while Christians were very much at the forefront of campaigning against abolition, they were also at the forefront of defending the old system; so part of the point of the march is acknowledging that, repentance about that. And we haven't actually abolished the slave trade; we have still the horrendous growing problem of people trafficking - both sex trafficking, which is a major problem in this country and a more universal problem of illicit labour gangs. Not slavery within the dictionary definition perhaps, but if you're talking about forms of exploitation which deeply undermine people's human liberty and human dignity, well it's there.
Dan Damon: Finally, Commonwealth countries have been celebrating together this year, a Commonwealth Day, a special day observance at Westminster Abbey; what is the strength of the Commonwealth, do you think? And what is the role, what's the place of the Anglican Communion, the 'Mother Church' in that?
Archbishop: The strength of the Commonwealth, I think, is that it's a fellowship of nations which exists by consent not by control, which reminds what was once an Imperial power that its destiny and its identity are in fact bound up with all sorts of other very different societies. And the Anglican Communion has some parallels with the Commonwealth, for good and ill - we lack an absolutely clear central executive authority - we're always in danger of slipping away to something so woolly that it might as well not be there; we can be in a position where we might feel we're being held hostage by somebody's ill-advised or embarrassing decision, but like the Commonwealth we'll try and keep talking about it and accept that we are somehow our identity somehow is bound up with each other.
Dan Damon: Thank you very much.