Presidential Address - General Synod, York, July 2005
Monday 11th July 2005The Presidential Address by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.
Last Thursday, the horrifying news about the London bombings broke just as I was arriving at Batley in West Yorkshire for a day of visits to local Islamic institutions and meetings with clergy in the area who are involved in interfaith encounters. It proved to be an extraordinary opportunity for saying things about the absolutely routine nature of friendly and lively relationships between Muslims and Christians in a good many parts of the UK – things which have informed our discussions here about 'Presence and Engagement', and which we shall all need to be heard saying quite a lot in days ahead, when the temptation to scapegoat our Muslim neighbours may be strong for some in our communities. Routine friendship and co-operation remains the best hope we have in any conflict of finding ways forward; nothing really can substitute for face to face encounter, when even the sharpest differences of conviction (and no-one in Batley was out to deny these) can be held with respect. An over-used word, I know; but its origins, of course, have to do with looking carefully; to respect someone or some position is to pay it the compliment of real and lasting attention, the sort of attention we call 'loving' attention in other contexts. But why not indeed think of respect as loving attention? To give time to following through why another believes and acts as they do, to treat this as a serious vocation, to assume that what is humanly significant for me is not going to feel completely different from what matters to my neighbour – this is a form of love, surely. And as anyone who has been deeply involved with the encounter between faith communities will confirm, it is something quite different from compromise. The Latin Bible often uses the word that is at the root of 'respect' to describe God's attention to his creation; and there perhaps is our best clue to what it might really entail.
Well, I shall want to return to this theme a bit later. But mention of last Thursday's visit recalls one of the pieces of preparatory reading I was sent for that day, which was a report from a government department on community regeneration in Yorkshire. Impressively and a little unusually, it had a whole chapter on the regeneration work associated with religious groups, focusing very largely on a particular parish in Wakefield, St Catherine's. And among many striking things in this account, one element stood out. Local people interviewed, including the parish priest, Mike Croft, pointed out that regeneration work was hampered by two problems. Funding regimes were rigidly short-term, so that a fully functioning project might have to disappear entirely after three years because the grant had expired. And the expectations loaded upon local projects by governmental bureaucracy were heavy and highly prescriptive. Apart from the quantities of paperwork, there was as tendency to claim to know what was best in any circumstances, and to encumber a local initiative with unwelcome or unmanageable features – including sometimes personnel poorly equipped for understanding the sensitivities of a locality. The result was a culture of conferencing and brainstorming, sometimes followed by immensely elaborate construction of schemes, which in the end connected badly with the real local sense of what was needed and what was possible. The truth is, according to those interviewed in this book, that in disadvantaged areas it takes longer to secure a dependable structure and leadership so that short-term appraisals are likely to miss the mark; and at the same time there may need to be a lot of flexibility about the detail of a structure, as it discovers new aspects of the needs it seeks to meet in the actual doing of the work.
The people who were being interviewed were saying in effect that even the best-intentioned schemes of public assistance could fail because they lacked a certain sort of respect, a certain level of patient attention. And for the most part, that patient attention could only be given by those closest to the situation. The significance of faith communities, and in particular the parish church, in such a context, hardly needs to be underlined: here is potentially a 'delivery system', to use the forbidding jargon, for revitalising communities – if a parish and its clergy have the imagination to seize the opportunity. The value and resourcefulness of the parochial system at its best is still that it fosters respect for the reality of a local community; it demands that the body of worshipping believers give loving attention to this particular locality or group, and it offers the possibility that there will be in the heart of an area a body of people prepared to encourage local voices and visions without patronising. If you want to see this worked out more fully, look at Sam Wells' brilliant Grove Booklet on 'The Church and Community Regeneration'.
But I might have been less struck by these reflections from West Yorkshire if they hadn't echoed several conversations at the Anglican Consultative Council the week before. In the middle of a lot of discussion about the G8 meeting and the Millennium Development Goals – including a valuable meeting with Hilary Benn, whom members will recall addressing Synod last year – a theme that kept recurring was the problem of aid policies that prescribed how 'development' should be delivered. Some complained of a regime of conferences on 'capacity building' that did not seem to build the capacity to do anything in particular; some noted the way in which certain projects assumed wildly unrealistic standards of pay and material stability when what was needed was what in some contexts has come to be called the 'barefoot' philosophy – equipping for local work with the minimum necessary apparatus and the maximum flexibility; others simply lamented the lack of cultural sensitivity in some of the personnel who came from outside.
Granted that, in Malawi as much as in Wakefield, there may be some exaggeration of difficulties and that there can easily be fault at the local level too, there is undoubtedly a picture here that has some consistency. For all the language of partnership, in regeneration here or development abroad, there is a widespread sense that large scale aid and assistance, government and otherwise, is slow to listen to what local people identify as the real priorities and inclined, for very understandable reasons, to prescribe what they think of as proven and reliable models, so as to guarantee that money is well spent. What emerged in some of the ACC discussions, and was further confirmed by conversations with Mothers' Union members from across the world, gathered for their international conference in recent weeks, was the need to persuade governments to take more seriously the role of faith based agencies in the development process – not least bodies like the MU, which has a literally unique capacity to educate and work with women at local level throughout a continent like Africa. The recent Africa Commission report recognised this in the abstract, but many of its readers will have wanted to strengthen and particularise this element considerably. It is exactly the same point as we might make in this country. We need to know our own stories of how goals can be delivered effectively by the networks of the parish and related bodies, and to be able to tell those stories to government and funding agencies. And it is probably worth adding that we shall often have to explain that the Church of England, for a variety of sometimes ambiguous reasons, is seldom just one 'faith community' among others; because of its historic position, it can open doors for and into other religious groups and can, when it is really working well, provide a unique forum for identifying the needs of a whole community, not just a cluster of interest groups.
All this is, I hope, something worth thinking about in its own right – and something very pertinent to our discussions on the future of the Church Urban Fund and to the work of the Commission on Urban Life and Faith. You will pick up, I hope, resonances with some of what has been said and will be said about the use of our financial resources within the Church, the difficult balance of responsible and accountable practice and genuine willingness to let local initiatives thrive. But there is one aspect of all this which I want to spend a little more time on. I've mentioned the ACC; most of the reports about its business emphasised the unresolved tensions and conflicts that were in evidence, some confidently asserted the effective end of the Communion. Now I have more reason than most not to underrate the gravity of the situation. But one things that was clear to me was that nothing would be solved, for us in the Church of England or for anyone else, by speaking or acting as if the Communion were, at the end of the day, an embarrassing extra that we could well do without in our own local search for an authentic mission strategy. What I have said about churches in the developing world assisting with the delivery of goals depends to a significant extent on their access to the international family that is the Communion, and at times, literal access to those in power in the West through other churches in the family: for a MU president from Africa to be able to speak at length face to face with a British Secretary of State for International Development is a significant thing.
And in these remarks, I have tried to suggest how situations here and in the developing world have things in common which help us to clarify trends and potential problems. Partnership within the Communion is about this sharing of experience and aspiration. Which is why the often unreported labours of the various networks of the Communion are as important as many other features of the Communion's agenda. I was specially impressed during the ACC on this occasion with the work of the fairly new International Anglican Women's Network and the Communications Network. Others struggle with inadequate resources, but continue to sustain an informal flow of vital information. For most of this work, the major rows that divide the Communion at hierarchical level do not feature very prominently. Yet a sharper or more permanent break would undoubtedly affect many of them acutely.
Hence the continuing struggle to find ways of keeping open the channels of communication. Much has – rightly – been made of the controversial request from the Primates to ECUSA and Canada to withdraw for a specified period from certain official bodies, and of the endorsement of this request by the ACC. This was not – it needs to be repeated – an expulsion; it was a request accepted, though not easily or happily, by the North American provinces. It stood alongside a second request, to offer a full statement for the ACC of why their decisions had been made. ECUSA and Canada were generous in meeting both the requests, and the presentations made on their behalf were careful and honest, and in their way emotionally demanding for all. Despite some pressure for a more severe response, it was clear that the ACC overwhelmingly appreciated the efforts made, even if few if any minds were changed on the basic issue.
The point is, I think, that the Primates' request and the ACC resolutions were meant to enable some kind of respect to be fostered on both sides. Recent decisions had, as a matter of bare fact, created unprecedented division; people may not have foreseen this or understand why, but there is no point in denying that division is there. For some in the Communion, it has been impossible to continue as if nothing has happened. The challenge has been to handle this division in a way that avoids two obvious dangers. It is not adequate to think of the debate as a conflict between self-evident enlightenment and ignorance; nor is it adequate to think of it as a standoff between faithfulness and wilful rebellion. But for both sides to see this needs some time and some distance. Sometimes, and this is not a comfortable doctrine, a degree of distance makes it more not less possible to see the reality of the other. And the complex and rather embarrassed processes of the ACC were an attempt to work through this. Did they succeed? Not in changing or solving the continuing stalemate; but in fostering a measure of respect? I don't think they entirely failed. They obliged conservatives to hear the North American case as one grounded in some serious thought and prayer, with some theological substance. They obliged the North Americans to encounter face to face the reality of those situations in the world where their own actions had created actual cost and risk to others. If the listening process set up by the ACC is to be of any use, it must have the same character all round. And the point has perfectly rightly been made that it will fail if it does not listen to the voices of homosexual people within the developing world, so often horrifyingly at risk of violence and persecution, just as much as it will fail if it does not listen to those churches in the developing world that are struggling with great difficulty to find a pastoral way forward that is true to their convictions and does not expose their people to real danger.
Loving attention is no easy option. We ought to know that, yet we do, all of us, sometimes talk as if it were 'softer' than a principled schism. I have tried to indicate why I still think it worth labouring for the Communion, not least in the hope that this labour will allow us to go on learning from each other as we should. My focus this morning has been deliberately on some of the opportunities our church faces, here and throughout the world, in making an unparalleled contribution (I don't think that's putting it too strongly) to meeting some of the most urgent social needs around us. Of those intimately related opportunities of meeting the urgent spiritual needs around us, I shan't say more at this point; but they will have been in all our minds. And it won't hurt to remind ourselves of one fundamental point. If it is true that our respect for one another is something to do with what we learn from the respect, the loving attention, that is given us by our maker and saviour, then one of the principal tasks we have if we are to be effective in the social and the spiritual dimensions of our mission is to learn again and again what it actually is to be under the loving attention of God; to sit in quiet and let ourselves be seen by God. Respice, Domine, populum tuum. Look attentively on your people, Lord; and teach them to look as patiently and as hopefully at one another.
© Rowan Williams 2005