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Archbishop addresses Methodist Conference - "What's the life we're prepared to lay down for Christ?"

Tuesday 29th June 2010

The Archbishop addressed the annual Conference of the Methodist Church of Great Britain in Portsmouth Guildhall.

The Archbishop addressed the annual Methodist Conference in Portsmouth on the feast of Sts Peter and Paul.  Beginning with a biblical reflection on Galations 2 (which includes the only account of Peter and Paul meeting), the Archbishop reflected on the diffferent styles and emphases of the two apostles as they appear in the New Testament, and how their contrasting views and experiences of Jesus caused them to witness to Jesus in contrasting ways - the petrine boldness and willingness to compromise, the pauline precision and willingness to confront.  After a series of reflections on how these two apostolic styles work in situations of the Church's witness today, the Archbishop closed with a reflection on the Peter and Paul's unity in martyrdom, asking, "For the sake of Christ, what is the life we're prepared to lay down?" 

The Methodist Church and the Church of England are in a covenant relationship. On the 1 November 2003, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the General Secretary of the General Synod, together with the President, Vice President and Secretary of the Methodist Conference signed the Covenant at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, in the presence of Her Majesty The Queen. Guided by church leaders and a Joint Implementation Commission, the Covenant puts the two Churches on a path of deepening relationship and collaboration, trust and co-operation on the road to a fuller unity.

Read a transcript of the Archbishop's address below, or click links on the right to view the video or to listen to the audio file [33Mb]

Archbishop's address at Conference of the Methodist Church of Great Britain

Thank you for the opportunity of sharing some thoughts about the Church and the nature of the Apostles' calling; because that is what I would like to reflect on with you this evening.

I do so partly because in the calendar of our Church and many others it's the feasts of Saints Peter and Paul. I am going to take you to one of the very few passages in the New Testament where Peter and Paul come together; it's Paul's account in Galatians 2 of their relationship. Paul is describing his early days as a Christian. Not very far below the surface is a rather obvious resentment that he has been forced to display his credentials to the older generation of Christian leaders in Jerusalem; and he gets something of his revenge in the incident at Antioch. He describes how he 'resisted Peter to his face because he was wrong'. It's a passage which still bears the signs of unfinished business; some personal rancour. Paul is the sort of person who doesn't easily let go of hurts – read II Corinthians – and you can feel that what's going on in this passage is Paul defending himself very intensely and anxiously against a person who clearly approaches being an apostle in a very different way.

Now here we're up against a bit of a paradox because quite often when people talk about the ministry of Peter in the Church (let alone the 'Petrine ministry') what they tend to be thinking of is hierarchy and order. Peter stands for hierarchy and order; Paul stands for some kind of creative newness. And yet it's not nearly as simple as that. Peter has compromised, Peter has got himself into a mess, because he's manifestly a man of good intentions and quick reactions. Peter, for the sake of the order and unity of the Church has done something disorderly and divisive. He's compromised the principles which Paul thinks are central, and created a deeply embarrassing situation. And of course part of Peter's specialism is the creating of embarrassing situations (look at other passages in the New Testament and remember his encounter with the Centurion Cornelius when he creates a monumentally embarrassing situation of having baptised a whole lot of Gentiles without asking). So far from being simply the apostle of good order and clean and tidy institutional solutions, it turns out that Peter is the one with the thoroughly messy mind. At times that messy mind leads him into astonishingly creative moments of courage and innovation; and at times it leads him simply into mess.

A petrine apostolic ministry: what would that look like in the Church today? We'll come back to that in a moment. But over against that is Paul's apostolic ministry. Paul, perhaps strangely in this connection, is quite obviously the person with the clear answers. He knows exactly where he stands, and he knows exactly why Peter is wrong. More than that, he comes very close to implying that Peter's actions and Peter's words are undermining the Gospel itself. This is not a marginal matter. This is not a matter on which you can compromise. This is not a matter where pastoral solutions will look after everything. This is the heart, the blood of the Gospel and Peter has lost his grip on it.

Paul's apostolic ministry in this connection is one of an utterly ruthless integrity, a clarity about what Christ means that is incapable of compromise; even at the expense of open breaches in the apostolic fellowship, and no doubt in the wider community. If you look at I Corinthians you'll see just how much factionalism was bedded into the lives of so many early communities, no doubt because of issues like this, and the different styles of the apostles' personalities.

And thinking about this, I wondered if you could express the distinction between Peter and Paul in something like these terms: Peter knows who Jesus is and Paul knows what Jesus means. Peter knows who Jesus is – he confesses as much in the gospels – he identifies Jesus, and in his relationship with Jesus you feel he is swept up uncontrollably in a passion and involvement that he can't himself fully understand and doesn't know how to live up to. And yet – as he says in the memorable words of John 6, 'Lord, where else can we go? Who else can we go to?' He knows who Jesus is and is committed to that person. And Paul – who so far as we know, never met Jesus – knows what Jesus means. He knows that the fact of Jesus' life and death and resurrection shatters every single human claim to righteousness, security and the comfort-zone of 'people like me'. He knows that what Jesus means is grace upon grace. He knows that what Jesus means is a kingdom without boundaries and without hierarchy, the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in the one people of God, and the promise of renewal and transfiguration for every human being. He knows what Jesus means. And those two different kinds of commitment and clarity aren't always going to sit comfortably together. I wonder whether we can begin to think in our own experience, in our own selves, of how those kinds of apostleship play out and work through.

I want to resist the temptation in myself of thinking, or encouraging any of you to think, 'Oh, I'm a Peter type' or 'I'm a Paul type'. This is not a New Testament version of the Myers-Briggs typology, because these things run through the middle of most of us.

Listening to discussions earlier this afternoon I thought with a certain sense of uncanny recognition that this is indeed what it's like to be a Church. On what do we compromise? At what point do we say the best is the enemy of the good? At what point do we say (if we want to move six inches forward rather than try and move twelve inches forward and fail) 'is that defensible?' And as I'll try and spell out a bit later on, that affects us in quite a range of areas.

Peter is a compromising sort of man and sometimes that's right and sometimes it's disastrous. Nobody's going to tell us in advance, unfortunately, which situation we're now in. Yet we are, I would say, encouraged by the New Testament to believe that Peter's style is not necessarily un-apostolic any more than is Paul's. Paul, who is incapable of compromise and incapable – it sometimes seems – of seeing anyone else's point of view except his own, is a necessary figure just as much as Peter. Because to know and to think through what the implications are of Jesus, what Jesus means, is something we can't avoid. Both apostles push us out of what we feel comfortable with. Paul and the Pauline person and the Pauline bit of you and me, will sometimes – almost with relief – think, 'I'll take my stand here. This is what the Church is all about. This is where I draw my line in the sand.' And to that, the Peter bit of us and the Church will always have some liberty to say, 'So would you rather nothing happened if everything can't happen? What about what you, Paul yourself, wrote in Romans? What about the compromises you spell out there about the food laws?

But the comfort and ease of compromise needs just the same edge and challenge put to it. What if this is not something we can solve by being nice to and patient with each other? What if this really is where the gospel bites? What if this really is where the life-blood of the Church is to be found? To put it very simply: it's really very helpful for the Church today – or in any age – to remember not only that there are four gospels but that there were twelve apostles (and then some). The apostolic witness is something that can't be narrowed down to one way of doing it so that we can say it is always the managing pastoral compromise that is Christ's way, any more than we can say that it is always the prophetic clarity of Paul that is Christ's way. Neither alone will settle the question. And both Petrine and Pauline ministries, in the way they are fleshed out in the New Testament, seem implicitly to recognise that. Peter knows he's got to take his chaotic, full-hearted decision about Cornelius to the rest of the Church to try and work it out and tidy it up. Paul knows that when you're writing in the complicated urban context of the Mediterranean, you can't go to the stake for the food laws, or the abrogation of the food laws when you're dealing with a mixed Jewish and Gentile community. Confrontation is not the end of the story and compromise is not the end of the story. The apostolic witness somehow embraces both.

I want to offer just a couple of thoughts with that in the background about where we are in our churches, with our ecumenical relationships and in our society today. Let's begin with ecumenical conversation. Very often in our ecumenical relationships we're more aware than perhaps in any other area of our lives as churches of the pendulum swinging wildly between the Petrine and the Pauline. 'We don't have to settle this do we? We can live with a generous theology of acceptance.' (A quote I heard earlier today.) 'We can surely, because the love of Christ constrains us, take some steps forward, take some risks, make a mess. Because we know who Christ is. We know what the face of Jesus is like and the kind of imperative that draws us to an involvement in him that we can't thematise, organise or fully understand. But our hearts will move us.'

And from that the pendulum swings to, 'But it's wholly irresponsible to ignore what this is going to look like five or ten years down the line. You can't leave the questions unresolved for ever: there are always people who are going to make it that much more awkward because the questions have never been resolved.

I suspect that all good ecumenical conversation begins with what I've been calling the 'Petrine impulse'. 'For heaven's sake!' we say (quite literally) 'this is ridiculous. I know what the textbooks say, but surely we've got to do something?' Like Peter with Cornelius, we say to ourselves, 'We can't leave this to the experts to sort out because we know who Jesus is.' The ecumenical movement generally would never have got started or have survived had it not been for people who obstinately believed they knew who Jesus was, and so were encouraged to make an ecclesial mess; to move out into uncharted territory and live with unfinished business. And in the context of our Covenant between these sister churches whose relationship has been so complex, so close, so near and yet so far over the centuries, I would say that that sense of the urgency of who Jesus is must be at the heart of the Covenant. It must be at the heart of a relationship in which we give thanks for, value, one another, recognise the work of Christ, including the sacramental work of Christ, in each other. We have taken a Petrine step. We've a lot of unfinished business. And how we now cope with the unfinished business remains an intriguing, challenging and provoking question. As it should be. Because of course if we do that, if we take the messy and slightly risky step, we may find a few years on (and perhaps this is not an entirely academic observation) that nothing very much is happening because the unfinished business haunts us. And the spectre of Paul rises up to say, 'Well, I did warn you!' Sooner or later you have to talk about this, you know. You can't just get away with being Peter, with the glorious, Christ-focused, generous mess. Because even the most generous of messes left to stew for too long, turns a bit ungenerous and unsatisfying.

I suspect we're at exactly that point in the Covenant relationship. We've taken a big step, we've taken some risks in expressing where we want to be, who we want to be for each other. And having expressed those admirable, incontrovertible sentiments we're now treading water and thinking, 'How do we solve what's left? Because it's not going away.' How do we settle in for the long haul, the detailed work; because that too is apostolic.

What I think of in the background of that, and indeed many other ecumenical settings, is that neither the confrontation nor the compromise will work unless beyond both of them you have a vision of the communion you long for. Early this afternoon I heard people asking about what vision animates certain reports and recommendations of policy, and I think that's exactly where we are. Compromise for the sake of a quiet life and confrontation for the sake of feeling righteous – neither of those in the long run will be a fully biblical approach. So, we have to ask, beyond that, where do we want to be in the kingdom? That means (to be blindingly obvious) going back again and again to where it all started and thinking 'Jesus'. Reading the gospels and trying to hold together the recognition of who he is and what he means, in the widest possible context (the context that Paul is so very good at), the context of the whole reconciled creation. And only that vision gets us beyond the stand-off between compromise and confrontation; only that gets us toward something of a church life that is neither a dramatic series of posture-strikings nor a matter of desperate personnel management.

I think you can see where that's going in the vitally important context of our work together with Fresh Expressions. Again, I was intrigued to listen to and read about some of the discussions we've been having about ministry and Eucharistic ministry in the context of Fresh Expressions and other mission situations, thinking that that really is one of those areas in the life of your church (and increasingly, if we're honest, in the life of many Anglican communities), where the pressure towards generous ecclesial mess and the pressure towards holding on to what actually makes us recognisable to each other grind up against each other. I say that without recommending a solution to you. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the one who desperately wants to pour out his hospitality for everyone, who wants to share out his body and blood for the life of the world; and here we are trying to deal with those people who barely even know that they don't want to go to church because church is so remote from them. And we want – because we trust in Jesus' name and in his Spirit – to feed them as Jesus would want to feed them. That's one kind of powerful evangelistic, missional pressure.

Recognising the other side of the story at the same time is hard. It can make us feel ungenerous and fussy – maybe rightly. And yet on the basis of some of what we've already been thinking about, it won't do simply to say that the Petrine ministry will solve it all. What if you end up in a situation where something is compromised? Compromised so profoundly that it's not quite clear that what you're doing is recognisable – not a compromise about details of order let alone hierarchy or authority, but some sort of compromise about whether you're offering the wholeness of what you've been given. That's the kind of tension that I hear in your discussions, as I hear it in my own church, and as I hear it particularly sharply -– and yet also prayerfully and carefully – in the context of Fresh Expressions. I was very glad that that was the framework in which your discussion arose.

The history of the Church's mission is a history of many efforts to reach to and speak with those who won't instinctively and immediately understand the language you're talking. Some of these have been amazingly creative and right and some have been in the long run corrupting and wrong. And for some of them, it's too soon to say. There's no alternative but to keep going back together to the gospel. At what point does unfinished business and the tolerance of unfinished business actually make a compromise that's corrosive? The only answer is back to the gospels, pressing continuously on the question, 'does this or that policy or decision end up with a different kind of good news or not?'

I think here of the tension in mission history between those who were absolutely clear that they knew how to communicate the gospel in the terms they were used to, and those who thought that by taking on the language and the culture of those they were speaking with, all the problems would be solved. And so you have on the one hand the appalling and unhappy history of Christian colonialism or colonial Christianity, and, on the other hand, those inspiring and courageous but also rather shadowed figures of the Catholic missions in India in the seventeenth century who thought you could only communicate the gospel if you accepted the caste system, because that's where people were.

Now those are large and frightening issues to bring into the context of our own local mission in this country; yet I hope you can see that some of the questions are not a million miles away from each other and that the confrontation-versus-compromise issue isn't one where you can find an answer where one size fits all. Important, as I say, that there's more than one apostle.

Those were a few of the reflections that came to me as I thought about Peter and Paul in Galatians 2in the context of our Church now. And as we think about those kinds of ministry in the context of our Church now, one of the things that ought to stick with us is, what at the end of the day, disarmingly, Paul recognises as much as Peter. And that is, it's most unlikely that we will find any policy for some aspects of which we don't have to repent at some point. Get used to it. That's Christian.

But of course all of this works out in our relations with the wider society too, where confrontation-versus-compromise is deeply embedded as a sort of polarity in the way Christians think about how they relate to the wider world they live in and the society they're called to serve. Again and again in our history we've had exactly the same paradox or dilemma before us. Do you work with the grain of the power that is there so as to achieve the gospel-shaped ends you want? Or do you opt out of the power-system that there is because it will corrupt your discipleship and your Christian integrity? In the early '50s the Anglican schools in South Africa were closed by the Archbishop of Cape Town because he and his advisors came with great anguish to the conclusion that they simply could not work with the apartheid system as it was evolving. They could not in conscience continue to teach under those conditions. And they knew that compromise on that would be what Paul thinks Peter is doing in Galatians 2: it's another gospel, at the end of the day, and you've got to face the fact. Out of that – as they knew – flowed enormous anger and hurt, and, even among the Black African community (or parts of it), a sense of abandonment. And yet, looking back it's very hard to see what else was available as an option. A hard judgement and not one without cost, not quite as obvious as it looks at first sight. Fortunately most of us are not driven to that kind of extreme decision as we think about how we're to relate to the world we're in. We can't avoid that sort of calculation, however hard we try to persuade ourselves that somewhere there's a solution without cost. We need to learn that, very often – as a great moral theologian said – the really significant moral question is who's going to get hurt, not whether. Because someone will.

I think of that of course in connection with what we were speaking about Madam President just a few minutes ago before this session: the establishment. I think about that as one of the issues that comes up in our history between a free church and an established church. The Church of England has 400 years of petrine relationship with the state. And sometimes that has been compromising and sometimes it has been evangelical, I dare say, but certainly it has that character of forcing Christians in the Church of England to ask some rather hard questions about where the limits of compromise are, rather than saying in advance that it's perfectly clear that compromise isn't possible.

And alas, of course the Established Church and the free churches fought over the bodies of the children of this country in the nineteenth century through controversies over the educational system, with a great many of these issues rocketing off the walls in a way which still leaves a sour and sad taste when you read that history. But again, the truth of the matter is that the compromise/confrontation thing runs through our churches: with due respect to the Free Churches, it's not as if they have had centuries of unsullied protest against the state or the culture, as (I like to think) it's not true that the Church of England has had 400 years of Erastian submission to Caesar. In fact, whenever we discuss – to take a rather neuralgic example from our Church – investment policy, we're up against these issues. When we discuss something like the question of the living wage the tension seems to be in that area. Sometimes when we discuss international questions and what we can say publicly about this or that situation elsewhere, these calculations come in.

A few years ago I had a strongly-worded letter about what was happening at the time in Myanmar, asking why the Archbishop of Canterbury was not making a clear public statement denouncing the Burmese regime. The short answer was that we'd been in touch with the Anglican Church in Burma who'd said to us that that wouldn't change anything except to make their lives unbearable. That gave me pause. I guess similar issues will arise for you in your international setting also. I don't in any sense use that as an alibi for silence. I just point out the tough calculations this sometimes entails.

Which leads me to the last thing I want to say about this. Making statements that cost me/us nothing, is the worst possible way of being Pauline and uncompromising. Because the true apostolic question is, 'How do I share the cost?' whatever my decision, whether confrontation or compromise. 'How do I somehow put myself at risk alongside those I want to speak for and pray with?' Not keeping myself at a distance -- either the safe distance of compromising or the safe distance of making satisfying moral noises. Because of course when you come back to Peter and Paul, what unites them at the end of the day is not, apparently, that they liked each other or got on with each other or even agreed about everything (except possibly the all-importance of salvation through Jesus Christ), but martyrdom. They were honoured as the great 'twin' martyrs at the beginnings of the Church. The Church of Rome in its early days was the Church of the two great martyrs: Peter and Paul. In the early days of the Church it wasn't so much Peter as source of all authority, but Peter with Paul, giving their lives for the one gospel.

And that suggests that our interventions in Church or society, whether they have a Peter flavour or a Paul flavour, ought to lead us back to the cross, not just back to the gospels in general but back to the cross in particular, posing to us the question: 'Where and how do we share the risk? How do we avoid words without price, or gestures without suffering, at every level?' As I've said, we are familiar enough with nostalgia for cost-free versions of the apostolic strategies. But to look at Peter and Paul united in their martyr-witness to the crucified and risen Jesus, that's to go to another level. And taking it back to Jesus, back to the gospels is in this context also asking, 'What's the life that I'm prepared to lay down in this?' Whether I'm going for a more Petrine or more Pauline approach, whether the situation requires patience with muddle, or innovation without clarity, or whether the situation requires clear words, clear demarcations, those issues fade away before that more basic question: 'What's the life I'm prepared to lay down?'

I was deeply struck many years ago, when I first began working on the life of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, to read what someone had written about the Patriarch of Moscow in the 1970s and his failure to support dissidents in Russia. Someone said (and I don't know if it's true or not but it's worth pondering) 'Well perhaps there's a sort of martyrdom in his silence'. The life he's laying down is the satisfying picture of the great defender of the civil rights of the Russian people. He's laying down that image because he knows what the cost to the helpless and poor in Russia would be if he took that stance. Now, I don't know if that was a true picture of what was going on in the extremely complex mind of Alexei II when he was Patriarch of Moscow. But it was the kind of Petrine question that ought to haunt us just a little bit so that we recognise that maybe there's a life laid down there. But just as obviously, lives are laid down for the truth of the gospel in situations of terrible clarity. Earlier this year we were remembering the anniversary of the murder of Oscar Romero in El Salvador. And there we see a man who started out Petrine and became more and more Pauline. He was driven into a corner where all he could say was, 'I can't even pretend to preach the gospel if I don't say this about the government and its oppression.'

What's the life we're prepared to lay down?' The question is addressed to Peter, Paul and you and me: Methodists and Anglicans, Catholics and Pentecostalists, Orthodox and all the rest. Because if Peter and Paul are indeed there at the foundation of our apostolic faith, then the question and the challenge Jesus puts to his apostles is our challenge. At the end of John's gospel, when Jesus has just informed Peter what a very difficult time he's going to have, after this he says, 'Follow me'. You can almost hear the tentativeness in Jesus' voice, 'I tell you this – but still follow me'. And that's the apostolic message for you and me today. Thank you.

© Rowan Williams 2010


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  • The Archbishop last addressed the Conference in 2004 - click here to view more.


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