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Archbishop's Advent Pastoral Letter to Primates and Moderators of the United Churches

Saturday 27th November 2004

From the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.

As we move towards the Advent season once again, I write with love and concern for the well-being of our Communion and the future of our common discipleship. In II.Tim.4.8, the apostle speaks of the Lord's promise 'to all those who wait with love for him to appear' - or, in the older translation, 'all them also that love his appearing'. The Church is - in human terms - the assembly of those who 'love his appearing'. We are drawn together by love and gratitude for what we see in Christ's first appearing - his birth in humility, his ministry, his saving death and glorious resurrection - and by loving hope for his coming again. We look forward, praying (in the words of one of the most profound of the Christmas collects) 'that we may with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our judge.'

It is in this context that we are called as Anglican Christians to think about the Windsor Report of the Lambeth Commission chaired by Archbishop Robin Eames. As Providence would have it, this task is before us over the Advent and Christmas seasons, so that we constantly have in mind that basic sense of the Church as the community of those who love and long for Christ. This, I have said, is what the Church is from a human point of view; but it is more. It is also Christ's Body. Drawn into the fellowship created by the Holy Spirit, we live not from ourselves, our feelings, thoughts or achievements, not even from the fullness of our grasp of the faith into which God has called us, but from the life poured into us by God's free grace - so that the common life of the Church becomes a sign in the world of God's life and activity, a sacrament of his love.

God became human, said the teachers of the early Church, so that humanity might become 'divine' - not by any confusion between God and his creation, but by creation being made into a transparent vehicle of God's loving purpose and healing action, and most of all by men and women becoming God's adopted sons and daughters. The Church is the place where such a transparency to God's purpose and action is most fully realised when we worship in spirit and in truth.

Thus the Church is, as the Reformers said, 'the creation of the Word': it is made what it is by the Word of God incarnate, by the Word written in Scripture, by the Word proclaimed in speech and sacrament. As the Spirit makes the Word present and alive again and again among us, the Church is the place where God makes himself heard and seen.

But the Church is also where our failures are most painfully visible. The Church therefore must show God to the world not only in its faithfulness and holiness, but in its willingness to repent and begin again its journey of discipleship. One of the deepest challenges of the Windsor Report is about repentance. And in the Church we can never call on others to repent without ourselves acknowledging that we too in all sorts of ways are sinners in need of grace. If only the Church's renewal were always a matter of other people's repentance! But God speaks the same words to all and our first (though not our only) duty must be to hear clearly what he says to each of us.

Because there has been much talk of apology in the light of the Report, it has been all too easy to miss the centrality of God's call to repentance. Apology is the currency of the world. People in law courts argue about their rights in order to try and extract a satisfactory apology, an adequate statement of responsibility. But I hope and pray we can go beyond that. An apology may amount only to someone saying, 'I'm sorry you feel like that'; and that doesn't go deep enough.

To repent before one another is to see that we have failed in our witness as God's new community, failed to live in the full interdependence of love - and so to see that we have compromised the way in which God can make himself heard and seen among us. When St Paul writes about conflict in the Church, he is concerned above all that we act in such a way that we can be seen to live as Christ's Body together, so that the world may see Jesus.

The Windsor Report rightly warns us against an idea of 'autonomy' that simply takes it for granted that every local church does what it thinks is right. There are those on all sides of the current controversy who say that we have little alternative now but to accept that this is how the future looks: churches will go their different ways, even to the point of competing with one another. But in our Communion, God has given us a gift of something more than just a collection of local bodies. We often forget the countless informal links that bind us, parish to parish, person to person, across the Communion in a way that would be so much harder to realise without our public and official links. It is surely worth working to honour this gift as best we can. It is worth not giving up too easily - as if we felt able to say, 'I have no need of you' (I Cor.12.21).

So if it is true that an action by one part of the Communion genuinely causes offence, causes others to stumble, there is need to ask, 'How has what we have done got in the way of God making himself heard and seen among us? Have we acted in such a way as to suggest that we do not believe we are under the authority of Scripture - that the Church is not the creation of the Word? Have we bound on other churches burdens too heavy for them to bear, reproaches for which they may suffer? Have we been eager to dismiss others before we have listened?'

We owe it to one another to let such questions sink in slowly and prayerfully. But these are the important questions for our spiritual health, rather than arguing only over the terms and wording of apologies. It is as we deal with these questions that we do our proper duty to each other in the Church by calling each other back to Christ.

And we should not forget those questions that may make us most uncomfortable. In the heat of this controversy, things have been said about homosexual people that have made many of them, including those who lead celibate lives, feel that there is no good news for them in the Church. Remember that in many countries such people face real persecution and cruelty; even where there are no legal penalties, they suffer from a sense of rejection. Young people are driven to suicide by the conviction that no-one will listen to them patiently; many feel that they are condemned not for their behaviour but for their nature. As I write these words, I have in mind the recent brutal and unprovoked murder of a homosexual man in London by a group of violent and ignorant youths.

The 1998 Lambeth Resolution on this subject declared plainly that the Anglican Church worldwide did not believe - because of its reading of Scripture - that it was free to say that homosexual practice could be blessed. But it also declared that violence in word or deed and prejudice against homosexual people were unacceptable and sinful behaviour for Christians. Earlier Lambeth Conference Resolutions had made the same point. Any words that could make it easier for someone to attack or abuse a homosexual person are words of which we must repent. We are bound to ask, with the greatest care, how we best communicate the challenge of the gospel to homosexual persons and how we may free ourselves from unreasoning fear or even hatred.

It is beyond doubt that we stand at a point where the future shape and character of the Communion depend on our choices. What those will be is something that will be settled by various meetings and consultations in the months ahead, especially the Primates' Meeting. The Windsor document sets out a possible future in which we willingly bind ourselves closer together by some form of covenant. I hope we will see virtue in this. No-one can or will impose this, but it may be a creative way of expressing a unity that is neither theoretical nor tyrannical. We have experience of making covenants with our ecumenical partners; why should there not be appropriate commitments which we can freely and honestly make with one another?

It is in such a context that the proposals for the future of my own office should be discussed. They do not seek to create a central executive, but to create a means to discern what covenantal relationship might mean and to act to restore it when it is threatened.

But staying together as a Communion is bound to be costly for us all. To be in the Church at all obliges us to try and discern the difficult balance between independence and responsibility to each other, and to face the dangers of causing others to stumble (Mark 9.42, Rom.14). How can we be true to our consciences, yet aware that the Church as the whole Body needs to reflect and decide - not just ourselves and our friends? The only thing that will ultimately keep us together is a recognition in each other of the same love and longing for the same Lord and his appearing.

How do we do that? Not primarily through public words and statements. We know each other's hearts as believers only when we share each other's prayer. In the months ahead, please do not forget this. Be aware of others praying with you across the world. Take the opportunities that may arise of sharing directly in prayer wherever you can. Let us use the various links of the Communion for this good purpose. Do not forget the good things we have shared as a Communion. Do not think that repentance is always something others are called to, but acknowledge the failings we all share, sinful and struggling disciples as we are.

We have been given a working tool of great value and great challenge in the Windsor Report. It will not straight away answer all our questions, but it will help us find out what are the right and the useful questions to ask.

I invite you during this Advent season to devote time and attention in the second week of Advent - the week following what has traditionally been the Sunday when we think about God's gift of Holy Scripture - to prayer around all these matters - prayer for all who have difficult decisions to make, prayer for the whole of our Communion, so that we may together find how we may best honour our God and Saviour and serve his mission in the world.

May God bless all of you in your preparation to celebrate the Lord's Coming, 'as we wait for the blessed day we hope for, when the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ will appear' (Titus 2.11).

As ever,


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