The Archbishop's Presidential Address, General Synod February 2009
Tuesday 10th February 2009Impressions from the Lambeth Conference; Archbishops' appeal for Zimbabwe and women in the episcopate. General Synod, London.
The experiences of last summer's Lambeth Conference and last week's Primates' Meeting have left me with one or two strong impressions which seem worth sharing with Synod as it prepares for further discussion of some sensitive matters this week. Despite many predictions of doom - and a fair number of subsequent assessments of inefficacy - the Lambeth Conference at least established two things. The first was the significance of a climate in which every participant is guaranteed a hearing; some people were dismissive of the 'indaba' process, the method of organising group discussion in units manageable enough for everyone to speak, without pressure to produce an agreed statement – but the importance of this became apparent, if I may hazard a rather sharp judgement, in the light of how some other aspects of the Conference worked. The 'hearings' which looked at some of the more controversial matters before the Communion were dominated, naturally, by those who had most investment in the subjects, from both left and right, and also by English-speakers from the North Atlantic. They were more like the debates at the 1998 Conference. Necessary things were undoubtedly said and needful debates advanced; but one thing they did not do was to give space to those for whom these were not the most pressing subjects and those who were not so fluent in the words and methods of Westernised discussion. If the hearings underlined the likelihood and reality of polarisation, other kinds of debate and exchange acted as a reminder that not every discussion in the Church should reduce to a zero-sum game, and that what looks utterly urgent here may elsewhere be either deeply problematic or simply not on the radar.
The second thing to emerge clearly from Lambeth was a strong sense of what might be lost if the Communion fragmented further or found itself gathering around more than one centre. Some of my most vivid memories are of the small gatherings where we managed to assemble bishops from Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Sudan and similar places to meet some of our own government ministers to explain face to face what they were experiencing and what they needed. The Walk of Witness in London said something about the sort of pressure that might be brought on government through concerted work on the Millennium Development Goals by our Church and other communities of faith. And throughout the Conference, bishops developed new relationships and commitments of mutual support, formal and informal. For Churches that live in very vulnerable settings – to repeat what I've said in Synod a good few times before – Communion is not a luxury, either materially or spiritually. You'll remember that this time last year we had the privilege of welcoming with a standing ovation Bishop Sebastian Bakare of Harare; last week at the Primates' Meeting, we were able to hear still more about the heroism of Sebastian and his colleagues in Zimbabwe, still faced with constant brutal harassment and threats of death, and also to hear something of the vital importance to them of knowing that there are advocates and friends and partners in prayer elsewhere in the world.
Sebastian is one bishop among five in Zimbabwe and one many among hundreds of thousands of Anglicans there trying to live out the Christian witness by feeding, clothing, healing and all too often mourning and burying people in their communities. You will have seen last week's statement from the Primates' Meeting about this, unanimously committing the whole Communion to continue and extend its practical support for the Church in Zimbabwe. In the light of this, the Archbishop of York and myself will be launching on Ash Wednesday an Archbishops' Appeal for Zimbabwe, in the context of a Day of Prayer for Zimbabwe. We hope that this will be part of a communion-wide project for Lent, and that every diocese represented here will play its part, responding to the urgent calls for help with medical supplies, food and clean water which come daily from Zimbabwe. Please publicise this Appeal in your dioceses and continue your prayers.
This is only one example of what people do not want to lose in the life of the Communion. And it is a good Pauline principle, if you read II Corinthians, that we should be glad of the honour of being able to support other churches in their need. Who knows whether some other structure than the Communion as we know it might make this possible? But the bare fact is that what now, specifically, makes it possible is the Communion we have, and that is not something to let go of lightly. Hence the difficult but unavoidable search for the forms of agreed self-restraint that will allow us to keep conversation alive – the moratoria advised by Lambeth, very imperfectly observed yet still urged by the Primates as a token of our willingness not to behave as if debates had been settled that are still in their early stages at best.
The Communion we have: it is indeed a very imperfect thing at the moment. It is still true that not every Primate feels able to communicate at the Lord's Table alongside every other, and this is indeed a tragedy. Yet last week, all the Primates who had attended GAFCON were present, every one of them took part in daily prayer and Bible study alongside the Primates of North America and every one of them spoke in discussion. In a way that I have come to recognise as very typical of these meetings, when talk of replacing Communion with federation of some kind was heard, nearly everyone reacted by saying that this was not something they could think about choosing. We may have imperfect communion, but we unmistakably want to find a way of holding on to what we have and 'intensifying' it – to use the language I used last summer about the proposed Anglican Covenant. Somehow, the biblical call to be involved with one another at a level deeper than that of mere affinity and good will is still heard loud and clear. No-one wants to rest content with the breach in sacramental fellowship, and everyone acknowledges that this breach means we are less than we are called to be. But the fact that we recognise this and that we still gather around the Word is no small thing; without this, we should not even be able to hope for the full restoration of fellowship at the Eucharist.
Underlying this is something that dawned on me last week with a renewed force. We have not yet got to the point where we can no longer recognise one another as seeking to obey the same Lord. To make a very simple point, common Bible study would not be possible if we did not see in one another at least some of the same habits of attention and devotion to Scripture, whatever the diversity of interpretation. We can see that the other person is trying to listen to God's self-communication in scripture, not just imposing an agenda. But this entails a more complex and challenging point. If we recognise this much, we have to recognise that the other person or community or tradition is not simply going to go away. They are near enough to be capable of conversation, shared prayer and shared discernment with us. They are not just going to be defeated and silenced. For the foreseeable future, they are going to be there, recognisably doing something like what we are doing. We can't pretend.
But we'd like to. All of us – and I do emphatically mean liberals as well as traditionalists – have a bit of us that is in love with purity, that wants to find in the other a perfect echo of ourselves and to be able to present to the world outside a united face, whether of clear commitments to the liberties and dignities of humanity as seen in the modern world or of unswerving fidelity to the faith delivered to the saints – or both, of course. But what are we to do in a world where people don't go away? Where the Church of God overall is never going to be pure as we would want to define purity and we are always going to be embarrassed by the fact that we bear the same name as people whose views we don't own or approve to the extent that they follow the same patterns and habits of prayer and listening?
Anglicanism has always tacitly acknowledged this as a real issue – not because of an indifference to basic doctrinal integrity, a lazy belief that any formulation will do (the Creeds remain our touchstone, accepted as providing the authoritative framework in which we read Scripture), but because of a keen pragmatic awareness of the oddity and resilience of flesh and blood, the diversity of personal perception or reception of the common heritage, perhaps rooted in the commitment of our Church of England to be genuinely a church for this particular place and language and culture. Many feel that just this is what is now threatened from both ends of our current debates, whether on sexuality or on the role of ordained women. And I want, before concluding this address, to suggest some possible implications for our discussions this week of the issues around women in the episcopate.
We all know that if women are ordained to the episcopate, those who cannot in conscience accept it will not go away. And those who long to see women in episcopal orders and want to be able to rejoice wholeheartedly at this would, I think, hope that this rejoicing could carry with it some good news also for these others who are still going to be our brothers and sisters and companions in mission. Some of course may in one sense 'go away' to another Christian communion; but even then they will still be there as fellow-Christians, fellow-missioners and disciples, and the debate will not be over just because one local jurisdiction has made a decision. But many do not want to go away in that sense at all. They want to be part of the same family still. And this means that some dreams of purity and clarity are not going to be realised. We have – and the Communion as a whole has – recognised that doubts about whether the ordination of women to the historic ministry is opportune or legitimate do not disqualify anyone from claiming an Anglican identity. We acknowledge that those who have such doubts represent that strand in Anglican thinking that sees what we do and think in the Provinces of the Communion as part of the universal process of discerning the will of God for the Church overall – not as the whole story. Losing that perspective, as I suggested last July in York, is not a small matter, not a minor change – given that one of the perennial temptations of Anglicanism is a complacent insularity that repeatedly has to be combated by one means or another.
I think we are already asking in this Synod what we can do in a Church where the others are not going to go away. Traditionalist opponents of women in the episcopate have long since acknowledged that it is likely to come and that they must find ways of living with the results; and those who passionately believe it to be right and good for the Church's health have acknowledged that opponents are not going to disappear. Both have to some extent turned their backs on the fantasy of a Church that is 'pure' in their own terms, in favour of a Church that is honest about its diversity – even when that diversity seems at first embarrassing and unwelcome. And one of the questions that is going to be around this week – and that will be in the forefront of the work of the Revision Committee if legislation is remitted to it – will be, 'What is the form of legislation best adapted to the good of the Church as a body where The Others do not simply go away and become invisible?'
This is not the place to elaborate on what that could mean in practice, but it does no harm to hold in mind the vision of a Church in which a difficult plurality of conviction will not simply be done away with by decree. This is not, though, simply a matter of tolerating private views, since it bears on the public life and worship of the church. If I hear correctly what is being said by those opposed to the Code of Practice currently on the table, they are asking what more might be offered to secure some kind of continuity of pastoral care for congregations and clergy unwilling to accept women as bishops, and some measure of organisational (including sacramental) coherence for them, rather than being wholly dependent on ad hoc provision and local chance. Forgetting for a moment the word 'jurisdiction', which is far from clear in its implications here, the questions seem to me to be (i) whether such a degree of continuity and cohesions is a desirable outcome, (ii) whether it would gravely compromise or undermine the authority accorded by the Church to a woman in Episcopal ministry and (iii) if the first two questions are answered benignly, whether what is before us is adequate to secure that level of continuity and cohesion. I hope that all this will be carefully explored in our debates. Not all will agree, I know, but my own hope is that we may yet be able to offer the rest of the Communion some possibilities for coexistence if we could get this right. One of the most insistent themes in international consultations of the Communion is how to deal with the fact of people who want to 'belong to the family', yet cannot find the structures to make it work.
I mentioned earlier the concern most of us feel one way or another about the 'face' we present to the wider world – a face of clear agreement with the unmistakeably gospel- related agenda of human dignity and equality, or a face of clear and costly fidelity to a truth received that does not depend on human fashion and preference. And perhaps it is important to frame those concerns against the proper background. The face we are called on to present to the world is of course that of Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever. As the pillars of our financial system seem to quiver and crack, we have to speak, with the writer to the Hebrews, of what cannot be shaken: which is the knowledge of the face of God turned towards us in Jesus Christ. What we have to say is that God's gaze rests lovingly upon each of us and each of our fellow human beings, waiting on our response to his inestimable gift. That is our priority, in a world where we not only see human dignity affronted in Gaza and the Holy Land and Zimbabwe and Sudan, but where we now see so many nearer home facing the wreckage or undermining of their sense of purpose and value, as unemployment, repossession, uncertainty about the future for them and their families all become immediate threats. At least we can try to act with one another in our Church as though we really believed all were really indispensable for God to do his will in and through us. May God help us to act in such a way in the days and months ahead.
© Rowan Williams 2009