Anglican Communion


Sunday 31 July 2017

Yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury led the four hour service that inaugurated the new (39th) Province of Sudan. Packed, joyful, chaotic (in the best and most enjoyable sense), it also saw the wonderful Archbishop Ezekiel Kondo installed as the first Primate of the new province. There are loads of photos and videos on Twitter, but I simply post here a photo I took – possibly the worst ever taken of an Archbishop of Canterbury at work.

Although the Inauguration was the primary reason for coming to Sudan, we did a lot of other stuff. We started off staying with the UK Ambassador who, despite being an excellent ambassador, turns out disappointingly to be an Arsenal fan. However, he is a fluent Arabic speaker, so the odd weirdness is forgivable.

The four-day trip also saw us flying down to Kadugli in South Kordofan on Saturday after only two hours sleep. With a serious security accompaniment into town, we met with the Governor before engaging with religious leaders about the realities behind the rhetoric of religious harmony. Two things emerged: (a) Christians and Muslims really do live side by side here, despite the recent history of violence and civil war – which is not to do with religious identity, but with ethnic and political claims; (b) Sudan has been remarkably generous in welcoming refugees from South Sudan and (in Kadugli) from the Nuba Mountains regardless of religious identity. Discussions were frank and informative.

This set the tone for what followed. Having returned to Khartoum in the evening, we got some sleep ahead of the great Inauguration on Sunday which was attended by government and Muslim leaders.

Sunday, however, did not only see loud and lively worship (visually obscured by unrestrained media and security men). In the early evening a small group of us went to visit the President of Sudan. We spent just under an hour in respectful but frank conversation about Sudan, its international reputation, the challenges faced by Christian churches, and other matters. It was good-humoured, but open. The demolition of churches was just one of the issues addressed, but so was the challenge to Sudan of continuing US sanctions.

So far, so interesting. And the Archbishop demonstrated both stamina and diplomacy in a succession of demanding engagements. Even the celebration dinner at a Khartoum hotel meant talking relentlessly to a wide range of people. It was all hugely enjoyable.

So, today continued the rounds. A Sudan roundtable meeting this morning raised questions about how the new Province should be supported – and how that support should be prioritised and coordinated – by external partner dioceses and agencies. I had to leave with Archbishop Ezekiel after two hours as we had to join the Archbishop of Canterbury’s group at a series of meetings with government ministers.

At each of these meetings – with the Governor of Khartoum State, then the Foreign Minister, and finally with the Minister of Guidance and Endowment (religious affairs) – the Archbishop raised matters of concern alongside discussing wider political and economic issues. It was both wide-ranging and focused, and questions of religious discrimination, demolition of churches, freedom of religion, etc. were all discussed honestly and respectfully.

The trip basically concluded with a dinner laid on by the UK ambassador at his residence. A number of ambassadors and diplomats joined in a serious discussion about Sudan, its challenges and gifts, and its potential futures. A big question haunting most conversations during the trip emerged again: the need for the United States to lift sanctions against Sudan on 12 October. The UK Government supports this, believing the three-month extension from 12 July must be the last. Interestingly, it wasn’t just the economic cost (or political pressure) that dominated the discussion; rather, it was the potential loss of hope by ordinary Sudanese that would prove most damaging. Of course, it is easier to measure economic impact than psycho-social despair.

This probably doesn’t read as very exciting. I write it mainly in order to keep a record of it. But, I also need to demonstrate that the agenda of the Church runs wider than the issues it is normally associated with in the media. Poverty, reconciliation, economics and politics go to the heart of the Christian gospel, and there can be no abstract discussion of such matters without an intelligent, informed, questioning and serious engagement with the people involved – both the powerless and the powerful.

The Archbishop moves on to Uganda tomorrow morning. I return to the UK on Wednesday, flying out of Khartoum late tomorrow night.

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On Sunday the new Province of Sudan will be inaugurated by the Archbishop of Canterbury in Khartoum. This brings the total of autonomous provinces in the Anglican Communion to 39.

The Diocese of Leeds has had a partnership link with Sudan for nearly forty years, and Archbishop Ezekiel Kondo was over with us in Leeds in March/April this year. That’s why I am going.

The reason for the creation of the new Province is this. The Episcopal Church of Sudan covered the whole of the original country. When South Sudan separated just a few years ago (2011), the single Church eventually created an internal province for Sudan. What is happening on Sunday is the natural (and necessary) consequence of the creation of separate countries.

Given Sudan’s drive to have one nation, one faith and one language – Sudan, Islam and Arabic – and to guard its own integrity over against the seceded South Sudan, relations between church and state might actually become clearer and better: a church for Sudan.

More anon. We leave Heathrow soon.

When Paul Simon put out the epic Graceland, one of the most evocative lyrics on the album referred to “under an African sky”. I didn't really understand why an African sky should be any different from any other sky. (There speaks a British city man.)

On my first trip to Africa – to Zimbabwe for a diocesan partnership link visit – I was overwhelmed by the sky at night. Under total darkness – no light pollution out in the bush – the sky appeared to be in 3D: billions of stars filled the night sky, shooting stars appearing and expiring in seconds. It was breathtaking. On one subsequent visit a group of us lay outside on the grass just staring at the sky for ages, silent contemplation squeezing out the distractions of talk and 'stuff'.

Africa is gorgeous. It can also be infuriating. On a diocesan link visit to Tanzania wifi has been mostly non-existent. So, for those of us intending to communicate the experience more widely, we have had to leave the iPad unopened while we immersed ourselves in the experiences and conversations of the moment. In its own way it is very therapeutic.

We have come with a group of thirteen. The historic Diocese of Wakefield had a longstanding and very well developed link with the Diocese of Mara in northern Tanzania. Mara then divided in 2010 and two new dioceses were formed: Rorya and Tarime. We are visiting all three. Now, as part of the Diocese of Leeds (known as West Yorkshire and the Dales – not easy for all Tanzanians to pronounce), Tanzania is one link among several: Sudan and Southwestern Virginia (formed with the historic Diocese of Bradford) and Sri Lanka (with the historic Diocese of Ripon & Leeds). There are also smaller, more specific links with Skara in Sweden and the Kirchenkreis Erfurt in Germany.

Here in Tanzania we have visited people, projects, churches and schools. There are some inspiring people here, and they are doing some remarkable things. From the building of schools to the creation of vocational training centres to help girls avoid FGM and early marriage, the church serves its wider community with commitment, sacrifice and courage. One or two places we have visited are like the Wild West – frontier places that do not look immediately promising for the church.

The church here is growing. Yet, I find myself increasingly annoyed by much of what I have heard over the years that contrasts the church in the UK with the church in Africa (as if 'Africa' was a single entity anyway). For example, here in Tanzania the church is planting churches and congregations where none has ever existed before. They might start a congregation under a tree, but they soon move towards building a church building. In fact, one dynamic bishop went as far as to say that the church grows once there is a building. At the same time as in England there seems to be a rush to get rid of buildings on the basis that they put people off…

Now, this sounds like England over a hundred years ago. The Victorians planted churches and erected buildings where none had existed before and the church grew in many dimensions. But, the church in England – especially one that organises by territorial missional obligation … such as the Church of England – now finds itself in a different culture that holds a different memory about the church and which sees the now redundant buildings as a sign of decline. Yet, many of our buildings are worn out, in the wrong place for today's world or capable only of static worship and use.

In other words, as a bishop said to me yesterday, the African church will probably one day (in fifty, a hundred or two hundred years) face the same situation the English church attends to today. Which means that we English should stop romanticising the African church and recognise that we have to find English ways of growing the church (taking a longer-term view) and not make the simplistic assumption that if we only copied the African church all would be well. There is no simple equation. Technique will never trump inspiration by the Spirit of God.

I always come away from churches in Africa – in Zimbabwe, Sudan and now Tanzania – inspired and energised. But, I never come away thinking there is some simple equation that can be applied in Leeds just because it works in Musoma or Tarime. What gets fired up is the imagination to look afresh at the context in Leeds and, having stepped back, to reimagine how the priorities in Leeds might now be addressed.

Now for the market – after a week of intensive engagement and travel, today is the closest we will get to a day off. Tomorrow I preach in Musoma Cathedral.That said, however, respite from the cold, wet and miserable English winter doesn't half help that imagination get stimulated.

 

I don't have much time these days for doing the blog. All I manage to put up is scripts or journalism. I recently did a paper at a theological conference, but 5,000 words is too many for this medium.

Tomorrow I head off to Tanzania to visit one of our Anglican partnership links: three dioceses in the north. So, here's a quick blast on a theme.

Most Church of England dioceses have links with dioceses around the world (or the Anglican Communion for these purposes). My diocese comprises three historic English dioceses and each had long-established links: Bradford with Sudan and Southwestern Virginia (USA), Wakefield with Tanzania and Skara (Sweden), Ripon & Leeds with Sri Lanka.

All the richness and complexity of the Anglican Communion is there. In Sudan the church faces dreadful pressure because African Christians (as opposed to Arabic Muslims) are being persecuted and squeezed. The reasons are complicated, but the separation of South Sudan from Sudan (and consequent vindictiveness) has led to a ratcheting up of the pressure. Look back to the posts I wrote when visiting Sudan in January 2013.)

Tanzania faces political and economic difficulties, and bears the marks of many of the problems of Africa. It is also beautiful. The church is divided in one of the dioceses we shall be visiting.

I visited Sri Lanka (see posts here) in October 2014, learning a huge amount about the politics and tribal tensions that lay beneath the decades-long civil war. I also witnessed the unique contribution being made by the Anglican Church in promoting and working for reconciliation between scarred peoples. Rebuilding broken communities lies at the heart of the church's witness.

Southwestern Virginia is a beautiful part of America where the church gets stuck into witnessing within its particular culture. The relationship with South Sudan is about to be brought to a conclusion. The diocese is currently enjoying its annual Council. I have visited twice – the second time for the consecration of the new bishop Mark Bourlakas. (I sat next to Michael Curry, now the Presiding Bishop, during the service. When the choir sang Parry's 'I was glad' I pointed out that it had been written for a coronation in England – and thought the Americans had fought hard to get away from this stuff. Michael turned to me and said: “We won the War of Independence, but you won the culture wars.” Excellent.)

I visited Skara briefly in 2014 to represent the Archbishop of Canterbury and my diocese at the 1000th anniversary of the diocese. I also managed to do a speech made up of a considerable number of Abba lyrics. They laughed.

In my diocese we cover major cities, post-industrial towns, deeply rural communities. All of life is here.

In other words, bring this lot together and all the complexities of the modern world are there. Christians struggling with persecution and pressure, those at the heart of a beautiful country that has moved from colonialism to civil war and beyond. Scandinavia, the United States and England represent a spread of modern western liberal democracies where the church takes a number of different forms and is having to face challenges different from those in, for example, Africa.

What often surprises me is how surprised others are when they hear about the reality of being a Christian in England and the west. They see the Church of England and English society as it was seventy years ago.

Last week I had Skype conversations with the Bishop of Colombo (Sri Lanka), the Archbishop of Khartoum and the Bishop of Southwestern Virginia. In the next couple of days I will meet the Tanzanians. I have had email correspondence with the Bishop of Skara. Why? Because these links are more than simply institutional connections; we are friends and brothers, able to be honest and open with each other.

So, why write this now? Well, mainly because I am planning to bring the bishops together in 2017 to live, pray, talk and learn together.

This is what the Anglican Communion is all about. And it is never boring.

So, to Tanzania…

 

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

It doesn't seem that long since we were doing this last year: looking back at the old and wondering what the new year will hold. Many people in my part of the world will be hoping for better weather and, if that fails, at least better flood defences. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was surely right when he said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Well, looking forwards tells me that in Europe 2016 won’t be boring. Among other things, we’ll commemorate the centenary of the Somme – where a whole generation of young men (vast numbers from northern towns and cities) was sacrificed on the altar of violence. Then there’s the likely referendum on membership of the European Union which should remind us of where the drive for union began a century ago. And let's not forget the European football Championships in the summer – where we can only hope the goals go in the right direction.

Tomorrow is always an unknown country. This month the Primates of the Anglican Communion will meet in London and make decisions about how to belong together in the future. The divisions are no secret. The outcome is, obviously, unknown. What is certain, however, is that the future might not look exactly like the past.

Now, that’s a bit of a truism. But, every human community has to comprehend difference of opinion and competing priorities. Yes, we can walk away from the discomfort of conflict; or, we can face reality and harness it for honest conversation. Difference matters.

Later this month I will be visiting Anglicans in Tanzania where our diocesan partnership links are strong. We have equally strong links with Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sweden and the United States. What these relationships do is compel Christians in very different contexts and with vastly different histories and cultures to look through the eyes of the other and feel through the skin of the other. What we take for granted when we talk about God, the world and us gets challenged by looking through the eyes of a very different people. This also means exposing our own prejudices and discovering just how much of our theology turns out actually to be cultural assumption.

So, difference is integral to all human life. We either face it hopefully … or we simply wish it away. Hope is not the same as wishful thinking; hope refuses to let go in the face of even fierce discomfort.

Writing about the prophets, one Old Testament theologian titled a book 'Texts that linger, words that explode'. Well, maybe relationships sometimes explode, but words have a habit of hanging around – the conversation always has further to go. The texts that linger form a conversation that can’t be silenced.

A hopeful 2016 is one that faces reality and keeps talking.

It was announced yesterday that the Archbishop of Canterbury has invited the Primates of the Anglican Communion to Canterbury in January 2016 to discuss the (futures) of their relationships and organisation.

Note that he has 'invited' them. This has been translated into media-speak as 'summonsed'. First, he cannot summons them or demand that they come. He is not a pope. So, the translation from invitation to summons is either lazy journalese or deliberate obfuscation.

Secondly, contrary to much reporting, he has not decided on these futures, but has put everyhting on the table in order that the Primates together can discuss and decide on their future shape.

What is so hard to understand about this?

It seems to me that the Archbishop of Canterbury has shown some clear leadership here by (a) insisting that the continuing and debilitating Communion issues now be confronted and addressed and resolved, and (b) that the Primates now take responsibility for the consequences of the positions they take. No more posturing or game-playing. The need for clarity is paramount and the time has come.

I am writing this sitting on a plane waiting to leave for New York for a conference on religious violence and persecution. That is the context in which some of the internal preoccupations of the Communion find their place. Our energies need in future to go into the big issues that affect the world. (I'll write more when I get the time…)

 

The Church of England is investing a huge amount of time and energy into re-shaping its agenda. Not in order to bolster the institution, but in order to get us back (amid a million claims on attention) to our core vocation: to make and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ; to grow disciples who pray into ministers who evangelise; to shape churches that give themselves away in serving their communities. Not simply growing churches for the sake of having big churches, but growing churches in all our communities – even and especially where it is tough.

I am working with lay and ordained Anglican disciples to shape a diocese that places worship, evangelism, nurture and service at the heart of our life. This will shape our priorities, how we raise and allocate our resources (of people, money and ‘stuff’), and how we shape and work our structures. We are attending seriously to growth, and to tackling the challenges of buildings, decline and discouragement. And I lead a team of bishops and other ministers – lay and ordained – who are determined, confident (in God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Church – and especially the Church of England -, and the contexts in which we live and serve), and sacrificial in their exercise of this ministry.

And we are only one of 42 dioceses in the Church of England that are doing this.

You would never believe any of this from the communique issued following the meeting in England this week of the primates of what is known as Gafcon. According to this group – which, despite statements to the contrary and consistent with behaviour that is inexplicable – the Church of England has abandoned the gospel of Jesus Christ and is “unfaithful”. It is probably worth noting that the key words in the rhetoric of this conservative evangelical constituency are “gospel” and “faithful”. What is actually meant is that if you do not fit their narrow description of what the “gospel” is and who might be described as “faithful”, then you are fair game for being dismissed. (Assumptions about the meaning of key words matters here.)

For a long time I have wondered if the Church of England ought not to be a little more robust in countering the misrepresentation and manipulation (of reality) that emanates from Gafcon. I am not alone. But, I have bowed to the wisdom of those who (rightly) assert that we shouldn’t counter bad behaviour with bad behaviour, and that we should trust that one day the truth will out. I am no longer so sure about the efficacy of such an eirenic response. I think we owe it to Anglicans in England and around the Communion to fight the corner and challenge the misrepresentation that is fed to other parts of the Anglican Communion. (I was once asked in Central Africa why one has to be gay to be ordained in the Church of England. I was asked in another country why the Church of England no longer reads the Bible and denies Jesus Christ. I could go on. When asked where this stuff has come from, the answer is that this is what a bishop has told them.)

The Gafcon primates say:

We are uniting faithful Anglicans, growing in momentum, structured for the future, and committed to the Anglican Communion.

Which means what – especially when they claim ‘gospel values’ and speak and behave in ways that do not reflect values of honesty, integrity and humility? And on what basis is the bulk of the Church of England reported (within Gafcon circles) as being unfaithful? And who writes the stuff they put out? Who is directing whom – who is pulling whose strings? And what would be the response if I wrote off as “unfaithful” entire provinces of the Anglican Communion where there was evidence of corruption, love of power, financial unfaithfulness or other sins? Does the ninth Commandment still apply today, or only where convenient? Is sex the only ethical matter that matters, or does breaking the ninth Commandment get a look in?

The Gafcon primates get their information (and money) from somewhere. The ‘take’ on the Church of England reflects simply the perceptions of a few. I bet the wider picture is not represented. They insinuate that some clergy and churches (decidedly congregations and not parishes – and thereby lies another issue) feel marginalised or fearful – treated like ‘pariahs’ according to Gafcon – so cannot be identified. Really? How pathetic.

I was once at a meeting of evangelical bishops in England when three English Gafcon men came to meet us. They had stated that this was the case and that bishops were giving their clergy a hard time. We asked for evidence so we could consider it before we met. Bishop Tom Wright and I were just two who were outraged at the misinformation, misrepresentation and selective re-writing of history presented to us. When we began to challenge this, we were told that we shouldn’t get bogged down in the detail and could we move on. And they got away with it. I am not making this up.

The truth is that while all this nonsense goes on, the rest of the Church of England will continue to focus on being faithful to its gospel vocation and mission. We are doing it every day. We will not be distracted by people who selectively report, regularly misrepresent, manipulate truth and plough their own furrow. God bless them in their commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ; and God bless the rest of us in our commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We continue to support our fellow Anglicans all over the world, many of whom tell us that they have no time for Gafcon. Some face dreadful challenges and we stand with them. Some face real persecution and we stand with them. The great power of the Anglican Communion lies in these relationships of mutual prayer, learning, fellowship, mission and support – and they cannot be bought to promote the power games of a few.

Today I confirmed a number of new Christians in an ordinary and faithful West Yorkshire parish.

 

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