I had a bit of déjà-vu today. Meeting with an outside facilitator at the General Synod in small groups of around 20 reminded me of the indaba groups at the 2008 Lambeth Conference. And then, as now, people excluded from the conversations complained about 'secrecy' – clearly unable to distinguish between sinister scheming in the shadows and private conversations.

Sometimes people need to create the space in which to have a different sort of conversation than the ones normally conducted in public. When the General Synod comes to re-ignite the women bishops process, it clearly needs to begin in a different place from where it ended last November.

One of the problems for the Synod is that it is shaped by parliamentary models that are essentially adversarial, charging debates with a win-lose goal. This (a) means that parties establish and bolster their line before the debate and (b) leaves no room for individuals to change their mind on an issue in the course of an informed debate. It isn't a healthy way for the church to discern and shape its future.

The culture change requested by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his Presidential Address yesterday clearly needs to begin here.

So, today we met in groups and explored the experiences of the failed process of the last twelve years (and last November in particular), asking what might be learned for the process going forward. In my group we were honest, frank, respectful and, I think, courageous in facing reality. It has been an intense, but helpful day in general. And at least we weren't asked to do role-play…

Behind the emotive questions about experience and perceptions, however, there lurks a really hard question: can this circle actually be squared? Is it possible for the church to have bishops who are bishops who are bishops – rather than some bishops (female) who are, however politely expressed, less episcopal than other bishops? Is it possible to discriminate and not discriminate at the same time? Can a yes be simultaneously a no?

In one sense, we live by paradoxes, and a way through this conundrum should be detectable. At the moment it is not clear where this way might be found. And some think it is now time to be clear and honest about what is possible, what is achievable, and what might be regrettably necessary. This is a debate between a vision of a clear church with clear lines and identities… and a fuzzy church that can live with inadequacy and mess.

The beauty of indaba and what we did today is simply that it offers the space in which honest conversation can happen and we don't have to be watching over our shoulders to see how what is ventured might be reported. I can't yet see how we can square the circles regarding women bishops; but, I do think November's shock and today's process have a chance of creating a refreshed culture in which the sensitive issues can be addressed with humility, generosity and greater clarity.

We will see in Monday's debate if any difference has been made. I hope so.

 

As always, Maggi Dawn has provided a helpful and provocative response to the Archbishop of Canterbury‘s response to the TEC 2009 General Convention’s response to the sexuality questions currently anguishing the Anglican Communion. Tom Wright has also responded fully and clearly, but it is Maggi who expresses some of the emotional exhaustion many people are experiencing about these vexed matters. She writes:

Like many others who belong to the Church of England, I’ve oscillated between making a thoughtful response and throwing in the towel altogether over the impossibility of finding a solution to this mess. I’m dismayed at the number of excellent, hardworking, moderate-thinking ordained people who have called me this week and spoken about the possibility of resigning over this. People are utterly weary at the way this one issue seems to stick our feet to the ground when day to day mission and ministry is about the whole of life.

Jane Shaw has written with clarity about the inner workings of the Episcopal Church, and rightly points out that the issue of inclusion is vital to Mission. The Episcopal Church, she points out, “…is not going grey in the pews. It is a Church that has young people engaged and involved at all levels. It is, therefore, a Church that will thrive and grow into the future — and that cannot necessarily be said of other Churches in the West. And those young people have an enormous passion for mission… And, for the vast majority of that younger generation, the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people is a no-brainer, a non-issue. To go against full inclusion would be to offend their sense of the gospel — God’s good news to all people — and affect their Church’s capacity for mission. Me? I don’t think the covenant is a good idea, yet I hesitate to criticize Rowan’s proposal when I can’t come up with anything better myself…

Basically, my church is sleepwalking into disaster. We are going to die because we are so damn polite and we don’t like offending people… Whether you agree with the covenant or not, ++Rowan is to be applauded for making a sincere attempt to move forward in an impossible situation. But we shouldn’t just leave it to “the people in charge” – ordinary people who are concerned about the future of the Church should not assume they can do nothing. We all need to think and pray and speak up in an attempt to help create a solution that works.

Rowan WilliamsI think it is unlikely that Maggi would find anyone who is not exhausted by all this – other than Chris Sugden (& co) who has made it his life’s work to break the Communion apart and, I think, gets energised by conflict. Yet the complexity she recognises is more complex still – hence the problem. Many of us would like to walk away from it, but that doesn’t solve anything for the world the Church is there to serve. It is the ecumenical element that most imposes itself on my own consciousness.

There are essentially three historic Christian blocs in the world: Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican. I know this ignores free churches and Pentecostals (for which I apologise, but time is short), but in ecumenical terms these are the big players. Deal with politicians internationally (as I have to, from time to time) and these are the three that appear on their (albeit sometimes limited) horizons. For the Anglican Communion to fall apart, be dismantled or neutered might not have any impact on the particular provinces involved, but it would remove from the worldwide ecumenical table a Communion (rather than a federation of similar but autonomous churches). This would deprive the world of those uniquely Anglican perspectives and experiences that no other Church will bring.

This is not special pleading. The Anglican Communion commands massive respect around the world precisely because of its ability to hold together a disparate group of churches from disparate cultures and with disparate histories together in one Church. And, as Bishop Kallistos Ware observed during the Lambeth Conference, the struggles being endured by the Anglican Communion are not simply those of the Anglican Communion – we are doing them on behalf of others who are watching.

I don’t believe in the proposed Anglican Covenant. I don’t think we should need one nor have one. The relationships that hold us together as a Communion should suffice. But, my own sensibilities aside, I don’t see any other show in town to help us remain together for the sake of the world (which has always been the vocation of the Church). We don’t live in an ideal world and we certainly don’t live in an ideal church. But our decisions should be taken in consideration of the Church’s witness to the world and its engagement in matters of politics, economics, culture and values at levels (and in ways) that will be detrimentally affected by the collapse or further fragmentation of the Communion. And I say that fully cognisant of the fact that people ‘on the ground’ suffer the consequences – and that is always very uncomfortable.

Whereas I share the frustration and exhaustion of those clergy who have spoken to Maggi about resigning, I think that to do so would be self-indulgent and achieve nothing. Their voice would no longer be heard and their perspective weakened. I hope that, like many of us, they will stay and pray and struggle on. Sex is not the only (or, even, the most important) challenge facing the world and we still need to be focusing on those others: climate change, poverty, injustice, health (including the western world’s shameful waste and obesity…), etc.

Tomorrow I go to Zimbabwe where there are more pressing matters than the internal struggles of the Anglican Communion – and I say that even in the light of the Church’s internal struggles there. This is the real world…

I have just got back from speaking at a conference in Austria over the weekend. They seemed to survive my lousy German and were very generous and kind to us. The conference (Kongress fuer Evangelisation und Gemeindeaufbau – under the auspices of the Evangelische Kirche in Oesterreich) took place in the gorgeous village of Bad Goisern in the Salzkammergut. Just look at the view out of the bedroom window of the hotel!

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Then, back in the office in Croydon this morning, what do I find? My colleague, Colin Slee – Dean of Southwark, is in the papers for questioning the integrity of several bishops including the Bishop of Rochester. Rather than trust the newspaper reports, I went to the original source and read the Annual Report from Southwark Cathedral. It is very long. The bishops bits appear at the beginning.

sleeColin is always full of surprises and is great company. He is also never short of an opinion. Now, that is fine when you know what you are talking about. Speculation can sometimes be funny. But how on earth did he find his way into print on two things he cannot possibly know about?

He begins by describing the Lambeth Conference from July 2008. Yet he wasn’t there. It was for bishops. You can’t make too many judgments from the outside and cannot possibly know the rationale behind the decision of those who did not come. We can speculate; but we cannot make definitive statements about them. To make the judgements Colin makes with such unassailable confidence is just silly (even if he turns out to be right).

Then he goes on to enter the mind of the Bishop of Rochester and reveal to the world the real reason behind the bishop’s decision to resign later this year. Colin appears to know definitively what is going on in the bishop’s mind  – which goes well beyond speculation. How is this possible without prophetic (abusing the word, I know…) superpowers.

What is really funny is that neither of these issues has any place in an annual report for or from Southwark Cathedral as neither are the business of Southwark Cathedral. Are they?

Colin, I want your superpowers! I, too, want to be able to see into the minds of people I know and expose definitively to the world the real contents of their minds and motives. (Or is that God’s business?)

I spent part of today working with a friend on the early stages of a book on ‘communication’ due for publication (possibly) next year. During our conversation I recalled something I had read a couple of days ago in an intriguing report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) entitled Faith in the Nation: Religion, identity and the public realm in Britain today. It was published last year and includes articles by leading religious leaders in the UK.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor highlights the need for Christians (and other religious groups) to transcend their differences in order to counter the driving and intolerant forces of secular liberalism in Britain which proclaim as an absolute dogma that all views are acceptable in the public sphere except religious views. The Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks then takes this further in a gentle but incisive expose of our shallow consumerist culture. In a pithy paragraph he puts into words what many people instinctively feel, but can rarely articulate:

sacks-lambeth08“Religion is an agent of social change, the most powerful there is. Almost every other institution today offers us what we want. Religion teaches us what to want. It is the last refuge of what philosophers call second-order evaluation. It tells us that there is something beyond autonomy, rights and the satisfaction of desire. It speaks unashamedly of duty, compassion, responsibility, loyalty, obligation, the sanctity of life, the sacred bond of marriage, and the covenant of human solidarity. It tells us that our worth is not measured by how much we earn or what we buy, but by the good we do and the love we create.”

I am a fan of Jonathan Sacks. Not only is he a passionate and erudite speaker and writer, but he is also a good, honest and humble man. He was invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to address the bishops of the Anglican Communion at last year’s Lambeth Conference in Canterbury and his speech provoked several standing ovations. I blogged (for Fulcrum) at the time and reported thus:

He began by describing politics (the State), economics (the Market) and worship (Religion) and illustrated very vividly how both State and Market operate on the basis of competition and ‘winning’. Covenant, on the other hand, has to do with both parties ‘winning’ and with creating ‘arenas of cooperation’. A contract (politics and economics) is an agreement between two parties who come together for mutual benefit (a transaction), whereas a covenant brings two parties together to share their interests (a relationship). He observed that ‘contracts benefit – covenants transform’. He developed and illustrated this from Darwin and Dawkins.

He then went on to go back to the beginning of covenant in the Ancient Near East and pointed out that given the religious/political coincidence of the relevant world view (get the gods on your side in order to guarantee your ‘gain’), the idea of a covenant between a god and people was simply absurd. And this, via an explanation of covenantal language in Hosea and Jeremiah, led to his central thesis – which is so suggestive for the Anglican Communion.

He compared the three covenants in Genesis and Exodus: Noah, Abraham and Moses (Sinai). He then posed the question: when did Israel become a nation? Deuteronomy 26 says that they became a nation while in Egypt whereas Exodus 19 says they became a nation when they left Egypt. Sacks says that both are true because they are different sorts of covenant. Egypt was a covenant of fate; Sinai was a covenant of faith. The former occurs when the people are bound together by a common suffering, fear and enemy; the latter occurs when they share dreams, aspirations, ideals and a common hope. In Egypt the people were bound by a covenant of fate, in Sinai by a covenant of faith. So, the covenant with Noah was one of fate (destruction of the world) and with Abraham and Moses was one of faith (shaping the world).

Sacks described how the covenant of fate (with Noah) was forged in desperate times of basic survival. Like the rainbow (‘the white light of God’ perceived as the spectrum of colours), this covenant bears witness to what Sacks has called ‘the dignity of difference’. He broke this down into three elements: (a) the sanctity of human life, (b) the environment and (c) respect for diversity. He expanded on each of these before noting that the Isaiah dream of the ‘wolf lying down with the lamb’ was already fulfilled in the Ark when their common predicament (survival from drowning) made their mutual cohabitation essential. Faith, said Sacks, is particular; fate is universal.

As covenants of faith begin to fall apart in contemporary society, so it is the covenant of fate that is pulling us together.

Sacks went on movingly and poignantly to describe Jewish fears of Christians for the last thousand years before the Holocaust and beyond. He then noted how Joseph (Genesis 50) worked out that even though we cannot rewrite the past, we can redeem it. In the case of Christians and Jews, he said, the past in now being redeemed (at least in the UK). He then noted how, when we marched together through London last Thursday on behalf of the world’s poorest people, we (Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, etc.) did not share a faith, but we did share a common fate.

Religions, he maintained, needed to show the world how, sharing a common fate, we could live and work together – faiths bound together by a common fate. We should be a blessing to the world by walking together and emphasising the covenant of fate over the particular covenants of faith.

Now, I realise that this is only a sketch of Sacks’s thesis, but I found it powerful at the time and even more so now. Tomorrow I will be interviewing in Croydon all morning and then going into London for the afternoon session of the General Synod. I will miss the debate on Women Bishops, but will be there for the debate on the uniqueness of Christ. There will be differences of opinion in the former and differences of language (at least) in the latter. But I will hear Sacks’s powerful and compelling appeal for even those who differ on detail to remember that the world needs not only those who forge covenants of faith, but, in a fragmenting culture, those who remember (and neither minimise nor despise) the covenant of fate.

The Primates (can we not find a better word?) of the Anglican Communion have been meeting in Egypt and have issued a number of statements during the course of their deliberations. These won’t necessarily come as good news to those who wish to see the Communion fall apart. It seems the big guys have been doing the Christian thing and relating to each other as Christians and adults.

The full Communique can be read on the Anglican Communion website. The Communique reinforces what many people ignore which is that we are preoccuppied with more than sex and conflict. Look at the common statements on Gaza, Sudan (Darfur), Zimbabwe, climate change and Anglican Relief and Development work. These don’t diminish the importance of the divisive matters, but they do put them into context. They also counter the image that all we are interested in is sex and conflict.

One bit that intrigued me, though, was the part of the Communique that reads as follows: ‘The role of primate arises from the position he or she holds as the senior bishop in each Province.  As such we believe that when the Archbishop of Canterbury calls us together “for leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation”, it is intended that we act as “the channels through which the voice of the member churches [are] heard, and real interchange of heart [can] take place”.’ From conversations during the Lambeth Conference (July last year) with bishops from a number of provinces (especially one or two who formed Gafcon), their primate doesn’t confer with them at all. In one case they were surprised that the primate could speak in their name without consulting them or knowing what their views on certain matters are.

So, I would be interested (simply out of curiosity) to know how the primates can be confident that they do indeed represent their bishops accurately. I guess such an inquiry would lead to the same conclusion as the Lambeth experience itself: what it means to be a province, a diocese or a bishop differs significantly from province to province – that we use the same language to mean different things. I don’t see this as a problem, but I do think it should be acknowledged.

During the Lambeth Conference in July/August 2008 I agreed to write a blog for the evangelical group Fulcrum. The blog can still be read at www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk. Readers should read it with the caution that comes from understanding the context in which and the pressures under which it was written.

Fulcrum asked me to write a review six months after the conference and it has been posted today at

www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/page.cfm?ID=376. It is a review not of the conference itself, but of the conference as reflected in the blog I wrote during it. I will see what the response is before deciding whether or not to coment further here.

The world is in financial and economic recession. Israel continues its violence against Gaza – to what possible end? Mugabe continues to disregard the world’s horror at his corruption and scorn for his people. Climate change cannot be ignored. There is a lot going on and everywhere I go people are asking hard questions about the future.

I was in a church in Croydon this morning and tried to bring together the insecurities of the real world into which ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ and the one we inhabit. Wise men travelled to find what God’s own people missed and, at what we call Epiphany, allowed the light of a star to shine into the darkness of oppression, violence, paranoia and mendacity. (Read Matthew 2:1-12) We don’t know what 2009 will hold, but we do know there will have to be changes not only in the ways we live and the choices we make, but also in the values that drive us. The ‘blind growth’ view of economics is being weighed in the balance. And people feel very insecure about themselves, their ‘normality’ and the future of the world itself.

So, it might be timely to recall that Christian hope is rooted not in a system or a prognosis, but in a person. The God who came among us in Jesus of Nazareth is one who is unashamed to live with vulnerability and insecurity (a baby born in an obscure part of the Roman-occupied Middle East) and is unafraid to show the wounds of real life when the risen Christ holds up wounded hands and invites the world to touch them. This God is one who has refused to let the violence, destruction and death of the world have the final word – God has the final word and it sounds like ‘resurrection’.

This sober rumination has just reminded me of the great Beautiful South song that exposes:

A plastic world and we’re all plastic too
Just a couple of different faces in a dead man’s queue
The world is turning Disney and there’s nothing you can do
You’re trying to walk like giants but you’re wearing Pluto’s shoes

And the answers fall easier from the barrel of a gun
Than it does from the lips of the beautiful and the dumb
The world won’t end in darkness, it’ll end in family fun
With Coca Cola clouds behind a Big Mac sun.

Epiphany whispers light into a dark world and invites us to look for the God of substance beneath the veneers of security we crave.

This certainly puts into perspective matters such as the future of the Anglican Communion and those internal churchy matters which seem to fill some people’s lives and internet preoccupations. Having blogged the entire two weeks back in July/August 2008, I have just written a review of the Lambeth Conference six months on and it will appear on the Fulcrum website in the next couple of days. I will provide the link when I know what it is. But it all needs to be kept in sharp perspective as the sideshow it is to the real stuff of the Kingdom of God.