I arrived in Roanoke, Virginia, last night after a long couple of flights from Manchester. The Diocese of Bradford has a longstanding link with the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia and I am here (with a couple of colleagues) for the ordination/consecration of the new bishop tomorrow. I came here for the first time in January 2012 to get to know the diocese and attend the annual Diocesan Council (equivalent to a diocesan synod in England). So, it is great to meet such wonderfully gracious and hospitable people again so soon.

Of course, this also offers a further opportunity not only to learn about The Episcopal Church (the Anglican Church in the USA), but also to look though its lens at the context I work in in England. If anything, the visit and all the encounters and conversations reinforce the lesson I learned at the Lambeth Conference back in 2008: a bishop is not a bishop is not a bishop.

A bit obvious, you might say, but the common language we use can easily shape our assumption that the same words in the different contexts (and church polities) refer to the same thing. They don't.

For example, this morning I attended a media round-table discussion between the Presiding Bishop of TEC, the outgoing Bishop of SWVA and the bishop-elect. The discussion revolved around how the church is changing as society around changes. For example, depopulation of some areas – largely down to urbanisation – renders some churches too small to sustain stipendiary ministry and the local churches have to try to adapt accordingly. The role of the bishop here was successively described in terms of a 'pontifex' – a bridge builder and connector of people and places as together we discern the will and call of God. They talked about how to maintain presence as some places decline in population or the demographic becomes more impoverished financially.

And here lies the interesting bit – for me, at least.

When they speak of 'parish', an Englishman needs to hear 'church'. An English parish is geographical and demographic: every blade of grass in England grows in an Anglican parish and a vicar is the vicar of the parish, not the chaplain of a congregation. This means that the English parish demands church engagement with civic society, politics, local community and services, people of all faiths and none, and ecumenical obligation. That dynamic does not exist here in anything like the same way. Add to that the fact that the individual parish is responsible for appointing and paying the priest, and we see the discontinuity in the reality behind the common terminology. Hence, the Church of England's parish share system (by which parishes take common responsibility for mission and ministry across the diocese – the wealthier paying more and the poorer paying less) has no equivalent here. And this means that deploying clergy across a diocese is a very different exercise here from in Bradford.

Naturally, this has other consequences. The role of the bishop is not the same as the bishop of a diocese in England where the Church is 'by law established'. Put me and the Bishop of SWVA together with the Bishop of Khartoum in Sudan – our third mutual partner – and we discover that, as I crudely put it, a bishop is not a bishop is not a bishop. Context, history and polity directly shape understanding, ethos, relationship (of clergy to bishop and bishop to people) and practice.

This observation might seem to be what Monty Python calls “the bleeding obvious”. Yet, the obvious isn't always obvious until you look your counterpart in the eye, listen to the language she uses, and ask to what the terminology actually refers. This is an exercise in translation – of words and culture – and it is neither obvious, nor easy.

The media session was followed by a Eucharist for clergy and spouses in the diocese and this was followed by a wonderful lunch and a session for clergy with the Presiding Bishop. It has all been very stimulating. The following caused me to put pen to notebook paper:

  • Some people in the USA who do not buy into the environmental sustainability agenda are finding that expanding poverty is challenging their perception: especially the connection between food, the earth, climate change and migration and their impact.
  • 'Inclusion' has traditionally been used in the church to refer to whom 'we' might wish to include, whereas increasingly we are moving into a world in which 'we' will need to ask who will include us.
  • Clergy a responsible for pastoral discipline, catechetical teaching and associated sacramental provision; their leadership role brings these responsibilities with it and it must be taken seriously as well as creatively. How are 'parishioners' to learn about and understand their place and role in the wider community of the church and not just the local expression of it? Anglicans are – according to their basic ecclesiology – not congregationalists; but, if that is de facto the culture and polity of the TEC expression of the Anglican polity, what are the implications for the church's self-understanding (to say nothing of its mission)?

A final observation that I need to think further about. The Presiding Bishop was clear in a couple of contexts that the church must move to become less hierarchical and more connexional (in the sense of being horizontally networked rather than up-down managed/directed. She also suggested that this is “where the Spirit is leading us”. This echoes some of the discourse in the UK with Fresh Expressions and its assumptions about English societal trends (assumptions I still think are partly questionable). Yet, the bit that struck me was not whether or not this is where the Spirit is leading the church, but who is meant by 'us'.

England is not the USA (for reasons I mention above) and the English parochial system is still essentially 'communal' rather than 'associational'. In other words, 'place' matters to us. When other denominations close down and move out of some of the hard places, the Church of England cannot. Supported and often financed through the diocesan parish share system, presence and engagement are sustained for the sake of the local society and the church's commitment to worship, evangelism and service locally. Buildings are retained where this is sometimes costly and hard to do.

Clearly, all this is contingent on other commitments that are integral to and inherent in English Anglican ecclesiology (and, yes, I do realise that there is a certain apparent tautology in that phrase). The American dynamic and polity are different. This is not to say that the Church of England has it right over against the TEC model – or vice versa; it is to recognise that each brings its own questions, dilemmas and opportunities. However, it also makes clear that we are not comparing like with like – even when we use the same language to describe different phenomena.

We live in different worlds, but in the same world. And that is why such diocesan partnership links are so important not only to the Anglican Communion, but also to the wider Christian Church. When we look at the Episcopal Church in Sudan (ECS) through the lens of TEC or the C of E, or TEC through the lens of ECS and the C of E, or the C of E through the lens of TEC and ECS – especially where all three are held together in conversation and committed relationship – we learn (a) just how difficult translation is, (b) that the contingent challenges and opportunities are complex, and (c) that we need each other to provide those lenses without which we become easily and arrogantly self-justifying.

(I prepared for this visit by reading E.L. Doctorow's Civil War novel The March. Probably a bit tactless, really.)

 

The great thing about spending a week in Southwestern Virginia before the annual Council is that we got to meet a shed load of people and arrived at the Council already knowing many new friends. It also means that people trust me enough not to be perturbed when they come across something that surprises them.

Someone who heard me preach last Sunday morning at St Peter, Altavista, subsequently took a look at this blog. Down at the bottom were attachments – usually just the pictures I had embedded in the post. However, this one also seemed to have two (and I quote) “compromising pictures” attached. I have no idea what this means or where they came from. Furthermore, I can’t see them – but, clearly, others have. Funny old world… and now I am curious.

Anyway, the day began with a meeting with clergy and spouses from the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. Four of us formed a panel: a retired bishop from Tanzania, exiled Bishop Andudu from Kadugli in Sudan, Angela Ifill who works with the office of the Presiding Bishop in New York City, and me. We each introduced ourselves, said a bit about our ministry, then were open to question.

Most of the questions focused on the situation in Sudan and Andudu was excellent. However, towards the end of the session someone asked about tribalism in Sudan and which elements of the conflict there have to do with race or religion. This led into a fascinating conversation about ‘tribalism’, during which I rehearsed the perceptive Helmut Schmidt encouragement to German politicians: don’t go into politics unless you speak at least two foreign languages to a competent level. Why not? Because in order to understand your own culture you need to look through the lens of another culture… and to do that you need to know something of that other culture’s language.

And how was that relevant to questions of tribalism in Sudan? Well, simply because, as I pointed out, tribalism is a human phenomenon and not an African one. A week in the USA (and Virginia in particular) makes it blindingly obvious to an outsider that even Americans are tribal. Mention the ‘recent unpleasantness’ (the Civil War to you and me) and you quickly see who is in which ‘tribe’. Loyal identification with one’s state also tells its own story. I also added that, as a good Brit, I know all about tribalism in the UK, in England and in any institution. (Although it was both undiplomatic and unnecessary for someone to ask if Liverpool fan’s attitude to Manchester United was another example…)

The point (which was followed up by a number of people afterwards) was that we easily identify the weaknesses, factionalisms and myopic loyalties of others whilst being unaware of our own. Something reminds me here of what someone once said about ‘planks and motes’…

But, being enabled to look at oneself through the lens of another is a complete gift and privilege. Being here in Roanoke offers not only an experience of another culture and another church, but also compels me to look though the eyes of interlocutors here at myself and my own culture. It isn’t always comfortable.

As Bishop Gerrard from Tanzania put it: “We don’t necessarily agree with each other on a host of issues, but we are friends… and that is why we are here.” That is maturity. We recognise our tribalisms, but our unity (as Christians and as human beings) transcends the identified and owned differences and prejudices.

And if this post is accompanied by ‘compromising pictures’, it has nothing to do with me.

 

The weather in London is awful, so it must be time for a summer holiday. We are going up north to a place where there is probably no wireless internet connection and poor mobile reception. So, I might be quiet for the next couple of weeks. The day after I get back, I fly to Zimbabwe for a week or so – and I am not planning on getting any blog posts out from there with any regularity.

But, if the rain is pouring in the real world, it is also pouring in the Anglican world. By deciding (and the bishops endorsing) to allow for the consecration of actively gay bishops and the blessing of same-sex relationships, the Episcopal Church in the USA has consciously decided to walk away from most of the rest of the Anglican Communion. That is their prerogative and one can understand the rationale behind their decision even if one profoundly disagrees with it. Furthermore, it is entirely within the remit of the polity to do such a thing. But, regardless of the content of the decision, the fact of it means that a line has been crossed from which there seems to be no going back.

In one sense, this is not a bad thing. After years of the phoney war, something has now happened and positions can be taken either with or over against it. That is life… and at least we all now know what we are dealing with. (Of course, real life is a bit more messy than this and TEC still contains clergy and people who strongly disagree with the General Convention decisions, but do not wish to leave their church.)

What isn’t true, however, is that the ‘Covenant is torn to shreds’ – as the Church of England Newspaper puts it in its front-page headline. TEC might well have decided not to engage with it, but that doesn’t mean it has no future or that TEC’s presence is crucial to its success. If anything, its imminence could be regarded as having forced the issue within TEC and the ground has now been cleared. I wonder why the CEN prints a misleading headline like that over a report that says no such thing. The Covenant – whatever one thinks of it – is not designed simply for TEC, but for the Communion.

Bishop of DurhamStill, we should be thankful for small mercies. Tom Wright’s letter to the CEN got printed. In it he challenges the CEN ‘to do better’ in its support of FCA and its lazy critique of English bishops:

Since when is there ‘a drift of appointment of bishops… who must be ‘politically correct’ … on all things from Islam to sexuality?’ I challenge you to publish a full list of diocesan bishops appointed under the present Archbishop and say which of them come into this category. It would be interesting to compare this with an equivalent list of those appointed under the previous Archbishop.

Monochrome? Hardly. If there is anything uniform about the appointments to dioceses over the last seven years, it is an energy for mission, a robust theological and ethical orthodoxy, and a willingness to articulate the challenge of God’s kingdom across this country in the face of secular, postmodern and relativist revisionism. Doesn’t fit the FCA mythology does it?

I am glad Tom wrote this. I was sorely tempted to do something similar, but am getting fed up with using energy fighting stupidities within the church instead of using energy for the work of mission and ministry. I wonder if such lists will be forthcoming – or if we will just continue to get this lazy and misleading unsubstantiated insinuation.

I won’t be holding my breath.