Monday, August 15, 2022

Lambeth Conference Conversations, Part 3 (sometimes it was about sex & sexuality)


The motto for the 15th Lambeth conference was “God’s Church for God’s World.” As I mentioned in the last post, the bishops gathered talked about many things concerning both the church and the world at this moment in history. One of those topics was Human Dignity, something that seems to be undermined or denied on many fronts, directly and indirectly, deliberately and “accidentally” as the side-effect of developing technologies. It was the document on this topic, made public just a week before we arrived at Canterbury for the Conference, that generated considerable controversy. In that initial document was inserted an affirmation of a resolution passed at the Lambeth Conference in 1998 asserting that the bishops gathered at that Conference “cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions.”  It remains unclear how that got included in the document or by whom. In any event, there was immediate pushback from several of the provinces in the Anglican Communion – Scotland, Wales, the Episcopal Church, Brazil. The document was reworked to state,

Prejudice on the basis of gender or sexuality threatens human dignity. Given Anglican polity, and especially the autonomy of Provinces, there is disagreement and a plurality of views on the relationship between human dignity and human sexuality. Yet, we experience the safeguarding of dignity in deepening dialogue. It is the mind of the Anglican Communion as a whole that “all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation are full members of the Body of Christ” and to be welcomed, cared for, and treated with respect (I.10, 1998). Many Provinces continue to affirm that same gender marriage is not permissible. Lambeth Resolution I.10 (1998) states that the “legitimizing or blessing of same sex unions” cannot be advised. Other Provinces have blessed and welcomed same sex union/marriage after careful theological reflection and a process of reception. As Bishops we remain committed to listening and walking together to the maximum possible degree, despite our deep disagreement on these issues.

This, of course, did not make everyone happy, but it did describe the current reality of the Anglican Communion. And this seems a particularly significant statement, “Given Anglican polity, and especially the autonomy of Provinces, there is disagreement and a plurality of views on the relationship between human dignity and human sexuality.”

The Human Dignity document had much that was good and important that was good in it. But all the attention went to this one paragraph. Which was pretty much the opposite of how the rest of the Lambeth Conference went. Though the disagreement about human sexuality was in the air, most conversations, formal and informal were about other concerns. But, I did have some conversations in which the topic came up opr in which I brought it up. Here are some gleanings from those conversations:

·       On the bus from Heathrow to Canterbury, a bishop from an African province expressed impatience with those provinces who chose not to come (Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda) and indicated that he does not approve of their approach. To the Communion. He did not say anything about his own views regarding human sexuality but criticized the idea of boycotting and neglecting the fellowship of the Lambeth conference.

·       I had a long conversation with a South Sudanese bishop who I know well about the disagreements regarding sexuality in which it was clear that our disagreements on this are profound and deep. I pointed out that he considered me to be faithful, but I had come to a different conclusion. Among other things, I also observed that the church in South Sudan ordains women and has a woman bishop. Other provinces do not, and many, with whom he otherwise agreed, think that that is unbiblical as they interpret the scriptures. So, it is possible for faithful people to read the Bible seriously and come to different conclusions. He did not accept the analogy and asserted that you cannot compare the two. It was also clear that this was connected in his mind with polygamy which is still common in South Sudan. Still, he noted his affection for a gay bishop he knows in spite of his conviction that that bishop is “living in sin.”

·       I had a similar conversation with another South Sudanese bishop who was equally clear that he did not see much room for disagreeing on how to faithfully understand same-sex marriage. I again explained how my own thinking had changed. We did not exactly “agree to disagree” but we remained on friendly terms.

·       A Sudanese bishop observed that the people on the ground in the villages of his province cannot wrap their heads around the idle of same-sex relationships. It is culturally foreign. He also noted that his church exists in a tenuous position under an oppressive government shaped by a radical version of Islam. The threat of violence and perhaps being declared an illegal organization are not idle concerns for them. He and other Sudanese bishops (and other bishops from particular provinces) were concerned about the ramifications and potential backlash their people would face back home depending how things went at the Conference.

·       An American bishop observed that part of our dilemma is that we hear from the bishops of some provinces that being associated too closely with those provinces that celebrate same-sex marriage and allow for those who are so married to be ordained puts their people and churches at real risk. But GLBT+ people in America and elsewhere also feel threatened. The concerns of both are real.

·       Most Sudanese and South Sudanese bishops and perhaps some others did not receive communion with the rest of us as a matter of conscience which was painful. But they remained otherwise engaged. This was disappointing and frustrating. In one conversation a Kenyan bishop said that this was no way to treat the holy Sacrament. A South Sudanese bishop replied that his archbishop had told him to. It is also clear that there is a range of views of Holy Communion ranging from a more catholic, “high” understanding, to a more Protestant, “low” understanding (just another of the important things about which we disagree in the Anglican Communion).

·       At our formal session on Human Dignity, the Archbishop of Canterbury read his letter to the bishops of the Anglican Communion (Here). He elaborated on that letter in what I believe to brilliant and significant remarks (found here). The letter and his remarks charted a course for a Communion marked by unity and plurality, a Communion of provinces which are autonomous, yet interdependent. He affirmed that there is a plurality of understanding of human sexuality faithfully arrived at. Toward the end of his remarks, he made this significant statement, “I am very conscious that the Archbishop of Canterbury is to be a focus of unity and is an Instrument of Communion. That is a priority. Truth and unity must be held together, but Church history also says that this sometimes takes a very long time to reach a point where different teaching is rejected or received. I neither have, nor do I seek, the authority to discipline or exclude a church of the Anglican Communion. I will not do so.”

·       When we formally discussed the issue in our small group conversations, a South Sudanese bishop said, “God forbid that hate would come from my heart, but I hold with the tradition.” He also observed that the majority of the Anglican Communion holds a traditional view on human sexuality. Then he paused and noted reflectively, “But, Elijah was in the minority. . .” He trailed off, leaving that a thought to be pondered.

In that same small group conversation, I explained briefly how I had come to change my mind on the topic. 

One of the South Sudanese bishops wondered, “At what point do we decide a disagreement is too deep and too basic to maintain communion?”

·       A Tanzanian bishop, as we talked over a meal, said that he and others need to do their homework, looking at the biblical and biological arguments regarding human sexuality before judging the conclusions to which others have arrived. He noted that some Tanzanian bishops opted not to come to the Lambeth Conference, but he believes most bishops of that province are where he is.

·       A bishop from the Indian subcontinent said that he believed that in 10 years the disagreement about sexuality will be like that of the ordination of women.

·       After the session in which the Archbishop of Canterbury read his letter and we discussed sexuality in our small groups, a bishop from the Province of Western Africa told me that this Lambeth Conference was the defeat of those (like the leaders of ACNA and GAFCON) who have wanted the Communion to be divided because of the disagreements regarding human sexuality. It had become clear that however broad or deep the disagreement is, the majority of bishops in the Anglican Communion were committed to remaining in communion (even if to varying degrees). He said that he thought those who were choosing to set themselves apart from the majority of the Communion should change their name to something other than Anglican. He also noted that he knew there were bishops from the provinces that boycotted this Lambeth Conference – Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda – would have liked to come but were forbidden to do so by their archbishops.

I knew in my head that there was considerable diversity in Africa and the rest of what is commonly called the Global South. But the conversations I had brought that diversity home. No one person or entity speaks the “Global South” or even for all those who by conviction do not think Same-sex relationships can be blessed. The Anglican Communion is much more complex than that. It also became more clear to me than I might have thought before that it would be a mistake to underestimate the strength of the bonds of affection that exist in the Anglican Communion and our connection to the See of Canterbury.

Prvious:

Lambeth Conference Conversations, Part 1 (it was not all about sex)

Lambeth Conference Conversations, Part 2 (it was not all about sex)


Thursday, August 11, 2022

Lambeth Conference Conversations, Part 2 (it was not all about sex)

Archbishop Justin Welby's 3rd Plenary Address

“The heart of the church is deeply relational”

– Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

You might think from some of the reporting that the Lambeth Conference which ended last Sunday was preoccupied with disagreements and debates about human sexuality. That is actually far from the case. Aside from a lot of worship, we formally engaged things like Evangelism & Mission, Discipleship, Climate Change, Interfaith Relations, and better addressing the scandal of abuse when it happens in the church and committing to preventing it. Informally, the conversations were mostly about these and other issues. Here are more gleanings from conversations I had while at the Lambeth Conference:

·       There was an announcement at our first gathering letting us know that the water from all the taps at the university where we were staying had drinkable water. It was a reminder that many in the world cannot take clean water for granted, even from the faucets in their homes when they have them. It also reminded me of the scandal it is that it is not true for everyone in America, not least in places like Flint, Michigan.

·       A bishop of Bangladesh said there are fewer legal restraints on the church than in some other places, but his church has had to be careful not to make too many converts. Converts’ families (Muslim or Hindu) often abandon them, leaving them needing support from the church which is committed to doing so but is already strained financially and otherwise.

The wife of this bishop is a native of India who splits her time between India and Bangladesh. She has worked for an aid organization. She spoke of the frustration when she is in Bangladesh of having her clothing choices challenged in public. 

They also spoke of the devastating effects climate change is having on their country, e.g., more and worse storms, flooding, etc. 

This was a recurring theme in conversations with bishops from around the world. Those of island nations spoke of rising sea levels that lead to shrinking islands. Others spoke of less reliable rainfall and drought. Many spoke of increasing number of storms of increasing severity. Others, of an increase of damaging wildfires. This is one of the issues we discussed formally and about which we issued a call to action.

·       When, in our Bible study, we looked at the relationship of suffering and rejoicing, our South Sudanese bishops spoke of dancing and singing in refugee camps with tears of grief while still rejoicing in their faith in God and hope for the future.

·       We heard of the church in Jerusalem and the Middle East which runs schools and hospitals for anyone regardless of their religion.

·       We heard from a bishop of the Church of England who was born in Iran. Her father was an Iranian who had converted from Islam and married and English woman. He became the Anglican Bishop of Iran for nearly 30 years. She has warm memories of her Muslim grandfather, “a godly man”. After the Islamic Revolution there were threats and an assassination attempt against her father. Then, her brother was assassinated, and the family went into exile in England. In Iran, today, the church is not officially acknowledged to exist and Christians are considered apostates. There is currently no bishop of Iran. But the church does exist and Christians living under threat are none the less able to exercise hospitality and generosity.

·       Interfaith relations was one of the topics we formally discussed. While acknowledging the hard realities that some live with in countries where a particular version of radical Islam prevails, we heard stories of cooperation between Christians and Muslims in Kenya and elsewhere. The Archbishop of Alexandria, “My neighbor’s faith and mine do not simply coexist, they interact and corelate.” And in India, the various faith’s cooperated in addressing Covid-19.

·       We heard the story of a mechanic who contacted his local Church of England parish church to enquire about being baptized. A man who needed some work on his car had spoken to him about Jesus and faith and he wanted to be baptized. It turns out, unbeknown to the mechanic, that it had been the bishop who needed some car work. Evangelism and Mission were other topics we discussed formally.

A bishop of South Sudan and I discussed the challenges of forming disciples in our relative contexts. I spoke of complacency, the plethora of distractions, and a wariness of commitment. He spoke of the lack of Bibles and the reality that concerns about food and fuel for cooking were uppermost in peoples’ minds.

·       We heard from a bishop of New Zealand about the growth of congregations of young people based on discipleship in small groups of shared life, worship, and mission. Discipleship was another topic we formally discussed.

·       In several conversations with bishops from South Sudan to Australia, it was clear how closely the rest of the world pays attention to American politics. Several expressed concern.

·       In a conversation with a bishop of England, we both noted the negative phenomenon of shrinking and aging populations in many of our small towns and villages as more and more people move to urban centers. We compared the negative effects of this on our communities. He observed that in many English villages the parish church is the last remaining institution.

·       The wife of a Scottish bishop spoke of her work as a visiting nurse to expectant and new mothers for the National Health Service. The NHS of Scotland guarantees at least one prenatal visit and at least 11 visits in the first five years after the child’s birth. This is a proactive, prolife policy it seems to me.

Previous: Lambeth Conversations, Part 1 (it was not all about sex) 

Next: Lambeth Conversations, Part 3 (some of it was about sex)

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Lambeth Conversations, Part 1 (it was not all about sex)

My Lambeth Conference Bible Study Group

The 2022 Lambeth Conference ended this past Sunday. I am still putting together my thoughts for a more general assessment. But here are some gleanings from conversations I had with other bishops from around the Anglican Communion. Interactions like these were as much as anything what the Lambeth Conference was about.

·       A bishop of the Church of North India told me of the challenges of being a church in the context of Hindu nationalism. When they start a new church, for example, they have to be careful not to call it a church so they call them community centers. There are also legal restrictions on evangelism and conversion.

·       From indigenous Canadian bishops, two women, one man, I heard stories of despair and suicide, especially among young people.

·       At the retreat before the Lambeth Conference formally began, we were invited to share a story of suffering in our life with our neighbor. I was sitting next to a South Sudanese bishop. We introduced ourselves. I asked if he had anything he wanted to share. He did. His mother and two of his brothers were killed last month in a raid that was part of a conflict between herders and agriculturalists. His mother's home was burned. He has been unbale to bury these family members. Rather than share whatever I might have offered as an example of personal suffering, I prayed and laid hands on this brother.

·       In our Bible study, the question was asked why it is hard to love others. We might have talked about how some personalities are hard to love or disagreements about this or that. But a South Sudanese bishop offered, “Maybe this person killed your mother or your father. How can you love them? But with God’s help people do when the person confesses and repents." This was not a theoretical statement.

·       Another question in Bible study was what the church might do in your context that would get people’s attention and attract them. Again, one of the South Sudanese bishops (a different one) said, “In the church we belong to one another and support and encourage one another. For example, maybe your mother or father has died and you are left an orphan and unable to bury them on your own. The church helps you with the funeral and supports you in your grief.

·       Many bishops of South Sudan are unable to live in their dioceses full time due to instability, violence, and lack of infrastructure. So, they live elsewhere and visit as they can. One bishop in my Bible study is only 36. When I asked him how he became a bishop so young, he simply said there was no one else in the area with theological training. His diocese has been devasted by civil war – schools, health centers, and churches destroyed.

The wife and baby daughter of this young bishop in South Sudan left the Lambeth Conference to return to a refugee camp in Uganda. The bishop divides his time between living and ministering to his people in the camp and crossing the border to minister to those who remain in his diocese.

That same young bishop spoke of negotiating with rebel leaders who control part of his diocese so he could cross into “their” territory to serve the people.

The challenges many of these bishops and the people in their dioceses face are hard to fathom. Their focus is on the most basic of needs and they have almost no resources or infrastructure to address them.

·       Another bishop of South Sudan talked about the problem of women being illtreated and disrespected. There need to be more women leaders, including more priests and bishops, he said. There is one woman bishop in South Sudan, but he thinks there should be more.

·       Another South Sudanese bishop shared that his diocese is growing by 10% a year and his concern is that he cannot train leaders fast enough.

·       I had a conversation with a bishop of Kenya whose diocese is mostly rural and agricultural and borders Lake Victoria. We talked about how much our dioceses are alike.

There is so much hardship and suffering in the world. And the church in the thick of it supporting and encouraging as it can. And preaching the gospel. Every bishop I have spoken to has spoken of the goodness of God and they express a generosity of spirit in spite of all the challenges they face.

Next: 

Lambeth Conversations, Part 2 (it was not all about sex)

Lambeth Conversations, Part 3 (sometimes it was about sex & sexuality)

See also my reflections going into the Lambeth Conference:

Lambeth Conference 2022