Communion is more than housekeeping

Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams was met with a standing ovation before he addressed the opening of the General Synod of the Church of England. He spoke about the recent controversy following his speech at Temple Church, and also about Lambeth, the situation in Zimbabwe and about the underlying importance of Communion.

He said:

…our mutuality in the Communion – and in communion itself – is not a matter of ecclesiastical housekeeping: it’s also about helping one another to be the Church in any given place; that is, to be a community whose loyalties are to the Kingdom, not to any kind of cultural or political partisanship.

On the Sharia law speech:

Some of what has been heard is a very long way indeed from what was actually said in the Royal Courts of Justice last Thursday. But I must of course take responsibility for any unclarity in either that text or in the radio interview, and for any misleading choice of words that has helped to cause distress or misunderstanding among the public at large and especially among my fellow Christians . It’s Lent, and one of the great penitential phrases of the Psalms will be in all our minds – ‘Who can tell how oft he offendeth? Cleanse thou me from my secret faults’…But I believe quite strongly that it is not inappropriate for a pastor of the Church of England to address issues around the perceived concerns of other religious communities and to try and bring them into better public focus.

The Archbishop reiterated that he did not advocate a separate, parallel legal system for Muslims. The issue for him is to maintain the integrity of religious bodies in an increasingly secular age. The Archbishop summarized the issues behind his speech in this way:

…while there is no dispute about our common allegiance to the law of the land, that law still recognises that religious communities form the consciences of believers and has not pressed for universal compliance with aspects of civil law where conscientious matters are in question. However, there are signs that this cannot necessarily be taken quite so easily for granted as the assumptions of our society become more secular. I think we ought to keep an eye on this trend; and if we do, we shall have to do more thinking about the models of society and law we work with. It’s an area where Christians and people of other faiths ought to be doing some reflecting together.

On Lambeth:

Williams held out the central role of the Lambeth Conference is to build Communion through building relationships among the Bishops.

The challenge has been to devise a structure for our time together that manages both to address the major issues and to refresh and inspire those who will attend. The twofold focus is equipping bishops for leadership and strengthening the identity and confidence of the communion. That’s why there is less emphasis on subject-oriented large groups: the primary need will be to get to know each other sufficiently well to confront the divisive matters that are around, and so there will be a larger number of slightly smaller groups. Taking a leaf from the South African book, we’re calling these extended indaba groups – the word used for community consultation and decision-making. And there will also be, as always, the Bible study groups, which have been in many previous conferences the most important element of all; their focus will be the Gospel of John – assisted by the commentary of one of the members of this Synod, Dr Richard Burridge, which has been printed in a special edition for the use of the conference. The hope is that many others in the Communion will share in meditation on this text in the months leading up to Lambeth.

He talked about the need to ground this process in prayer:

Some critics have complained that Lambeth is too focused on prayer and reflection and not enough on decision-making; but I am bound to say that I regard this as an extraordinary thing to say about any Christian gathering – as if we could make any decision worthy of the gospel without the utmost attention to listening together to God. I partly understand that some feel there may be an attempt to appeal to the need for prayer and reflection as an alibi for not grasping the nettles; but I would gently but firmly say that it is also possible to use a rhetoric about needing decisive action as an alibi for waiting on God.

In this context, the Covenant process will part of the discussion:

There will of course be extended discussion of the proposals around the Covenant which we shall be discussing in this Synod also. We shall have the opportunity of several plenary sessions but we are planning fewer resolutions; and we have invited a number of high-profile speakers from public life as well as from other Christian communions to address us.

He addressed the issue of some choosing not to attend because the disagree with others:

I respect the consciences of those who have said they do not feel able to attend because there will be those present who have in their view acted against the disciplinary and doctrinal consensus of the communion. Needless to say, I regret such a decision, since I believe we should be seeking God’s mind for the Communion in prayer and study together; but it simply reminds us that even the most ‘successful’ Lambeth Conference leaves us with work still to be done in rebuilding relationships.

Finally, he spoke about the situation in Zimbabwe:

A history scarred by exploitation and deep racial injustice can all too easily be used, as it has been there, to turn aside every criticism and even to refuse any proper help when a local regime has fallen victim to its own incompetence, corruption and self-delusion. It has been that much harder for many in this country to know how to respond to the needs of Zimbabwe for fear of simply reinforcing stereotypes of colonial patronage or misunderstanding. We have tried to take our cues from those on the ground locally who are seeking justice and change.

In many circumstances, the local Church would be the first group we’d turn to in this attempt to listen and understand. But as we’re well aware, this has not been straightforward in Zimbabwe: we have had some in leadership positions who have been uncritically supportive of a violent and lawless administration. But one of the most welcome developments of recent months has been that the Anglican Church has rallied very remarkably to repudiate the excesses of the former Bishop of Harare, and has installed a deeply respected and courageous elder statesman of the Zimbabwean Church, Bishop Sebastian Bakare, as chief pastor in Harare. The Province’s efforts to cleanse and renew the situation have been met by the expected levels of intimidatory behaviour on the part of some of Bishop Kunonga’s supporters, but the process of reconstruction has gone forward, with, happily, some support from the courts.

Read the whole address here.

Past Posts