The grace of communion, spelled with a small “c”

Some thoughts about Communion was presented by Dean Jenny Te Paa at the Chicago Consultation at Seabury-Western Seminary, December 5, 2007.

By Jenny Te Paa

My friends let me firstly bring you all very warm greetings from the ‘true’ global south! Greetings therefore from those of us who are even more ‘south’ than Sydney and the Southern Cone!!

Seriously though, I am profoundly honoured to be with you all at this timely and significant event. Thank you most sincerely for your very kind invitation.

I am not big on using quotes to reinforce my own voice but by way of demonstrable cultural sensitivity, here is one from Abraham Lincoln which does seem quite apt in the current circumstance.

‘The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate in the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves . . . We cannot escape history . . . We shall nobly save or meanly lose, the last best hope of the earth . . . The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just – a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.’

Over the past few months I have been with global Anglicans at various meetings and gatherings to do with, the role of the Church in the South Pacific (Sydney, Australia) the future of the Communion; to do with preparing Lambeth Bible Studies material (in London); the Doctrine Commission, (in Malaysia); the Peace and Justice Network (Rwanda, Burundi and in North & South Korea); developing a model for ‘doing hermeneutics the Anglican way’ New Zealand); I have met with Women’s Studies representatives; farewelled a much loved Archbishop (South Africa); and just last week I was with an extraordinary first ever national gathering of Inclusive Church members in Derbyshire in England.

There I participated with so many of God’s good people in sharing and listening, in speaking, in praying, in laughing and weeping, in seeking with urgency and deep sincerity for ways of being even better disciples, for ways of being ever more readily present and attentive to those whom we are called to serve. The theme of the gathering was ‘drenched in grace’ – I continue to find that imagery so evocative, so compelling, so utterly magical in its possibilities? The conference was a stunning success and its parallels with this one are not merely coincidental – they are I believe entirely prophetic.

As I gazed about me at the Derbyshire gathering, I began to think again about communion – I saw men and women who reminded me so much of my own Anglican relatives at home in New Zealand – a people intensely committed to, ‘the church and in particular to advancing God’s mission in and through the Church’; a people somewhat rigidly ordered in their sense of ecclesial propriety; a people utterly devotional, (transported by the sacraments, the hymns, liturgical rituals, by the unique sanctity of Eucharistic worship); a people likely ferociously controlling of their Priest in charge and even more likely, a people ridiculously submissive to their Bishop!

The week before Derbyshire, I was in Seoul, Korea (together with a large peace delegation from the Presiding Bishop’s office) and there in the small inner city house church to which I was taken for Sunday worship were those same Anglican relatives of mine and of yours.

Actually you know, these ‘relatives’ of ours are there in South Africa, in California, in Sri Lanka, in Samoa, in Derbyshire and in Kigali. One of the most precious and privileged insights that one gains from being able to move across the global communion is that no matter the continent, the language, the socio-political or cultural context there is at a profoundly important level, actually very little that really matters, which radically differentiates the ways in which the ordinary, every day Anglican people of God gather in abiding faith and witness.

Actually it occurs to me that if we were capable on any given Sunday of undertaking to do one of those google earth satellite type snapshots of global Anglicans, what we would inevitably see is ourselves as the great earthly cloud of witnesses at our local incarnational best; what we would see at work and at prayer is deeply, profoundly, indissolubly, communion.

Here too are we now gathered, as a small portion of the global tribe of God’s imperfect, vulnerable, ambitious, generous spirited, self-serving, sacrificial, complex, contradictory, faith filled and to the largest extent, indecently obedient Anglicans.

Communion, as I witness it and as I have experienced it throughout my lifetime, is us, embodied in and for each other across the endless chasms of distance and difference. Communion is both noun and verb – it names both who we are and what we do. Communion is thus simultaneously the recognition of our common humanity, and the relationality that that presupposes – it is about us all being created equally of God, equally as it is our responsive embrace of God in each other. It is therefore our way of loving and our responsibility for loving, just as we ourselves are loved so unconditionally by God. Communion is thus us living out in the deepest and most intimate forms of Christlike relationality what we say, even as we pray, that we deeply, truly believe in one God, in one Lord Jesus Christ, in one holy and apostolic church.

Well what then are we to make of all that with which we are currently confronted and which comes to us inscribed beneath the word Communion, capital C if you please?? And to what extent then, if at all, do the current tensions, fights and flights, claims and counter claims, bruising and blaming, petulance and pettiness, bullying and bribing have to do with the other gloriously precious small ‘c’, communion of saints in waiting??

Big C Communion (which is usually the one we talk about and fret over) is rapidly assuming a nebulous and elusive form – even as it purports to be the macro-institutional framework within which all the micro-Provinces reside.

But is there really any difference between the two? Is the distinction I am endeavouring to draw that easily made? Does it even matter? Or is it that big C Communion has been subtly elided with little c communion, thus deftly, but for the purposes of some, very conveniently rendering invisible the cloud of witnesses, readily depersonalizing, in fact, sort of perversely dis-embodying the actual body of Christ.

Now as I followed my own impeccable logic, I began to see how much easier it becomes therefore in a depersonalised context, for some in institutional leadership to speak agressively, to act punitively, and to invoke disciplinary exclusions. In the absence of deep and intimate Christlike relationality, it does become not only possible, but also highly likely that human opportunism with all it’s failings and unfettered ambitions will inevitably arise.

I began then to think of the doom filled schismatic rhetoric and of those who use it most frequently, around, ‘breaking Communion’, about ‘tearing the fabric of Communion’, about ‘the Communion falling apart’, about ‘the irreparable divisions in the Communion’, about ‘breaching Communion’.

Notice how none of this is directly humanized, none of this is language popularly or commonly used to describe people, after all we are not fabric to be torn, anymore than we are irreparable.

We are human beings, those created in the image and likeness of God. This rhetoric is surely all big ‘C’ stuff. None of this is to do with us ordinary Anglicans, loving as we are loved by God. None of this is about ‘us’, it is about ‘it’, the ‘inanimate’ institutional form. It is all abstracted away from my relatives and yours, from men and women, girls and boys, old and young, rich and poor, black and white, pretty and perhaps not so, handsome and wishful, but people nevertheless, Anglican people, me and you, people of God, devoted, committed, controlling and submissive, and yet people who are undeniably at our heart of hearts simply yearning always for that state of God’s grace, that portion given freely to each one of us . . .

Friends we have to recover with real urgency the images, the names and the smiles of those known to us all whose dedication, sacrifice, service and commitment to God’s mission has not altered and will not ever be altered one tiny bit no matter how many threats, no matter how many tantrums are being undertaken at the level of male church leadership struggles.

I am being constantly reminded by these exemplars of witness and mission that none of this bitter infighting can possibly disrupt or compromise their truly servanthood lives given over freely, unquestioningly to the care of the poor, the feeding of the hungry, the release of the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind.

And so from now on when we each speak of ‘communion’ will we have in mind the capital ‘C’ depersonalized institution or will we have in mind the small ‘c’ communion of saints to be – your relatives and mine, people with faces and names, people with hopes and with doubts, people with histories, lives and loves?

None of this is to say that I haven’t listened with profound sadness to so many Anglicans drawn from virtually every autonomous Province and from the Church of England express feelings of powerlessness and despair at the apparently insurmountable odds against the survival of ‘the Communion’.

There is indeed an all-pervasive malaise readily apparent across the entire Communion but I do think there needs also to be a far more realistic sense of proportion developed.

I happen to believe that the vast majority of small ‘c’ Anglicans – our relations drawn from all over God’s world (and coincidentally who happen to comprise the vast majority of global Anglicans by anyone’s calculations) are not in any significant way either directly involved in and nor are they especially willing to become involved in the current tensions/controversies affecting our beloved Church.

It isn’t because they are not interested or indeed because they are unaffected, they are, we all are but it is also true that by far the vast majority of global Anglicans are simply getting on with addressing what they see as their prior call to respond to the myriad demands for God’s mission in the towns and cities, in rural villages, in war zones and in places of poverty and natural disaster, indeed wherever there are God’s people in need.

You too must also have heard the plaintive cry of the women of the Communion, the indigenous people of the Communion, the young people of the Communion, all of whom have at some stage expressed their collective sense of outrage at the way in which mission has been and is now the first casualty of the political struggles swirling around us all.

The cries of these groups are of course less easy to discern for they are not among the Primates, they are not among the powerful moneyed lobby groups at work within the Communion, they are not able to bring to bear critical influence at leadership levels of the global Communion. It is to our collective shame that we fail to hear their cries for priority attention to be paid to the suffering of those who are the least among us all.

As I have listened to the grief, the outrage, the sadness, the bewilderment, the fears being expressed, yet still I have been challenged to think about just who is involved and just what exactly is at stake. It isn’t simple. If for example this were simply a matter of fundamental difference over scriptural interpretation and that therefore the so called precipitate action in New Hampshire could indeed be construed as being of such a profoundly, irrevocably, irreconcilably doctrinally, morally horrific nature (and I do not believe for a moment that it can be), then why is only one gay Bishop being singled out and not all the others? Is his ‘sin’ to be that he told the truth at all or just too publicly?

In a related manner, why single out one so-called ‘moral’ question and not any number of others known to be irrefutably spiritually and physically damaging?

Speaking of hypocrisy why are two Provinces continually being singled out and held to a ‘higher standard’ of accountability than any other member of the ecclesial family by bodies who do not actually even possess the mandated authority to demand such accountabilities in the first place and secondly why is it that some Provinces continue to be able to mask their own practices regarding matters now deemed to be in the realm adiaphora?

And so unavoidably I am being challenged to think beyond the presenting circumstances and to ask about just who or just what exactly is at stake here especially in terms of prevailing power and authority. Who stands to benefit and who is set to lose in the current circumstance?

Even as I acknowledge the political agenda so clearly indicated I do not for a moment want to assert that as a priority for our attention – that would be in so many ways, theologically unfortunate.

As I said last week in Derbyshire, “I like many of you can’t help myself at times when I want so much to cry out in rage, about anyone who dares to ‘fuss’ about who is worthy of participation in the orders and offices of the Church while so many in our shared family are suffering and dying needlessly. I want to rage on about what a travesty of faith this kind of attitude and behaviour represents, about what an abuse of the gift of God’s grace all of this is and then I am reminded that the more I focus upon blaming and judging, anticipating and reacting, the less I am present and able instead to give witness to what Thomas Cahill describes as the narratives of grace, ‘the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by the circumstance.’

And this I realize is what being ‘drenched in grace’ is calling me into – is calling us all into. We are being challenged to find within ourselves renewed appreciation of all that is good and true and kind, of all that is life-giving and life-sustaining, of all that is merciful and humbling.

We are I believe being challenged in the current circumstance not so much to focus too intently and singularly on the bad behaviour of the few, but rather to focus anew the very good behaviour of the many whose exemplary regard for the sacredness of all others whom God has created points us all toward that way in which God would probably say that grace is to be truly expressed.

This is not to say we ignore the political struggles swirling all around us, not for a moment, but rather it is to say we need always to pause and to consider whether or not our approach to these matters is primarily one of self-righteous admonition or one of transcendent grace?

If it is true that our new identity in Christ is one utterly transformative of our relationships with one another then it follows that to the largest extent our speaking and our behaving must also be radically reinscribed firstly in our hearts and then and only then, in our minds.

Transcendent grace enables us to hold both to the necessary project of pursuing God’s justice in the face of any and all injustice even as it simultaneously enables us to participate in the immediate and desperately urgent pastoral work of healing and of reconciling.

And so my sisters and brothers what is it that we are to do? Are we to continue to draw our lines in the shifting sands of ecclesial aggression and of blaming, of accusing and judging? Or are we to shift our emphasis to embrace simultaneously and in sufficient measure, grace filled mutual affection and uplift of one another, together with boldly reconciling behaviour?

Can we exemplify the very best of God’s grace even as we continue to name decisively and to act boldly and courageously against all of those things, which we know to be unacceptable in God’s sight?”

Can we begin as global Anglicans to imagine and to discuss ways in which we might stand more confidently together as diverse members of the family of Christ, on the common ground of God’s world, on the basis of a newly apprehended model of unconditionally inclusive relationality?

Now it occurs to me that maybe there are a number of imaginative possibilities, which emerge. Big ‘C’ is clearly in need of radical transformation, it requires to be re-humanized, it requires re-imaging, restoring. It my friends, is nevertheless also us.

If we are to recover our sense of perspective and our mutual confidence we need somehow to firstly pause and refocus.

I am suggesting with greatest humility just the smallest and simplest of steps, first things first.

So how best to recover perspective? Well this has of necessity to do with how we now see, understand and appreciate ourselves both as global Anglicans and local Anglicans, as small ‘c’ communion, as sisters and brothers, as relatives in Christ, inextricably connected across the oceans and homelands which make for space between us, and simultaneously therefore how we see ourselves as God’s people – each created in the divine image, each equally precious, deserving and worthy.

Firstly, I believe we need to invoke a global Anglicanism recovery plan. We need with great urgency to return once again to our ecclesiological roots and to acquaint ourselves far more intimately with the beauty and goodness inherent in so much of our deep shared histories and traditions. Look at what happened yesterday when Stacy Saul’s paper was read and we were all collectively touched by the ‘recall effect’ it had when he made mention of the ‘fundamentals’ of autonomy, toleration and lay participation.

We do have a shared Church history of which we can and should all be mightily proud even as we can continue to delight in the different approaches and regard we each have toward certain resources in common – e.g. the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Discovering something of the reasoning and embedding of these benign differences can yet prove mutually enriching for us all especially in the current circumstances.

We must with urgency strategise ways of intentionally creating and supporting a small cadre of internationally representative scholars of Anglicanism – those who can trace for us with unerring accuracy and sensitive insight the complex trajectories along which the global churches of the Communion have in fact emerged.

These scholars need also to bring to bear the kind of theological critique of so much that is being claimed in the name of Anglicanism and yet which carries little or no resonance with the sacred inclusive ecclesial traditions grounded in the, the Prayer Book, the Sacraments, the Creeds and the historic Episcopate, let alone being grounded in scripture, tradition and reason. I don’t believe we are according our shared ecclesiological history the priority it is due and thus in the current clamour for ascendancy we too, have often turned to ‘street fighting’ as a first line of defense.

It is my contention that Anglican ecclesiology has been the greatest inadvertent casualty, intellectually and spiritually, of the post-colonial era in theological education. And in this I believe both TEC and the CofE have to accept a large measure of culpable responsibility, leading and controlling as you have done for the longest time the best of Anglican theological educational resources seen anywhere in the world.

Fortunately I do see signs that you are both learning that ‘cultural cringe’ is not the most helpful response for you to be making in the current circumstance. You must however learn to see that those of us from the ‘underside’ have a valuable, timely and willing contribution to make to the redemptive project before us all. What is required is increased mutual respect and recognition of the legitimacy of differing ways of knowing but without in any way capitulating to an essentialist paradigm.

Very early on in my time in theological education as an indigenous scholar I saw the warning signs of diminished and or very uneven teaching of ecclesiology and thus missiology, within the academy but I never fully appreciated the global danger it represented. We must now salvage the situation with dignity and with grace so that the integrity of teaching and learning and speaking of what it is to be Anglican can once again be undertaken with confidence and clarity across all of the humanly constructed zones of cultural difference.

So let’s once again across the global Communion find ways of giving radical support to those who we will in future entrust the sacred responsibility of teaching and honouring the genius of Anglicanism; let us teach and celebrate ‘generous orthodoxy’ in our understanding and practice of mission; and let us with courage and honesty take up the unavoidable challenge of interrogating all ‘culturally based’ claims purporting to be Anglican but which are in fact often proving to be nothing more than dangerously destabilizing and personally violent dogmas.

Secondly, just as hermeneutics has recently risen appropriately to the fore as a necessarily urgent collective project, I think as we approach that task there needs also for attention to be given to reclaiming and living out a creation theology which apprehends God’s unconditional delight at all who were and are and all that was and is created, as being not just good, but very, very good.

It is only in this way that I believe we can first gain a necessarily expansive worldview of just how spectacularly diverse we all are across the entire spectrum of God’s beautifully created human difference – geographically, ethnically, sexually, every which way imaginable. Following on from this it would be so good if we could simultaneously begin to explore ways of gaining deeper understanding of who we are as God’s Anglican people across the entire spectrum of global ecclesiological development. Across the Communion I do encounter the most extraordinary naiveté about differences on both counts, from expansive creation theology to global positioning!

It is only in this way that I believe we can begin to confront the current unspeakably cruel inferences being drawn that somehow gay and lesbian people are a less worthy aspect of God’s very good creation. The blatant and indefensible theological contradiction in terms here is simply stunning in its persistence, (as of course are the enduring twin evils of racism and sexism).

Mine may well be an utterly naïve theology. But in my limited understanding, there simply is no lesser category of human being in God’s creation. I am concerned that if the hermeneutics project proceeds from a point of understanding an already differentiated common humanity then it cannot possibly succeed.

I do think we need to make a little more theological fuss about that fact but to do so not as politicians determined to make or worse to score points, but to do so as God’s people in all things with grace filled clarity, with patience and with abundantly dignified charity – remember it is after all, the small ‘c’ we have to keep in mind for it is they/we who look also to those in leadership, for example at every turn.

Inherent in all of this is as I alluded earlier, is the need to participate also in the very contemporary politics of both race and identity. These twin projects have at once boldly and rightly endeavoured to address historic injustice but I suspect they are now both stuck in the secular quagmire of purely intellectual analysis.

Single identity, indeed any identity politics needs theology for its ultimately transcendent solutions and yet our own academy has not ever really taken seriously its responsibility in this regard.

We have only to consider how little attention has been paid to addressing let alone redeeming the complex and enduring systemic issues arising from institutionalised sexism and racism within our own ecclesial environment. Let’s not extend the list endlessly by simply adding sexual identity issues, but instead let us get back to Galatians 3:28 and begin to think critically and afresh about what achieving, appreciating and sustaining this idealised but undeniably prophetic body of Christ will require of us all.

In case you think part of this is simply an opportunistic dig on my part at past colonial imperialism, it is not. Many of those of us unduly affected by that ambivalent past are now all grown up and quite capable of engaging with confidence and charm across virtually any sphere of academic discourse, including theology and we do so now by way of hoping always to redeem that inglorious past which irrefutably, reduced us both.

One of the critical contributions now emerging albeit very tentatively among those of us who happen to be indigenous (and a whole lot of other ‘identities’ besides!) and who are proud to call ourselves theologians, is our insistence that the new and perverse tribalisms emerging across our beloved Church are also seriously in need of ‘outing’ and of solid critique. One of the more obvious and alarming examples of this is ironically the factions and subsequent behaviours emerging within the Primates meetings.

Thirdly, even though I probably would rate this one of the highest priorities, could we please all stop and reconsider the extent to which we are relying on electronic media for so called information and also the ways in which we are now tending also to use this as our first means of so called ‘communicating’ with or about one another. I am not saying desist altogether because that would be impossible and besides, used well and with proper integrity, the internet can be and will continue to prove an invaluable means of transferring data and information.

What I am pleading for is simply a cautionary re-consideration of the extent to which we are allowing it’s unconstrained power to unduly affect our hearts and minds and thus to delimit our previous preference for tangible, tactile relationality instead!

Could we for a start re-consider the places from where we are sourcing our information and what information we are giving high priority to. Following on from the experience of the Lambeth Commission where internet communications became so problematic, so vile actually,

I want to re-urge us all to no longer allow that hideously, spiritually bereft and too often anonymous technological medium to bombard us with predominantly negative, often vitriolic, depressing, sometimes personally violent and often wildly inaccurate material – it isn’t information if it doesn’t better form us for God’s mission and it isn’t critical information if it doesn’t inform us truthfully and yet with appropriate human courtesies such as we expect and enjoy in face to face contact.

I know it is the communication tool of preferred choice and often of professional necessity but we do also have individual control over the keyboards and ‘mice’ before us . . .

Fourthly, I also believe many of the Bishops and Primates need our help and our direction in all of these matters. They are after all – of us and for us – they are not single-handedly, or mindedly, aloof or detached from small ‘c’ communion. Certainly they are needed and they deserve to be treasured within our global communion in a very special way.

I suspect that in the current circumstance we need to assist some in either overcoming or resisting the inevitable and at times crushing institutional pressure many feel as they are either forced or heavily persuaded to conform, to mask, or to act in uncritical solidarity with each other rather than feeling free to act in critically prophetic ways always on the side of justice.

Fifthly, and with the greatest respect, I want to remind us all of the tireless and truly selfless work which is being done on behalf of us all by the only group which does indeed work on behalf of us all across the entire Communion. While their institutional context may well be the ‘macro’ Communion, their professional approach and their pastoral practice is without exception most definitely within a profoundly humble small ‘c’ communion framework.

I am speaking of the staff of the Anglican Communion Office in London, those currently working with such consummate professionalism and dedication under the most extraordinarily difficult of conditions. I am speaking of a group of individuals whose endeavouring is always to be the welcoming, co-coordinating and resourcing base for the entire global Communion even as they are very much often undeservedly caught in the impossible crossfire of the prevailing tensions. I believe the entire ACO office merits far more global appreciation and indeed support than is often currently shown.

These then are just some immediate thoughts. The entire recovery of perspective project is doubtless far more vast and unpredictable than I can begin to imagine but my friends, we are I believe a people of hope and of loving capacity and this is not a time for resiling from the significant and complex challenges before us all. Either we are committed to recovering and upholding the full humanity of each other or we are not and if indeed God’s justice and mercy are to be a feature, let alone to characterise our shared future google earth landscape then I have no doubt we will do what we know we must.

Together right now we are all observing Advent – the time when we come again to the realisation that God is not just at the end, nor simply in the beginning, but is with us for all eternity. If Advent is about living fully in the present and about being active at the edge of expectation of what is yet to come, it is therefore a time for us to reevaluate our commitments to reading the signs of our times particularly those of injustice. It is a time for us to get to work in the tasks of advocacy and compassion for those who are the lesser among us.

In the darker moments of our fears about what to do, who with, what for, surely we must trust in God (and not the internet) to break in with messages of special concern. We can I believe only do this if we can bear to think beyond our own interests, our own selfish needs. We can only do this if we have embedded in our hearts and imprinted in our imaginations an expansive and breathtaking vision of the small ‘c’ communion – a vision at once of incomprehensibly diverse beauty and tradition, and yet simultaneously a vision of mysterious common aspiration and commitment to simply be as God’s good and unconditionally inclusive Anglican people.

It may well be timely for us to be reminded of just who we Anglicans are and as I did last week in Derbyshire I offer this sublime and yet appropriately humorous piece from former Archbishop Richard Holloway, ‘The Anglican Church is a tolerant, faintly detached and amused mother of lazily permissive standards. But she is a real mother nevertheless. She does not hector or bully her children. She expects them to be mature and independent. There are certain house rules she likes observed in her home, a sort of minimal but important standard, but if her children break them she doesn’t go into an operatic tantrum. She merely raises her eyebrows and wishes they had better manners. Anglicans are not persecutors or excommunicators. We tend to agree with Montaigne, that is rating our conjectures too highly to roast people alive for them’.

In Archbishop Rowan’s Christmas sermon from 1999 he quoted Frederick Buechner: ‘Where will our following take us? God only knows, and we can be sure only that it will take us not where we want to go necessarily, but where we are wanted, until by a kind of alchemy, where we are wanted becomes where we want to go and that will be a place of wonder’.

So in all of this I am wondering at the possibilities of us all recommitting not only to imagining the seemingly elusive place of wonder, but to beginning this day in our own spheres of influence to seeing, understanding, living and celebrating communion as being the sum total of all of us as faith filled ordinary Anglican men and women whose lives and whose loves are prescribed by a prior sense of sacred belonging to God and thus to one another. In this we share therefore in an unbreakable commitment to the indisputably inclusive Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Can we do all of this then as people connected as adversaries and as friends, across the villages, towns, cities and nations into which we are blessed to be born – a people who know and are known by the ancestors; who know the rivers and lakes and mountains which shelter and nurture us all; a people committed to the full participation and flourishing of all in God’s world; a people unafraid of simplicity or of suffering, a people instinctively attuned to heartfelt wisdom, to forgiveness, to unconditional belonging, to God’s grace and peace with and for us all? I am confident that we will, we can and we must . . . in Christ’s name. Amen.

Dr. Jenny Te Paa is dean of St. John’s College, Auckland, New Zealand.

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