The conference is long: I was there from 19 July until 4 August and the bishops, who arrived early for a retreat, were there four days longer. I was the ecumenical delegate representing of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches; there were 70 ecumenical delegates.
The daily schedule was challenging. A time of prayer began at 6.30 a.m., followed by a Eucharist. There was evening worship at 5:45 p.m. followed by a night prayer. Worship was inspiring and vibrant. We followed a worship book, Lambeth Praise, with hymns and songs from all over the world, Representatives from a different province led the daily Eucharists and we were through worship drawn into the unity in diversity that is the Anglican Communion.
Innovative organization was evident as this year’s conference proceeded, despite the strains the communion faces. Bishops (and ecumenical delegates, who were included in everything) gathered in assigned Bible study groups of eight or nine people each. And five Bible study groups then clustered to form an Indaba group. Indaba is a Zulu word for a purposeful discussion. Indabas talked openly, avoiding parliamentary process. They focused on a slate of assigned topics, and their conclusions were reported back to a Reflections group. After many drafts and ‘hearings sessions’, the reflections group produced a nearly 40-page Lambeth Reflections document.
There were also hearings with the so-called Windsor Continuation Group, which was appointed to take forward the Windsor Report. It was created from the Communion as a whole to address the issues of the ordination of active gay persons, same sex blessings, and cross-border Episcopal supervision.
Misgivings about the conference’s organization and process surfaced from well before the opening day. Most vocal were those who believed the communion was already irreparably damaged and that it should now acknowledge its divisions and redraw its boundaries. There were — and are — others who see Anglicanism as something very precious, a worldwide Reformed Catholicism, certainly diverse but acknowledging and honoring one another for the sake of Jesus Christ. There are, then, different ecclesiologies in the debate. Anglicanism is neither merely a federation, nor is it a centralized and homogeneous “confessional” church.
We were urged to “stay with the process” and I saw it working in everything it set out to do. The Conference purposefully passed no new resolution. It forged new relationships and broadened visions, not least through worship together, the remarkable and costly leadership of Archbishop Rowan Williams, and some plenary speakers who acted as effective catalysts. The most compelling to me was Sir Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. He movingly and tellingly spoke of the difference between a “covenant of fate” and a “covenant of hope.” This was helpful as the Windsor Continuation Group is moving towards recommending a generous covenant that, in light of the changing church, could focus all provinces to a common vision and identity.
I found the Bible study effective and helpful. In my group we had two English bishops, one Scot, one Irish; a Canadian, an American, an Australian, and a Botswanan. We grew to trust each other meeting every day for two weeks around the fourth Gospel. Nobody posed, nobody was put down, we placed our cards on the table, we prayed for each other. We will remain in contact and continue to support each other.
The Indaba was a larger group with different dynamics, but we nurtured trust and forged bonds through our daily meetings. We began to see people and contexts as well as differing responses to modernity. We discussed the identity and distinctiveness, the gifts, of Anglicanism. We discussed the Millennium Development Goals and how they impinged on our different parts of the church. We discussed the Windsor Continuation Group, the idea of a covenant, and we discussed the ordination of practicing gay priests, blessings, and cross-border Episcopal supervision.
Those of us from the north and west learned that there are parts of the world where people die (yes, actually die) and churches are burned because gay persons are ordained elsewhere in the communion. We heard about being mocked for being ‘the gay church’. We heard about genuine misunderstandings: “Do you have to be gay to be a priest in your church?”
I will long remember an encounter I had with a bishop as we talked over a meal. His wife had stayed at home to tend their son, who was in hospital. The son was one of several Christian boys who had played a “friendly” football match against the local Muslim boys. The Christians won. The Muslim boys complained, and three of the Christian boys were shot dead. The bishop’s son was shot in the head and was in hospital at risk of losing his hearing. He related this information matter-of-factly and without bitterness. I gained a new dimension in understanding from this exchange.
Some of the Sudanese bishops told me of an incursion by the Lord’s Resistance Army killing people and destroying churches. They referred to dioceses trying to minister without a single computer. I listened, with a Samsung handheld beside me, which connects me to far too much.
Rowan Williams gave three presidential addresses (http://www.lambethconference.org/reflections/document.cfm). He warned all of us about the seriousness of the rifts in the Communion. He described with grace, accuracy, and fairness the positions of “traditional believers” and “not so traditional believers” and the cost of generosity to each. He asked what might happen if we were to be captured by the vision of the true Centre, the heart of God. He spoke of the need to reach discernment together, of a covenanted future and its potential to make us more of a church. I believe all of this was helpful.
The situation is more complex than a polarization into just two camps, as Rowan Williams knows. The challenge remains. Indaba did move us on, and some form of generous covenant is, I believe, the only way to preserve a “communion” with all of its benefits rather than merely a federation or family of churches.
Iain Torrance is president of Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton. N.J. and a former moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.