Patience and Urgency: Lambeth Conference 2008


Date added: 18/08/2008

Africa’s wisdom emerges especially in her proverbs. I love this Kiswahili saying which comes from the market place: haba na haba hujaza kibaba. It translates literally as ‘little by little fills the tin’. Its meaning concerns patience.

An ironic Kikuyu proverb, also from Kenya, runs: mubundi mwega no kinyothi. In its literal sense, it is intriguing: ‘the only good craftsman is the barber’. Its meaning is evoked by comparison with others. For example, the cobbler takes your shoes and repairs them in his own time. The barber, however, can’t take your head off, and so has to cut your hair there and then. Its meaning concerns urgency.

Patience and urgency came together in the substance and context of the Lambeth Conference. The Windsor Process and the Anglican Covenant, the GAFCON shadow conference in Jerusalem, and the three Presidential Addresses by the Archbishop of Canterbury, including the announcement of the Pastoral Forum, were all closely related.

European wisdom often emerges in aphorisms. One of my favourites is by Francis Bacon (1561-1626). In his essay ‘Of Studies’, he stated succinctly: ‘Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.’ Key features of Lambeth 2008 involved all three of these.

Reading together from the Gospel of John in bible study groups set the tone at the beginning of each day. Small, pondering, hermeneutic communities, gathered from around the world, were filled with the Word of God.

The indaba groups were based around ‘conversation’ (the meaning of ‘conference’ in Bacon’s day) and – despite some misgivings in anticipation - prompted prompt, memorable, and poignant stories from multicoloured contexts. ‘Conversation’ is different from ‘talk’ (some journalists had dismissed these groups as just ‘talk’) and involves deep listening. In the second week, these developed into discussions on the Anglican Covenant and the deliberations of the Windsor Continuation Group.

The exacting task of writing included the publication of principles of Canon Law, recommendations of the Windsor Continuation Group, comments on the Covenant, the Conference Reflections, and the three Presidential Addresses. Exactly what was needed was provided – even if the Reflections, running to 44 pages, were somewhat less exact…

‘Intensification’ was the key strategic word in the first Presidential Address. Rowan Williams stated: ‘That's why a Covenant should not be thought of as a means for excluding the difficult or rebellious but as an intensification - for those who so choose - of relations that already exist. And those who in conscience could not make those intensified commitments are not thereby shut off from all fellowship; it is just that they have chosen not to seek that kind of unity, for reasons that may be utterly serious and prayerful.’

This was a clear sign, very early on, that not all were likely to agree to the Covenant. Its content would not be just bland – there would be ‘teeth’ - and eventually a ‘two tier’ Communion would be likely to emerge, of those in the centre who will sign, and of those on the edge who will not. The Anglican Communion is involved in 'intensifying' its current relationships and those who do not wish to continue on that 'intensifying' trajectory may remain where they are – there is no force - while the centre of the Communion moves on. Not exclusion, but intensification and no group can veto this movement forward.

In developing my own thinking on this word, perhaps Jesus Christ could be seen as the 'intensification of the Word of God'? The crowd followed him, and the intensification of the call to discipleship meant that some remained in the crowd and did not become disciples. The ‘Sermon on the Mount’ was addressed to the disciples, not to the crowd (Matthew 5:1-2). Some within the wider group of disciples were later shocked by Jesus' words and remained where they were, but the relationships of The Twelve with Jesus, and with each other, intensified (John 6:59-69).

In his second Presidential Address, the Archbishop stated that he hoped that Lambeth 2008 would ‘speak from the centre’, which is not ‘the middle point between two extremes’, but ‘the heart of our identity as Anglicans’, which ultimately is that ‘deepest centre which is our awareness of living in, and as, the Body of Christ.’ He went on, riskily and imaginatively, to enter the world of the ‘innovator’ and the ‘traditionalist’ concerning sexuality and tried to describe them from the inside and their respective calls for generosity. Surprisingly, and perhaps deliberately, he left little room to develop the depth of the ‘centre’.

This was left for the Concluding Presidential Address, on the last Sunday. At the end of a conference without ‘resolutions’, it was magisterially resolute. The Archbishop not only held the Communion together but moved it deeper into Christ and forward in intensification. Intriguingly, he used the phrase ‘Anglican Church’ several times, and time will be needed to elucidate this hint.

Bishops from The Episcopal Church USA who wanted to press ahead with their ecclesial sexual inclusion project and ignore the Windsor Process and the Anglican Covenant, had been carefully ‘minded’ by their media advisers not to react in anger. They went away tight lipped. They were angry, but not in public. Their thoughts were expressed by Susan Russell, the President of Integrity USA, when she called this address an ‘11th-hour sucker punch’.

The Archbishop lucidly expressed the mind of the Lambeth Conference, drawing on the reflections from the indaba groups, and clearly articulated the central way forward, which is the continuation of the Windsor Process and the Covenant. On the two key subjects of sexual ethics and ecclesiology, he reiterated the vital importance of three moratoria: on the authorisation of same-sex blessings, on the consecration of bishops in same-sex unions and on cross provincial interventions.

These interventions by some conservative Primates from Africa and the Southern Cone of Latin America had been declared by them, from the beginning, to be ‘temporary’ until something officially was set up. Something official has now been announced and is being urgently set up - the Pastoral Forum, ‘strengthened by arrangements like the suggested Communion Partners initiative in the USA’. There is no real need for them, on their side, to be angry or tight lipped. In fact, there is encouragement in the Archbishop’s final words concerning inviting ‘those absent from Lambeth to be involved in these next stages’ and of looking for ‘the best ways of building bridges’ with GAFCON.

A crucial question will now be how they will react and there is a meeting of the GAFCON Primates’ Council in London ‘towards the end of August’. To the Pastoral Forum, will there be disbelief and rejection, or relief and rejoicing?

Some may ignore the potential of the Pastoral Forum and consolidate their interventions, continuing to argue for a ‘non-Canterbury centred Communion’. This would be very sad, and in reality would first be a ‘vacuum-centred Federation’ which then would lead to power struggles to fill the vacuum, and finally end in fissiparousness. It would be walking away from success.

Others, including perhaps those who were present at the Lambeth Conference, may see the advantages of a Communion authorised central Pastoral Forum, over a myriad of unofficial, competing intervening jurisdictions. Much depends on the character of the Chair of the Forum, who is likely to be a Primate of significant distinction. If it is someone who is conservative on sexual issues and is keen to hold the Communion together – a ‘Communion Conservative’ in the terms of my previously suggested ‘quadrant’ – then there is intense hope for proverbial patience and urgency.



A bronze

Wood panel


Wood panel