The Rt Revd Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, Bishop of Waikato in the Diocese of Waikato and Taranaki in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, shares a personal reflection on the forthcoming gathering of Primates of the Anglican Communion.
As someone whose life and ministry has encountered different denominations, and different provinces within the Anglican Communion, I have been reflecting quite a bit of late on the forthcoming gathering of Primates of the Anglican Communion in Canterbury. I have been struck by the ease with which anxiety and fear over division dominates any attempt at discussion of God’s mission. It seems to me that this is not a particularly Gospel-led way of viewing the current state of Church politics, and I have been thinking quite hard about the personal experiences that have shaped my identity as a disciple of Christ.
I am not a “cradle Anglican”, to coin a phrase that is often used by those who have been born and raised within the Anglican Church. However, we would do well to note that Baptism is a universal sacrament: you are welcomed into the Body of Christ when you are baptised, not into a particular denomination. Baptism, in that sense, represents a particular expression of unity in diversity: one body, many parts.
When I was born, my father was a Church of Scotland minister in the Scottish borders. I was baptised in his church, Coldingham Priory which exists on the site of an earlier monastery founded by St Ebba. Ebba lived in the seventh century. She was the daughter of King Ethelfrith of Bernicia and Acha of Deira. The somewhat turbulent political goings on of that period in the various regions that now make up the British Isles, Ebba and her family were forced into exile to western Scotland, a place steeped in the early growth of Christianity in Britain.
During their exile, Ebba and her family converted to Christianity. Ebba ended up Abbess of Coldingham Priory, which was a double separate monastery of both monks and nuns. She was known as a great teacher and a politician and was frequently called upon to resolve disputes. Although the community she founded did not last much beyond her death, her name remains linked with the landscape of which she was a part to this day. The re-founded Priory did not survive the Reformation, and was finally destroyed by the troops of Oliver Cromwell. However, a new church was built around the ruins, and was renovated in the 19th century; the surviving archway in front of the modern church serving as a reminder to its past. This was the church in which I was baptised.
Family life soon took us south of the border to Sunderland, and while we initially worshipped as part of the United Reformed Church (akin to the Scottish Presbyterian Church), I attended a Church of England Primary school, followed by a Roman Catholic Girls’ Convent school. In the midst of all that, we became Anglicans and my father was ordained into the Anglican Church as a deacon and soon afterwards, as a priest.
My tertiary education took me back to the country of my birth: to St Andrew’s University in Scotland, and thence to the United States to a Presbyterian Seminary, and finally to Oxford University. It was while I was at Oxford researching Paul’s perspective on manual work for my doctorate, that I was ordained myself into the Anglican Church.
I offer that somewhat lengthy and personal part of this (I hope relatively short!) reflection, because it has taught me quite a lot about unity and diversity, and what it means to experience faith in different contexts.
One of the great joys of my current ministry as Bishop of Waikato, is the working relationship that I have with my Roman Catholic equivalent, Bishop Steve Lowe, the Bishop of Hamilton. We are pleased to be able to continue the relationship in ministry that both our predecessors worked hard to enable over their long tenures as Bishops. This was never going to be a given for me, because of my gender, but I have been overwhelmed by the sense of gracious hospitality that Bishop Steve and I have shared. We have far more in common in the issues that we face as bishops, than we might think. Unity and diversity then, are constants in our work.
As I have made the move from one province of the Anglican Communion to another, from the Church of England to the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, I have discovered more layers to what it means to live with unity and diversity. Our unique Three Tikanga structure has been oft-critiqued, but I was recently pleasantly surprised during an exchange in Twitter with a Bishop’s chaplain in England, how quickly they grasped what opportunities our structure could afford, and how respectfully they spoke of it during our brief and somewhat limited interaction (remember tweets are only 140 characters in length!).
More still, the experiences I have had as a Bishop, encountering other Bishops from over 20 difference provinces during the Canterbury course for new Bishops held annually and which I, along with Bishop Andrew of Waiapu attended a year ago, have taught me that we have far more in common than what we may disagree over. This photograph is made up of the hands of some of the Bishops present.
Finally, I have gained an immense amount of wisdom from my father who, as I mentioned earlier has experienced active ministry in two different Christian denominations. I vividly remember the period of his transition from Presbyterian minister to Anglican priest, a transition that was not without its challenges, but which was one which inevitably forms part of my own formation towards and in ordained ministry.
I asked him recently what he thought unity was, and he replied as follows: “Unity is not about managing the church but discovering each other. Abel replies to God’s question ‘Where is Cain?’ with ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ Perhaps it would be good for us in our sense of unity to ask: ‘How am I my brother’s brother’ – and brother/sister here is those outside the church as well as fellow-believers. Thus mission and unity are inseparable. Unity is God’s destiny for the church and the world.”
Unity is not uniformity. Disagreements have always been part of Christian life, and before that, of our Jewish heritage. Which is why I frequently turn to the Jewish rabbinic tradition. Ultimately, we are called to turn our faces to God and to allow ourselves to be drawn ever closer into the fullness of a unity that we may only catch a glimpse of, but is that which the triune God holds for us in grace, love and mercy.
So my prayer for the Primates’ gathering in Canterbury is that they may be held in grace and love, and discover what it truly means to be their brother’s brother? (I can say that because I don’t think there will be any women present!).
To those thoughts, I add the prayer that the Anglican Communion Office has published:
Lord, this is a part of Your Church Militant.
You called us after redeeming us through Your Son's
sacrificial death, triumphant resurrection and glorious Ascension.
Help us as a Communion to hear clearly
what You are saying to us in this age,
grant this gathering and meeting Your Spirit
that it may lead in such a way as to bring
honour and glory to Your name,
peace and better understanding to Your church,
growth and development to every part of the Communion.
We ask in Christ's name.