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Archbishop of Canterbury's Presidential Address at ACC-13

Posted on: June 20, 2005 4:30 PM
Related Categories: Abp Williams, ACC, ACC13

I

Who are we talking to in this meeting? To be a Christian is to believe we are commanded and authorised to say certain things to the world; to say things that will make disciples of all nations. Our words matter. We have to think with care about them and to try and know something of how they will be heard. If they are not heard as good news from God, as words that change the world and release people from various sorts of prison, what has gone wrong? Are we talking only to ourselves?

This week it will be of the greatest importance that we remember to ask, whenever we say anything, whether we are doing more than talking to ourselves - and to ask what will be heard in what we say here and how far it helps or hinders the communicating of the gospel of Jesus. A gathering like this always attracts a degree of media attention, and we can guess already what the pattern of this is likely to be - 'The Communion is in great trouble; conservatives and liberals are going to split from each other'. Different people will have different stories to tell, with different interests to serve. These stories will be the subject of still more stories, and the rapid fire of exchanges will continue to stream across the electronic pathways. That is the way of the world. And however unworldly we may like to think ourselves, somehow we remain the world's captives in this connection.

But meanwhile the bulk of the media's attention will probably be focused elsewhere - on the meeting that will take place just after we have finished, the meeting of the G8 leaders. Grief, anger and frustration at the injustice of the world's trade systems and at the sluggishness of wealthy nations in addressing the menace of systematic environmental degradation is boiling over, here in the UK and in many other places. The report of the Africa Commission here a couple of months ago outlined the challenges and opportunities that face the wealthy nations, and the continuing horror of disease and violence and corrupt, dysfunctional government that imprisons millions. Africa is the focus, but it is not a challenge in relation to Africa alone. Debt and poverty and oppression are realities for other continents. Corrupt government afflicts supposedly 'developed' nations too. And the environmental crisis confronts all of us with growing urgency. But at the moment, the question most sharply in focus is, 'What do the most powerful nations in the world intend to do to reduce even a little the burden of suffering that afflicts those over whom their power is exercised in various ways?'

This is what a large part of the general public at least in this country will be thinking about this week. Some of those, especially those who are most committed to the ending of poverty and injustice, will be people who speak the same language as us; they will be people of faith, often Christian faith. And we have to ask what if anything they will hear from us that is good news for them and for the poor for whom they burn with Christ-like indignation. Are we talking to them at all? What have we to say?

The chances are that they will hear a little of what we say - like a set of noises off, a bit of background buzz. Here is a group of Christians talking to each other, they will think, arguing over matters that seem quite a long way from the plight of a child soldier in Northern Uganda or a mother with HIV/AIDS in Lesotho or a sweatshop worker or fisherman in South Asia. Some will react with contempt - what a parade of foolish anger and bigotry or self-importance, what a fuss over the 'rights' of the prosperous; some will react with indifference; and some with real sorrow that we are not speaking to them and the world they know.

And for at least some of those - indeed, for many, I suspect - it is not that they are wanting us to abandon talking about our faith so as to talk about the world's crisis. They are wanting us to talk about Jesus and what Jesus has to say to this crisis. They know the economics and the politics, even the ethics; they don't need us for that. But they do want to hear a word from the one we call our saviour. Are we speaking to them about him?

II

I shall come back in a moment to what we might be saying about Jesus. Because some may object that I am trying to distract the meeting from addressing the immediate issue that needs resolution in our church, the questions around the limits of our diversity, the location of our authority and the rightness of certain developments in attitudes to sex. So let me say that I have no intention of making any distracting manoeuvre; I want only to point out where and when we are meeting and thus the way in which what we say may well be heard. I point this out also so that we can ourselves remember the background to our debates on these matters - since they are not just about morality and biblical authority but about perceptions of how power is used in the church and world, how agendas are set. The political and economic world in which the prosperous set the agenda is the same world that is at work in the Church, so many feel, a world where discussions are held and priorities agreed and decisions taken in ways that exclude those who don't have the language or the leverage. North-South inequality is a real issue in our church context, however hard it is for the 'North' to hear this.

But since some may challenge whether all this is about taking our eyes off the immediate problem, I shall say a few words about the present crisis - hoping that these reflections will in fact lead us back to the fundamental question of what we are saying and to whom. The debate over sexuality is a story that can be told more than one way. One story is this. The churches of the 'North' are tired and confused, losing evangelistic energy. For a variety of reasons, they have been trying to reclaim their credibility by accepting and seeking to domesticate the moral values of their culture, even though this is a culture that is practically defined by the rejection of the living God. A history of over-intellectual approaches to the Bible and the communication of the faith has led to a disregard of the Bible's call to transformation. The revolt against the plain meaning of Scripture's condemnation of same-sex activity is a symptom of this general malaise.

Another story is this. The churches of the North have been made aware of how much their life and work has been sustained in the past by insensitive and oppressive social patterns, with the Bible being used to justify great evils. Whether they like it or not, they inhabit a world where authority is regarded with much suspicion; it has to earn respect. In recent decades there has been a huge change in the general understanding of sexual activity. Can the gospel be heard in such a world if it seems to cling to ways of understanding sexuality that have no correspondence to what the most apparently responsible people in our culture believe? It is not enough, some have said, to stick to the words of the Bible; we have to go deeper and ask about the logic and direction of the Bible as a whole. And when we do that, we may find that it is not so impossible to reach a position that can be taken seriously in contemporary culture.

Two stories, and so for some we have a problem of the Church accepting a set of false premises, a wrong and unbiblical picture of human nature; for others a problem of communicating with human beings where they actually are, in terms they can grasp. Many issues are involved here, not only the presenting question about homosexuality. Perhaps the most difficult is how we make a moral assessment of modern culture in the developed world. And for many of us this is complicated. Modernity has brought great goods; yet in vital respects it has promoted a picture of humanity that is deeply flawed - individualistic, obsessed with rights and claims and uninterested in bonds of obligation or the need for sacrifice for the good of others: precisely the world that has produced our current nightmare of international injustice. So the question is how far the concern for reaching an understanding with the world about sexual ethics is based on uncritical acceptance of the values of a culture like this.

I don't think that this question is quickly resolved. There are those who say, 'This is an issue of justice, comparable to the rights of black people in the Western world, or the rights of women. Our church must be inclusive of all, committed to liberation for all from the burden of prejudice and hatred'. And there are those who say, 'The Bible is clear; there is no argument to be had'. Yet the latter people often in practice find they are themselves interpreting Scripture more flexibly in other areas. And the former people may have to recognise that there is a difference between campaigning for civil equality and declaring discipline or defining holiness for the Church of Christ, a difference between including all who come to Christ and being indifferent to how human lives are actually challenged and altered by him.

Very tentatively, I believe this is how we should see our situation. Christian teaching about sex is not a set of isolated prohibitions; it is an integral part of what the Bible has to say about living in such a way that our lives communicate the character of God. Marriage has a unique place because it speaks of an absolute faithfulness, a covenant between radically different persons, male and female; and so it echoes the absolute covenant of God with his chosen, a covenant between radically different partners. And those who have criticised the blessing of same-sex partnerships have been trying, I think, to say that we cannot change what we say about marriage without seriously upsetting what you might call the ecology of our teaching, the balance of how we show and speak of God. They would say that blessing same-sex unions has this effect, and that without such blessing people living in such unions are at least in tension with the common language of the Church. And living in this tension is not a good basis for taking on the responsibilities of leadership, especially episcopal leadership, whatever latitude we allow to conscience and pastoral discretion in particular instances among our people. This, incidentally, is broadly the view of the authors of the 'St Andrew's Day Statement' of 1997, which remains a helpful reference point, managing to avoid a bitter politicising of the dispute. Its method deserves more imitation than it has received.

So there are two issues coming out of this that need patient study. What is the nature of a holy and Christ-like life for someone who has consistent homosexual desires? And what is the appropriate discipline to be applied to the personal life of the pastor in the Church? The last Lambeth Conference concluded that the reasons I have just outlined made it impossible to justify a change in existing practice and discipline; and the majority voice of the Communion holds firmly to this decision. It is possible to uphold this decision and still say that there are many unanswered questions in the theological picture just outlined, and that a full discussion of these needs a far more careful attention to how homosexual people see themselves and their relations. The Lambeth Resolution called for just this. It also condemned in clear terms, as did earlier Lambeth Conferences, the Windsor Report and the Primates' Dromantine statement, violent and bigoted language about homosexual people - and this cannot be repeated too often. It is possible to uphold Lambeth '98 and to oppose the shocking persecution of homosexuals in some countries, to defend measures that guarantee their civil liberties. The question is not about that level of acceptance, but about what the Church requires in its ordained leaders and what patterns of relationship it will explicitly recognise as unquestionably revealing of God. On these matters, the Church is not persuaded that change is right. And where there is a strong scriptural presumption against change, a long consensus of teaching in Christian history, and a widespread ecumenical agreement, it may well be thought that change would need an exceptionally strong critical mass to justify it.

That, I think, is where the Communion as a whole stands. That is why actions by some provinces have caused outrage and hurt. To invite, as does the Windsor document, those provinces to reconsider is not to say that there are no issues to be resolved, no prejudice to be repented of (because there unquestionably is much of this); it is not to reject the idea of an 'inclusive' Church or to canonise an unintelligent reading of the Bible. It is to say that actions taken in sensitive matters against the mind of the Church cannot go unchallenged while the Church's overall discernment is as it is without injuring the delicate fabric of relations within the Church and so compromising its character.

It is said that there are times when Christians must act prophetically, ahead of the consensus, and that this is such a time for some of our number. We should listen with respect to what motivates this conviction. But we also have to say that it is in the very nature of a would-be prophetic act that we do not yet know whether it is an act of true prophecy or an expression of human feeling only. To claim to act prophetically is to take a risk. It would be strange if we claimed the right to act in a risky way and then protested because that risky act was not universally endorsed by the Church straight away. If truth is put before unity - to use the language that is now common in discussing this - you must not be surprised if unity truly and acutely suffers.

III

But what is this teaching us about our character as a church? There is one deeply uncomfortable lesson to ponder, which is best expressed in shorthand by saying that we are in danger of falling into exactly the trap that St Paul lays for his readers in the beginning of his letter to the Romans. He has begun by defining 'God's way of righting wrong' (1.17), which is by faith; and he then gives a vivid account of the wrong that needs to be righted. Human beings are in revolt against the creator, exchanging (he repeats the word) what is natural for what is unnatural. He lists those things which for Jewish readers and sympathetic Gentiles would most obviously suggest revolt against God's will. People know what is natural yet invent alternatives - whether it is intercourse with the same sex, worship of material things, breaking promises or using their God-given skills of speech to spread evil reports. But, says Paul as he begins chapter 2, this is not about some distant 'they'; it is about 'you', his readers, then and now. You know what is natural but do not do it, and you pass judgment on others, so condemning yourself. Paul does not say that the sins he has listed in ch.1 are not sins at all; he simply points out that he has been egging us on in recognising the sins of others so as to expose our own deadly lack of self-knowledge. This is terrible, he says, isn't it? And this and this? And we eagerly say yes; so that he can turn on us and say, 'So now you know how terrible is the lack in your own heart of the recognition of your rebellion, whatever it is.'

'Whenever you erect yourself upon a pedestal, you do wrong; whenever you say 'I' or 'we' or 'it is so', you exchange the glory of the incorruptible for the image of the corruptible ... By striding ahead of others, even though it be for their assistance, as though the secret of God were known to you, you manifest yourself ignorant of His secret ... Even 'brokenness'; even the behaviour of the 'Biblical Man' - if these proceed from the adoption of a point of view, of a method, of a system, or of a particular kind of behaviour, by which men distinguish themselves from other men - are no more than the righteousness of men'. These are words from the greatest commentary on Romans in the modern era, Karl Barth's masterpiece (pp.56-7); and they should drive us to some very hard questions. When we call on others to repent, can we hear God calling us to recognise our own rebellion, whatever it is? If not, have we understood faith? We are always in danger of the easiest religious technique of all, the search for the scapegoat; Paul insists without any shadow of compromise upon our solidarity in rebellion against God, and so tells us that we shall not achieve peace and virtue by creating a community we believe to be pure. And these words are spoken both to the Jew and the Gentile, both to the prophetic radical and the loyal traditionalist. The prophet, says Barth later in his commentary, 'knows the catastrophe of the Church to be inevitable' (cheering words!) and he knows also that there is no friendly lifeboat into which he can clamber and row clear of the imminent disaster' (336).

'We are all butchers pretending to be sacrificers. When we understand this, the skandalon - the stumbling block -- that we had always managed to discharge upon some scapegoat becomes our own responsibility, a stone as unbearably heavy upon our hearts as Jesus himself upon the saint's shoulders in the Christopher legend'. Not Barth this time, but René Girard, the French philosopher (A Theatre of Envy: William Shakespeare, p.341), once again paraphrasing Paul's central theme. When we have said all there is to say about our discipline and how we reinforce it, about the practical crises of deciding what degree of communion we can enjoy with some of our brothers and sisters - and no doubt these things have to be settled - we had better remember this level of solidarity with whoever it is we have separated from. The deepest spiritual problem is not resolved by separating ourselves from the sinner, whatever has to be done in the short term (and Paul of course exercises discipline robustly); God's word to us remains the challenge of Romans 2. And what grieves me about so much of our current debate is that I see few signs of awareness of this deeper level, and a good deal of the effort to 'distinguish ourselves' from each other, in Barth's terms, whether we call ourselves radicals or traditionalists. Even for me to say this in these terms opens me to the same charge - Do you hear what I said? -- I am 'grieved' by the failings of others. I too have to accept that I am part of this failing or 'catastrophic' church.

So that we are driven back to the place where Paul started: God's way of righting wrong. Can we allow this present crisis to teach us something basic about the good news? Because of the cross of Jesus and his resurrection, we may trust that God has acted to overcome our rebellion and more, to bring us into a renewed world. In that world, we live in gratitude to God and in a pervasive sense of involvement in and responsibility for each other. We acknowledge that we shall none of us be healed alone. We confess that each of us is made poor and sick by the poverty and sickness of our brothers and sisters. So we do not shrink, therefore, from fellow believers who have erred and reconstruct ourselves as a pure remnant; we admit that we are all now suffering. Likewise we need each other's life and hope, we need each other's positive experience - which is why the life of the churches of the 'North' would be so deprived if they separated from the life of the 'South' (and vice versa, since there is good news to be had in the global North too).

So the answer to the question, 'What is this teaching us about our character and our life as a church?' seems to be this. If we have understood what Paul says about faith we shall understand that we all stand together in sin and need. When we acknowledge our sin and our need of God's grace, we also begin to see our need of each other in the Body of Christ. What we have to do is to work hard to see that - whatever else happens to us as a Communion - we don't lose the sense of our dependence upon grace, not on success or human virtue.

IV

Who are we talking to? What we have to say to the world - a world that is concentrating on what we too must address, the challenge to the world's wealthy - what we have to say to the world is just this: God calls human persons to a life in which poverty is everyone's poverty and wealth is everyone's wealth. This is how St Paul in II Corinthians describes the Christian life. This is the life that makes the Church the way it is. This doesn't mean that the Church is an agency or a movement for political change. It simply is new life, new creation. When human life is renewed in this way, so that poverty and wealth are re-imagined like this, the result is something like the Church; and Christians will insist that only through the act and call of God is any of this ever possible, and only in conscious relation with Jesus is it fully realised. When we celebrate the Holy Communion, we are not awarding each other points for good behaviour or orthodox teaching but we are showing what it will be like in the Kingdom of Heaven - Christ's life given equally to all as all share in one bread; every communicant called by name to God's table, so that we have to look at every other communicant as God's beloved guest. Out of this flows the vision of a renewed world that keeps alive our hope and our anger at a system that treats so many as unwelcome in the world, nameless statistics, making no contribution to the life of others, dispensable.

Now the more we live and speak - this week and every week - as Church in this sense, the more we shall have to say to the real world. Christians should emphatically be campaigning for justice for the poor - but the Church is not a campaign. From time to time I am challenged to state 'my' vision or 'my' agenda for the Church. But we need real caution in using such language. The Church is the new creation, it is life and joy, it is the sacramental fellowship in which we share the ultimate purpose of God, made real for us now in our hearing the Word and sharing the Sacrament. What has this to do with anyone's 'agenda'? The Church is always greater than this, and the vision we most deeply need is the vision of new creation.

The Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann distinguishes the Church from a sect very simply by saying that a sect is always transforming itself into an 'agency', committed to a succession of causes, and he says, 'it easily mobilizes people against and not for', creates typically for itself a modern sense of pervasive guilt for not being radical enough (The Journals of Fr Alexander Schmemann, p.203). But the Church is just life in the new world which is the old one transfigured in Christ's light. The Church does not have to be defined by its activism, justified by its good causes. 'Dead end of the world with its "progress." Dead end of religion with its laws and therapeutics. Christ has taken us out of both these dead ends. The Church eternally celebrates it, and people as eternally reject it and are deaf to it' (p.292). So if we ask what we need to be heard saying, perhaps it is this - that the new world is a reality here in the Church, not by our activism and our anxious struggles to keep up with an agenda, but in the gift of presence in the Eucharist and in every moment when we meet our Father through Jesus. The possibility of a world differently organised, where poverty and wealth, joy and suffering, are everyone's, a world where every person is not just a possessor of 'rights' but a precious and unique friend. That possibility is a fact among us. It may and will move us to action, to the fullest share in the struggle to change things; but the Church is not there in order to change things - if it were, it would disappear when injustices disappear, instead of being fully itself when injustices disappear. When we start defining the Church by campaigns and struggles, God help us; we have lost the one thing only the Church can give, the fact of God's future made real. That is why Father Schmemann can say that our biggest problem as a Church is that we have lost joy (291); and this is not because we fail to feel or look happy enough, which really has nothing at all to do with anything and could be the most blasphemous and stupid of ideas, given the tragedy of the world. It is about the fact that joy exists, that God's blissful enjoyment of his own loving being is open to the world he has created. Will this week's proceedings suggest to anyone that joy exists and is offered us by God?

V

We can't guarantee anything at this point. We can't ignore the seriousness of what divides us. But if there is no easy solution, and there is not, we can at least think about this simple suggestion. If it is difficult for us to stand together at the Lord's Table as we might wish, can we continue to be friends? Its sounds so weak, doesn't? But, I actually think it is of great significance. It is a way of saying that we do not know how to go on being visibly full brothers and sisters, that we can find no clear visible way of expressing any sense of being together in the Body of Christ. But this is the case already with a number of other Christian bodies, and several other Christian bodies view us in this way, notably the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. And yet we maintain respect and often something more than respect. Friendship in Christ, it seems, is possible even when sacramental communion isn't.

Friendship is something that creates equality and mutuality, not a reward for finding equality or a way of intensifying existing mutuality. That's why we can talk - astonishingly, when you think about it - of friendship between us and God, the friendship Jesus speaks of. It is why St Teresa of Avila can write about friendship as the most radical mark of Christian community, as we find our common ground simply in God's invitation to us to be his friends. And so, alongside the wearisome and saddening divisions of the Church, common ground stubbornly persists.

What are we prepared to do to nourish this sort of friendship? My sense of where we now are is that this is not high on our agenda. The debates are so close to us, so emotionally involving, that we can hardly conceive of being friends in Christ. Yet it may be that many of our difficulties have their roots in a failure to give enough energy to friendship in the past across cultures and theologies. If we can correct this, we at least lay some foundations for the reconciliation that we shall have to go on praying for, though who knows how or when it will happen? Friendship in Christ is a willingness to share prayer, to listen without rancour to each another, to respect and even enjoy difference, to be patient with each other, not expecting quick healing of divisions but not walking away every time difference raises its head. Friendship in Christ is best and most creative when it is linked with sacramental fellowship; but if that fellowship is hard or controversial, we need to remember from our ecumenical experience that this need not and should not mean a spirit of bitter contempt towards each other. It has taken the great churches of the world centuries to make this sort of friendship a routine matter, but, thank God, it is so now for the most part. Can we make a resolution - not pass but make a resolution -- that it will not take so long to confirm these bonds between us? Of course it is harder in some ways: direct conflict and even rivalry darkens the sky so much. But when we cannot witness together as fully as we long to do, this is something of real witness nonetheless. We can look at and listen to the language we use about each other and watch how easily we are ready to let it slip from proper and honest disagreement towards contempt and mutual exclusion. Yet as baptised believers, we still have something to offer each other; and the friendship of the baptised should remain, whatever else divides.

And it may be that as we work on what our friendship through Christ and in Christ's presence demands, we shall find ourselves able to step back from things that make our divisions deeper, we shall find ways of relating to each other with respect and integrity that stop any of us pushing a local agenda too far and too fast (and I am not speaking only of one issue or one locality here). We already see signs of this in some places. Who knows what might be possible for us with patience and - simply - love?

VI

While I have been speaking, on a conservative estimate, twelve hundred children have died of poverty-related causes. By the end of our meeting, the number will be some 300,000. I say this not to induce guilt, but to remind us again of the world in which we have to speak, the world in which we have to make the good news sound credible. Too often, even when we speak of things we know we can't avoid speaking about - some of the things I have touched on here - we must surely realise that we sound as though we lived in a quite unreal world, where the passions that moved us made no sense to most people. We can remedy this not by ignoring the need for honest talk among ourselves but by resolutely bringing all our speaking back to the fact of what we have been given, which is finally so infinitely more important than our debates - the fact that God's future is real now because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit. In that context, as we struggle to find ways of understanding and responding to each other that are in every way and every sense faithful to the gospel, let us at least try to remember what a church is and what the nature of a church requires of us - that it is not a pressure group of right or left. If we treat it like that, we fall under Karl Barth's heavy strictures, acting as if the secret of God were ours. We shall not manifest to the world anything other than a religious version of the world's own quarrels and tensions. And if we are not showing the triumphant work of Christ, we are saying to the world that we have no real word to speak that the world doesn't know already; we are just echoing the anger or the compassion or the generosity of the human heart. And there are worse things than that; but Christ did not die and rise for that.

If this time together can be a true experience of the Church, what may not be possible for us by God's grace? We shall have found again the sources from which we can confront the deep evils of our world with resolution and passion. We may be just a little less likely to seem an embarrassing, even insulting, set of noises off in a time when serious moral attention is on those evils and how they are to be ended. What, I wonder, do we imagine God saying to us at the end of things? Not, I think, 'Did you successfully negotiate the structural and ethical problems of the Anglican Communion?' but perhaps, 'Did you so live in the experience of the Church, the Body of my Son, that a tormented world saw the possibility of hope and of joy?' 'Did you focus afresh on the one task the Church has to perform - living Christ in such a way that his news, his call, is compelling?' The Orthodox Church at its Liturgy prays for 'a good answer before the terrible judgement seat of Christ'; we might well pray the same, as we pray for the wisdom to know how to speak to each other in this meeting so that we speak at the same time to the world Christ loves and longs for.

ENDS

© Rowan Williams 2005