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Continuing Indaba enables 'gospel-shaped conversation

Posted on: July 31, 2012 11:50 AM
Related Categories: indaba

By Matthew Davies, Episcopal News Service

Enabling conversation across difference has been the main objective of the Anglican Communion’s Continuing Indaba and Mutual Listening Process. But the fruits of the program in breaking down barriers and building friendships across vastly different contexts have far exceeded any expectations, according to the Rev. Canon Phil Groves, who said the guiding principle and the key to its success has been in placing Christ at the center of the conversations.

“People are passionate about the gospel, and sometimes that leads to deep disagreements,” Groves, the program’s facilitator, told ENS in a recent interview. “But once Christ is placed at the center of a conversation, people begin to work for the good of the whole rather than to win an argument.”

Groves attended the 77th General Convention in Indianapolis and witnessed the Episcopal Church commit itself (in Resolution D008) to deepening its involvement with Anglican Communion ministries and networks and to using the Continuing Indaba process to encourage “conversations across differences to strengthen relationships in God’s mission.”

Groves said he found the deliberations at General Convention encouraging. “There was a clear sense that the Anglican Communion is something very significant and that [there is a] … deep desire to be linked up with people who may radically disagree with the direction of the Episcopal Church.”

Since its 2009 launch, the Continuing Indaba and Mutual Listening Process has facilitated four pilot conversations, each consisting of three dioceses from different Anglican Communion provinces. Participants from each diocese included the bishop, and several clergy and lay leaders.

The program, which is partly a continuation of the Anglican Communion Listening Process, has enabled Anglicans to discuss and learn about experiences from contexts far removed from their own and to wrestle with differences concerning issues such as human sexuality and theological interpretation. (A process of Indaba, a Zulu word meaning purposeful discussion, formed the basis for groups of around 40 bishops that met each day during the Lambeth Conference in 2008.)

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori recently told ENS that the Continuing Indaba program has “provided remarkable opportunities for Episcopalians and Anglicans to learn about the realities of life in different parts of the world, and hearts are being transformed thereby.”

Continuing Indaba is helping “to provide the life-blood and breath that can revivify and revitalize the communion to action and service in mission,” said the Rev. Tobias Haller, a General Convention deputy from the Diocese of New York, who has served on the Continuing Indaba reference group alongside representatives from Africa and the United Kingdom.

“When Jesus described how it was that his disciples would be known, it was not by the splendor of their churches or the number of their congregants, by the beauty of their worship or the nobility of their ethics, but by the love they show to one another,” said Haller, in a recent post on the Continuing Indaba website. “Continuing Indaba is a means to demonstrate this love, in gospel-shaped conversation and engagement with one another…”

“The relationships are key to our healing,” said Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves of the Diocese of El Camino Real, which joined its companion dioceses of Gloucester in England and Western Tanganyika in Tanzania to participate in one of the Continuing Indaba pilot programs.

“We gather in Christ. We are one in Christ. That is what binds us together. Not our particular beliefs, not our theology, not in the way we read Scripture,” Gray-Reeves told ENS during the program’s final encounter in February in the Diocese of Gloucester.

The participants visited each of the three dioceses, usually for more than a week each time, to experience the church’s mission in its local context and to engage in “meaningful conversation,” which is at the center of the Zulu concept of “indaba.”

Gray-Reeves said the El Camino Real-Gloucester-Western Tanganyika partnership had begun with a focus on human sexuality issues but that the group had since learned to accept one another’s differences concerning that topic. “We all realize that the bigger conversations are about poverty, about generations, about Millennium Development Goals, about evangelism and discipleship,” she said.

In early July, Gray-Reeves and bishops Michael Perham of Gloucester and Sadock Makaya of Western Tanganyika wrote to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams reflecting on their Indaba process, underscoring the importance of the project and expressing their hope that it will be expanded within the Anglican Communion.

“The Indaba experience has accelerated our bonding; our depth of candor with each other; and our sincere caring for each other as individuals and as representatives of our own dioceses and our respective cultures,” the bishops wrote.

Makaya told ENS that unity throughout the Anglican Communion “is very important because it was the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ … that we should all be one. It is only when we are united that we can be a witness of the gospel.”

For Anel Agueyo, a lay Latina from San José in the Diocese of El Camino Real, experiencing different cultures through the program has “opened my eyes to the broader aspect of what life is and what it consists of, and who God is.”

The dioceses of New York, Derby in England, and Mumbai in the Church of North India also formed one of the pilot programs.

For the Rev. Winnie Varghese, a lesbian Episcopal priest and native of Texas with family roots in the Mar Thoma Church of India, the path towards deepening relationships through indaba was not without challenges.

Continuing Indaba works as long as it is “rooted in Bible Study and a daily common experience,” Varghese, rector of St. Mark’s-Church-in-the-Bowery in New York City, told ENS. “Its fundamental value is time together with people willing to be in conversation. But it means for all [involved] – particularly people of color, women, laypersons and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons – a willingness to put up with some insult for the sake of conversation.”

During the first meeting in New York, Varghese said the group “spent a lot of time trying to figure out why we were there and wanting to ask big questions but nervous that we would cause offense or short circuit the process in some way.”

Towards the end of the program, Varghese said that one of the women from India approached her to discuss sexuality because she felt the topic had not been adequately addressed during the group’s conversations. “We talked about it for a few hours. It was a good conversation. Basically, she did not want to dismiss me because of the relationship we had developed over the six weeks of time together, and I felt the same,” said Varghese. “In the end it’s all about relationships.”

The other two pilot conversations included Toronto (Canada), Jamaica (West Indies), and Hong Kong; and Saldanha Bay (Southern Africa), Ho (Ghana) and Mbeere (Kenya).

Now that the pilot program has concluded, Groves hopes that provinces and dioceses throughout the Anglican Communion will take the concept and model of Continuing Indaba and apply it in local contexts.

Groves said that there’s a strong indication that several provinces – including Kenya, Hong Kong, West Africa and the U.S.-based Episcopal Church – “want to push the Continuing Indaba methodology forward.”

“Episcopalians who participated in Continuing Indaba are advocating to those around them that this is something that is very significant for the Episcopal Church,” Groves said. Episcopal Church dioceses relating to partners around the world “will be inspired by the Diocese of El Camino Real and those relationships and will begin to ask: ‘how can we do the same things?’”

Haller believes that Continuing Indaba “will be the lifeblood and breath of the Anglican Communion.” The program is “catching fire and inspiring people around the communion,” he said.

The Church of England’s General Synod, meeting in early July, commended the use of Continuing Indaba to build relationships at diocesan and parish levels.

Groves said that the program has worked so well because the participants have used biblical principles to understand how Christians should relate to one another. “Once the journey begins you find that you are working with very committed Christians,” he said, adding that the participants have understood that the key to relationships is holding up the “good of the whole with Christ as the head of the church.”

The Rev. Canon Kenneth Kearon, secretary general of the Anglican Communion, told ENS that he has been encouraged by the commitment of Anglican provinces, including the Episcopal Church, to the Continuing Indaba program.

“As more dioceses have engaged themselves in indaba across the communion, they have more and more wanted to import the lessons that they have learned. That is a very positive thing and it is promising that it is going to be replicated,” he said. “It’s about serious listening, serious engagement and a profound respect for one another. Any person or diocese that has experienced that finds new ways of expressing being Anglican.”

For ENS video interview with Canon Phil Groves click here