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Celebrating growth and understanding culture – the Secretary General reflects on his second year in office

Posted on: August 2, 2017 11:32 AM
The Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, Dr Josiah Idowu-Fearon, addresses members of the ACC in Lusaka.
Photo Credit: ACNS

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“… I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”
[Ephesians 3]

St. Paul’s prayer for the Christians in Ephesus is also my prayer for the family of the Anglican Communion as I mark my second anniversary of becoming Secretary General. Paul was confined to prison as he wrote. By God’s grace we have the freedom to travel with relative ease to almost every country in the world.

Our global family

One of my responsibilities is to ‘further the distinctive contribution of Anglican Churches around the world in witnessing to the reconciling love of God in Christ’. To that end, it is a particular joy for me to travel to many parts of the Communion. Indeed my role is becoming more ambassadorial.

Since taking office, I have accepted invitations to participate in synods, services, consecrations and meetings in 25 countries from Barbados to Zambia. I am encouraged by the vigour and variety of Anglicanism everywhere and am grateful for the hospitality shown to me. I have seen first-hand how churches act synodically. This process is fascinating and exciting and something from which other churches can learn. One highlight I have observed in parts of Africa and SE Asia has been seeing Primates eschewing doctrinal disputes in order to concentrate on the need to relieve poverty, and to challenge bad governance, corruption, ignorance and Islamic extremism. It is my ambition to visit all of our 39 provinces, to listen and learn from each and to share what I have found elsewhere.

Much of my time is spent at the Anglican Communion Office in west London, where my responsibilities include leading the Secretariat. To assist me, David White was appointed as Chief Operating Officer earlier this year. I also have a strong team of directors and staff, including the London-based members of the Anglican Alliance.

Change is a fact of life for any organisation. During this past year we have seen the departures of Canon Phil Groves and Canon Flora Winfield from the roles with the Indaba Project and at the United Nations respectively. Both served with great distinction and are missed. Our Director for Finance and Administration, Tim Trimble, will be moving to a new post soon, and my personal assistant, Christine Codner, has retired after 34 years service. We are grateful to God for our fellowship in the Gospel with all of them and pray his blessing on their future.

Communion growth

As I write this, I am preparing for one of the highlights of my time in office. I will shortly travel to Khartoum for a service to mark the inauguration of a new province: Sudan. It is a nation where Christians are in a minority. I have met federal ministers in Sudan who belong to the Muslim majority and who recognise Christians as believers with whom they are willing to work. When Anglicans change their approach to Islam, this leads to healthy inter-religious dialogue. I am optimistic about the possibilities ahead.

Chile presents an opportunity for the formation of another new province, as a result of evangelism, church planting and growth. I look forward to visiting three proposed dioceses there later this year.

Our prime calling is to proclaim Jesus and his world-wide mission and I have seen several examples of new outreach. In the US, for instance, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry took part in a conference in Dallas to promote new ways of evangelising; churches are being planted in new neighbourhoods there even before people move in. In South-East Asia churches are being planted to respond to the needs of the people. And in Kenya, the Primate has made it clear that he is not interested in a divided church, but will concentrate on development in rural and urban areas and on reaching out to Muslim neighbours

Looking ahead

Tensions within families - and that includes families of churches – are part of the human condition and were certainly experienced in the New Testament churches. While they were, and are, to be regretted, we are people of resurrection hope and must not be ground down by them. When divergent views are held with equal conviction, we are especially called to love one another. Such unity will be our witness “that the world may believe”

As bishop and archbishop in Nigeria I was called to be a bridge-builder between Christians and Muslims and was used to promote understanding and respect between previously warring factions. It was that experience which prompted me to apply for the post of Secretary General in the Anglican Communion, where there is an acknowledged need to build a culture of respect and mutual understanding.

The personal ministry of the Archbishop of Canterbury is an exemplar of patience and humility. It has been used by God to bring about reconciliation between provinces which were at odds with the rest of the Communion. I believe the Archbishop demonstrates what it means to be gracious. I value deeply the regular conversations I have had with him ever since I was appointed.

The next phase of my work as Secretary General will be to promote understanding across the Communion of the different cultures in which member churches are rooted. We should not expect other parts of the Communion to be exactly like us when their culture and history are different from ours. I want the Communion to develop a better understanding of itself. Sometime deeply-held convictions about churchmanship and authority (including that of bishops and archbishops) are more influenced by local culture than Christ.

It may be painful for some to abandon the claim that they alone are the church, with the implication that others are not. But we cannot afford to say “I have no need of you” for that would deny the opportunity to give and receive the blessings which we owe one another.

Within the Anglican family, from whatever part of the Communion we come, we become members of the Church by accepting Jesus as our personal Saviour and by being baptised. Thereafter, even though we sin, we remain church members. So we cannot ‘unchurch’ one another on the grounds that we disapprove of their behaviour. In the final analysis, it is God who distinguishes between the faithful and unfaithful. It is for us to love one another and leave judgment to the Almighty.

There is no room in the Anglican tradition for dictatorship: decisions must be made in recognised, constitutional ways. The bishop is a servant, teacher, guide and protector of the people. The theologian Richard Hooker identified three sources of authority: Scripture, Tradition and Reason, with Scripture having the what we might think of as the casting vote. This analysis could be the means of shifting the logjam when Christians seem to have taken up intractable positions in opposition to one another.

My strong recommendation is that from the Anglican Communion Office we facilitate a series of intra- and inter-provincial visits, so that Anglicans meet and learn from one another, engage and support one another in mission, and attend each other’s synods as observers. Visitors could be invited to address brothers and sisters of the other province. Mutual understanding should result, especially as we see how authority is exercised.

The Primates’ Meeting and Lambeth Conference

The Archbishop of Canterbury has called a meeting of Primates for October 2017 and a Lambeth Conference in 2020. The ACO will provide the administrative support required.

A Primates’ Task Group, formed at the behest of the Primates to help the Communion walk together despite differences, has already improved our openness to one another, especially when considering authority. The bishops, clergy and lay members of the Group have come to recognise that the Anglican Communion is very diverse in terms of culture, ecclesiology and polity. They will return to their provinces as ambassadors with a broad vision of that diversity.

The 2020 Lambeth (Conference) Design Group has members from every region of the Communion. My hope is that they will correct any misinformation about the process, by demolishing the myth that the agenda is set by ‘the West’ and then foisted on the rest! There may also be regional meetings between primates with the Archbishop of Canterbury, to feed ideas into the Design Group. I am anticipating a wonderful and meaningful Lambeth Conference in three years’ time.

It will be our first Lambeth Conference for 12 years. It will be an historic occasion. The bishops there represent their local churches, bringing with them their good news as well as difficult issues. Throughout it, they are upheld by prayers from around the world. They meet to discern what the Lord is saying to his people, through the study of the Word and in waiting and sharing together. The conference carries a lofty moral authority. It is not legally binding on the provinces because they are autonomous. But when it speaks in a formal resolution, the whole Christian world, not just the Anglican Communion, should listen. In a Lambeth Conference resolution, the Anglican part of the universal Church has spoken.

The Anglican Consultative Council (ACC)

Our next ACC is due in 2019. The ACC has a different composition with laity, clergy and bishops all represented. The other Instruments of Communion are also represented. It also has a constitution. The ACC has enormous authority and, like the Lambeth Conference, its resolutions can carry moral weight. There should be scope for these to be discussed at diocesan level, rather than subject to provincial filtering. That way bishops, priests and laity can see that ACC resolutions can lead to action at grass roots level. I would like to start a fresh reflection about the moral weight of ACC-16 resolutions and those which will emanate from the Lambeth Conference.

Development

My vision is to reshape our Communion. We have to change in terms of representation, partnership and mission. I foresee a Communion where:

  • we will grow spiritually as well as numerically;
  • there will be a growing recognition of our cultural differences;
  • diversity will be respected;
  • we will be proud to be Anglican

It is my privilege to serve the Communion in the role of Secretary General and I am excited to see what God will do during my third year in the post.

“… I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”


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