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Remarks of Dr. David Ford at Final Plenary Session - 8 August 1998

Posted on: August 8, 1998 2:57 PM
Related Categories: Dr Ford, Lambeth Conference 1998

Dr. David Ford
Regius Professor of Divinity, Cambridge University

Written in association with 
The Rev. Professor Daniel W. Hardy
Dr. Michel Higton
The Rev. Tim Jenkins
The Rev. Ben Quash

The Bible, The World and the Church: Lambeth 1998 and Beyond

How can we begin to do justice to the event that we have been taking part in during the past three weeks?

In the rest of this session there will be this address, two more videos, and a discussion between four bishops. This presentation has been drawn together by the group responsible for the earlier plenary presentation on The Bible, the World and the Church, and that group has been working closely with Angela Tilby and her video team. It is an interim attempt to tell something of what we have been experiencing here, and the guideline has been to try to understand the significance of the Conference in relation to the Bible, the world and the Church.

1. Realising Anglican Identity

Clearly it will take a long time after we leave here to discern what has been most significant in the events and experiences of the Conference. I think many of us feel overwhelmed in various ways. Yet at this stage we can perhaps agree with Brother Sam who said in the video that what he saw happening was a communion coming to life - and coming to life is not always easy. One bishop put it like this: 'These weeks at Lambeth have in many ways been a realisation, an embodiment, of Anglican identity'. So it is worth thinking a little about what has been happening here, in order to see better who we are.

1.1 Worship and the Bible

Asking people the question: Where has the Conference been most at home together? the same answer has been given time and again: we have been most at home in worship and in the small Bible study groups. The worship has never been without the Bible at its centre, and the Bible studies have been embraced by worship. And at the heart of both Bible and worship is what perhaps unites us most strongly: the desire for God, that hunger and thirst for God which is itself a gift of God.

Careful attentiveness to worship and scripture shapes our living. The reports of Bible study groups have been full of moving accounts of ordinary and extraordinary Christian living - and also Christian dying. The depth and intensity of life in and for Jesus Christ in our Communion, and the suffering which that can bring, has come home to us in first-hand accounts from all over the world. Through all this we have found others - and even ourselves - more transparent to God. As we have inhabited the Bible and our tradition of worship - which has now developed in so many ways around the whole world - we have recognized our family likenesses and realised the strength of our bonds - bonds which in Christ are stronger than death. 'It is my family that has been martyred', said a Canadian bishop.

Word and sacrament, our worship and our Bible studies: these have not on the whole made headlines, but they have been at the heart of the Conference, and they underlie the ability of the Conference to face sensitive issues in sections and in plenaries. How much easier it would have been if we had only come together to worship and discuss Second Corinthians!

1.2 Neither ruthless nor lawless: the ministry of unity

But this is a gathering of bishops with responsibilities in church and society in every continent. So besides word and sacrament, there is another feature of Anglican identity being embodied at Lambeth: our characteristic form of Church order. How has that been seen here?

The Anglican Church has always existed in a context of rival ways of ordering the Church.

On the one hand, it has refused an authoritarian solution, where one central authority holds out the attractive possibility of getting rid of the messiness of debate, dissent and rival interpretations of scripture by pronouncements and commands which permit of no argument.

On the other hand, it has resisted the sort of diversity in which everyone is free to do according to their own interpretation and conscience, and noone is ultimately accountable to anyone else.

Anglicanism has characteristically tried to hold these tendencies in tension and develop good order. We in this Conference have welcomed the Virginia Report which explores the next stage in this complex order at the international level. It is an order which combines freedom of Christian conscience with mutual accountability, and in doing so we believe ourselves to be in continuity with the New Testament and the early Church.

And the practice of the Conference bears this out. We have been constantly trying to reconcile, on the one hand, diversity, independence and different contexts, with, on the other hand, mutual accountability, which calls bishops, who have a special ministry of unity, to be answerable to one another and for one another in the body of Christ. And as Bishop Rowan Williams reminded us, the body of Christ includes the communion of saints, past and future.

I think there is one place where this ministry of unity and reconciliation among bishops has been most evident. The subsection on human sexuality under Bishop Buchanan wrestled together on behalf of all of us. They have given us a sign of our agony but also of hope. Yet it is also clearly unfinished business. I suppose one question is: Can the Communion as a whole have something of that quality of engagement which has been possible here under special circumstances?

1.3 Mission in the World

We have glimpsed the potential of the episcopal ministry of unity and reconciliation in other ways too, especially in the Conference's concern to relate the Gospel to life in the world. Anglicanism is naturally deeply interwoven in the world. That is why we struggle to interpret the Bible for our own situations, and why our Church is shaped in ways appropriate to life in different places. And we must be careful, not only to discern what is right, but to find ways of making it effective in the life of the world. Our proclamation of the Gospel cannot be separated from what we do in ordinary life, especially how we act for justice and human welfare. That was the remarkable achievement of those concerned with international debt and relations with Islam, and in the strong concern for unity with other Christians.

1.4 Lively Thought

Besides worship, the Bible, the shape of our common life and our mission in the world, there has been a further characteristic mark of our Anglican identity here. There has been lively thought. Our tradition calls us to lively thought. Passionate seeking after wisdom is encouraged by the Bible. The love of God involves using all our minds.

It was clear that the Conference was never going to be able to read the solution to all our problems straight out of scripture. We have had to pay attention to a wide range of sources, we have listened to each other and to the past, and we have paid attention to what is going on in the world. And all of that is fully in conformity with what goes on in scripture. So there has been a great deal of hard thinking.

One member of the subsection on human sexuality said this about his experience: 'The processes of labour, clarification, taking responsibility for positions one was opposed to, paying attention to the demands of the truth of scripture and of pastoral concern: that had to be experienced to be believed.' There we see scripture, tradition, the world and reason together, internally related to each other within a worshipping community. And it has been a process of mutual accountability that has tried to avoid both authoritarianism and turning our backs on each other.

From many comments, I suspect that a major frustration has been the pressure of time and the short-cuts that have had to be taken. Lively thinking takes time and deep concentration if it is to arrive at wisdom. If we look at Church history and see how long it has often taken to come to a common mind, and then at how long it has taken for positions to be received or rejected by the Church, three weeks is the blink of an eye.

2. Beyond Lambeth 1998: The Next Ten Years

If those elements I have been discussing describe something of the reality of Anglican identity being lived out here, the obvious question on the final day of the Conference is: How are things to be taken further beyond Lambeth? Clearly the reports and resolutions offer substantial answers to that question. But I am sure all of us come away with some key thoughts, distillations of the significance of the Lambeth 1998 for the future. I have been collecting and discussing some of these thoughts around the Conference, and I offer you just four of them now.

2.1 Worship and the Circulation of News

The first is about our worship. Clearly our continuing prayer has to be: Come, Holy Spirit! - on ourselves and on our whole Communion. We are always together in worship before God. But how can our prayer for each other be specific? This marvellous document, the Anglican Cycle of Prayer, has been received by all of us. Now there are faces to many of the dioceses. Many of us have found here either that we were simply ignorant of each other's Churches and situations or that, especially in the case of those Churches more exposed to the media, we had a picture which had to be changed considerably when we heard some inside stories. CNN and the BBC have not given the same impression as that of a local bishop. Paul's letters and visits were inseparable from his prayer for his Churches and theirs for him. Perhaps we can find ways of sustaining something of the circulation of news and understanding which we have had here. As well as overcoming ignorance and stereotypes, that might inspire our intercession for each other. I suspect that this circulation of specific prayer might well be the most important single preparation for the next Lambeth Conference.

2.2 The Bible and the Communion of Saints

The second thought is about the interpretation of scripture. Many questions have been raised about this, and most of them still remain on the table. I had a moving letter from a Brazilian member of the conference asking a basic question: how can personal, prayerful reading of scripture be related to social and political interpretation and also to scholarly, academic interpretation?

After the next video we will hear four bishops discussing some basic points about scripture. In preparation for that I want to take what Bishop Rowan Williams said about us making moral decisions in the communion of saints, and extend it to make the point that we also read the Bible in the communion of saints, with whom we also worship. Their understandings of the Bible may have much to teach us before the next Lambeth Conference. One such understanding, the statement on scripture produced by the 1958 Lambeth Conference, will be the starting-point for the bishops' discussion in a few minutes.

2.3 The Circulation of Money

The third thought was suggested by studying parts of 2 Corinthians Chapters 8 and 9 in a Bible study group. That is one of the great biblical statements about the generosity of God and how the circulation of wealth and the strengthening of communion go together. In the Archbishop of Canterbury's address to the spouses he told the story of his visit to southern Sudan in 1993. He saw the conditions there and wanted to do something. But there were no Anglican Communion resources he could call on, and he said that he realised then: 'We are not yet a Communion.' He announced the setting up of an Anglican fund to help share money between provinces and enable response to urgent need. In 2 Corinthians Chapters 8 and 9 we have studied , and several resolutions in the Conference make the same point. It may be that the sincerity of our demands that creditor nations should forgive unpayable debts will be measured by the scale of generosity our Communion practises. The last part of the Conference resolution on debt challenges dioceses to give 0.7% of their total income for development programmes. What if that were to happen?

2.4 Networks and the Circulation of Theology

The fourth thought arises out of a bishop's remark that a remarkable number of resolutions mention networks. There are networks to do with dioceses, provinces, regions, communications of all sorts, migrants and refugees, ecology, mission and evangelism, cities, young people, ecumenism, inter-faith matters, and prayer. I am sure this is no accident. Networks serve circulation within the communion and beyond it, and they fit very well with a Church order which resists both authoritarianism and fragmentation. They are essential to a dynamic unity. They are perhaps the most significant transformation in the shaping of our Communion life. Between Lambeth Conferences they might be seen as the extended embodiment of what we have experienced here in concentrated form.

And these networks place great demands on our capacity for lively and godly thought. As a theologian I am deeply concerned about how we develop centres and networks of those whose vocation is to love God with all their minds in the sphere of studying, teaching and researching. Whatever else we say about our young people, education is vital for them. It is vital for clergy too. And for laity. We will fail them all if they do not receive a Christian faith which invites them into a mind-stretching and lifelong pursuit of truth and wisdom.

Conclusion: Beauty and the Face of God

Now for some concluding remarks.

When Susan Cole-King told us on the feast of the Transfiguration about her father, Bishop Leonard Wilson, and his experience of torture, she quoted him saying about one occasion in his cell: 'Something of God's indestructible beauty was conveyed to my tortured mind.' And she described the transformation of one of his torturers whom her father later confirmed: 'He looked gentle and peaceful'.

When Jean Vanier told us about the passion for unity that gripped him as he lived with those he called 'some of the weakest and least presentable members of the body of Christ', people with severe mental disabilities, he spoke of the revelation of their beauty. He said that the struggle for unity means loss, pain and effort, walking with the crucified Jesus, but that at the heart of unity is the mutual revelation of our beauty: frailty and suffering becoming transparent to God.

I hope that we too, in our struggles and suffering, have been able to glimpse in our Communion something of the love of God, something of the beauty of gentleness, of peace, of reconciliation - the indestructible beauty of God and the beauty of each other in God's image, so that we know there is nothing that 'is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord' (Romans 8.39).

And as we prepare for the closing service the question that was put at the end of the first plenary session after the drama of Jacob's wrestling at Jabbok Ford still stands. The question is: Can we now say to each other, as Jacob said to Esau in Genesis 33.10: 'To see your face is like seeing the face of God'?