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Presidential Address by the Archbishop of Canterbury at ACC-15

Posted on: November 5, 2012 10:46 PM
Related Categories: Abp Williams, ACC, ACC15

Many of you will have noticed that in the last few days there’s been a great deal about the ACC in the local newspapers. You may even have seen in this morning’s paper a headline to the effect that ‘Frontline Jobs in the ACC Could be at Risk’. You may not have read further forward to discover that the ACC in question is in fact a rival organisation to ours, which is the Accident Compensation Company of New Zealand. But I wonder whether that is sometimes how we view ourselves – as an accident compensation company. Are we here as the ACC to pick up the pieces, to make things all right, to react to disaster and crisis? It’s one model for thinking about authority in Christ’s Church: that authority exists in order to make things all right and to pick up the pieces, authority that is reactive or corrective. But that’s not the only model of authority that we meet in the New Testament, and it’s possibly not even the most important kind of authority we meet in the New Testament. There is, in the Bible, a good deal about corrective authority. You may remember that the Apostles are given the authority to bind and loose, to resolve difficulties, to cut knots. But when the people say of Jesus that he speaks with authority, not like the experts, I don’t think they mean that he’s simply a good problem solver. Those words occur when Jesus has performed spectacular acts of liberation. The authority in question is an authority to act and an authority to make a difference. An authority that enables and empowers. It’s a point that’s often been made that it’s perhaps worth underlining again that in the first chapter of St John’s Gospel the word used for the power to become children of God is in fact in Greek the authority to become children of God. 

We’re thinking quite a bit at this meeting about the Instruments of Communion and their authority, and perhaps as we reflect further on the Instruments of Communion in our Anglican family, it will help to tease out a little bit the two kinds of authority which we’ve just noted. There are the questions of accident compensation and damage limitation, and reacting and correcting. And then there’s the issue of the authority that frees and enables. How do we understand those, how do we let them work, how do we balance them? As I’ve said, the reactive or corrective authority is not insignificant, but when I look back over ten years in this office, it does seem to me that every attempt we’ve made to pin down exactly how reactive or corrective authority works in our Anglican family has run into the sand in one way or another. We’ve tried to pin it down clearly here or there, and I still carry some of the pins in my own flesh! But that frustration, that discovery that it’s actually very hard to find an absolutely clear source of corrective authority, that has to do of course with the fact that we’re a family of Churches, each one of which has its own ways of reacting and correcting and setting boundaries. We’re a family of Churches governed by canon law, and that canon law is not answerable to some supreme court somewhere. And the challenge that has faced us, that still faces us and undoubtedly will go on facing us for the foreseeable future, is not so much to create some kind of central executive or curia, to coin a phrase, as much as to find how our systems, our criteria, our canons converge rather than diverge. How we work away at a situation where 38 distinct Anglican local Churches can actually find a legal spirit ethos that they share by consent, exploration, and discovery, rather than by, as you might say, kicking the whole issue upstairs to some supreme authority. We have to work out and iron out the inconsistencies between our practice as Provinces. We have to work at ensuring common standards of good process, openness and fairness, and we all of us as individual Provinces have to be, dare I say, a bit clearer than we’ve sometimes been about our own canons – how they work, what they’re meant to do – because some of the headaches of the last decade or so have revealed some unclarity within Provinces as well as between Provinces about what we can actually do. So if that matters, if that really is an important aspect of our integrity and health as a Church, then the apparently dry but actually very significant work of our canon lawyers needs prayer and support. 

The hopes for an Anglican Covenant were in part hopes for a framework, a climate, in which some of those questions might be addressed by consent, not by coercion. We don’t as yet know how that project will finally work itself out. I still hope and pray, speaking personally, the Covenant has a future, because I believe we do have a message to give the Christian world about how we can be both catholic and orthodox and consensual, working in freedom, mutual respect and mutual restraint. Without jeopardising the important local autonomy of our Churches, I think we still need work on that convergence of our schemes and systems, and I say that because I believe we all need to wake up to the challenges here if we are not to become less than we aspire to be as a Communion. Let me repeat the phrase: we need to be aware of the danger of becoming less than we aspire to be as a Communion. I think that we do aspire to be a consensual catholic and orthodox family. I believe we do aspire to be a family that lives in mutual respect and recognition, and to step back from that simply into a federal model, as I’ve said many times before, doesn’t seem to me to be the best and the greatest that God is asking from us as an Anglican family. 

Well, much more could be said about the problems and the frustrations of handling this question of what I’ve called corrective authority, discipline, canonicity, but I want to move on to that second dimension of authority, which is I believe so much more to do with the novelty, the uniqueness of the difference of the Gospel and the Catholic Church. How do the Instruments of Communion speak with enabling authority, the authority that astonishes people in the synagogues of Galilee when liberation appears? I believe it is a great blessing to our Communion that in recent years the Primates and the ACC have commissioned so much pro-active work. We’ve been reflecting on the theological education programme, we’ve been reflecting on the Alliance, on the Bible in the Church project. We’ll be reflecting shortly on the Continuing Indaba programme. All of these things arise from the desire of some of the Instruments of Communion to enable. That is, not simply to react and correct, but to change a situation by trying to be creative. It has, I think, been wonderful that at this ACC meeting so much has been directed towards enabling, and it’s been very good that again and again we have been challenged robustly to say what are the specific things we are taking back, what is the specific cost to us going to be of following through this or that aspiration. We have been in the business of enabling, but we need to go on asking the question of how the Instruments of Communion are more fully and effectively freed for this task, because in one way or another all of the Instruments of Communion are hampered – are less than they might be. We’ve seen in recent years how expectations of the Lambeth Conference and the Primates’ Meeting have sometimes been either over-hopeful or over-cynical, and both of those reactions have disabled what those meetings can do. The ACC is growing, I believe, into new ways of working, and it’s very good to see that happening, and yet there are still aspects of our business, our process, which don’t seem to have a liberating effect. Much work has been presented to this ACC of immensely high quality, and yet I can’t be the only one to feel a certain tension, a certain unease about the sheer quantity of paper we’re expected to digest and process (and I hope recycle). How are we to find ways of communicating and sharing, not only our business, but the insights of those who work so effectively for us without creating new libraries every time we meet? And still more importantly, how does that mass of paper affect and engage with all those whom we represent here, and for whom so many of our issues will seem a very very long way off? 

Then, of course, there is the fourth Instrument of Communion, who is speaking to you at the moment, and there are aspects of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s role that are not exactly liberating either. There is the sheer load of work within the one Province that the Archbishop of Canterbury seeks to serve. There is the spiralling expectation of something like global brokerage in different contexts: the listening, the attempt to enable conversation, the need for some sort of ministry of presence in many places. No Archbishop would complain of any of that. That is quite simply what the Gospel requires of a pastor, any pastor anywhere. But the spiral of pressure certainly has increased and is increasing. And that, of course, is what lay behind some remarks I made a little while ago, much misquoted around the place, about whether there was a role for someone else in the Communion structures who could share some of that work internationally; and how exactly that would work, I really don't know. I don't think we need an executive president of the Anglican federation – that’s not the model we want to work with – but if an archbishop is ex-officio President of the ACC, Convenor of the Primates and the Lambeth Conference, how is the work of convening and presiding properly shared? It’s shared already with the Chair of the ACC. It can be shared in other ways, with Primatial figures and colleagues who can perhaps take some of the burden there. I don’t know, as I say, what that might look like, but I hope that we go on thinking and praying about it in a realistic and hopeful way. 

All the Instruments of Communion need further thought, quite simply so that they can do what they have to do in terms of enabling authority. And within all of that there remain two other areas, which I think are potentially transforming, both of which I see beginning to come to life. They are the strengthening and intensifying of some kinds of regional bonds: the emergence of some very effective regional networks in some, but not all, areas of the Communion. I believe that has great potential. And there is the increasingly professional and imaginative approach to communications within the Communion, about which we’ve heard something during our meetings and about which I hope we’ll hear a good deal more. 

So, we stand at a very interesting, and I would dare to say in spite of everything, a very promising moment in our Communion when we are thinking again about how our Instruments of Communion assist us to be the Church. Notice I don’t say assisting us to be a Church. That is, to be a more tightly organised institution, but how to be the Church, how to be the Body of Christ. That’s what the Instruments have to serve. In other words, the Instruments of Communion are there so that our Anglican family and our Anglican faith will show to the world that the new creation truly is new, that the Church truly is different. Part of our movement towards that and our increasing discovery of that is, of course, to be seen in the far greater and deeper activity of our networks, and some of the aspects of our common life which I touched on earlier show precisely that deep concern to shape, in and for our family, ways of relating and working together that are not just second-hand imitations of the executive habits or the administrative models of the world around us, but are truly relational means of doing business and taking our mission forward. I give great thanks to God for the flourishing of our networks. I believe that the creativity of those networks at the moment is a sign that God is stirring up in our Communion deeply different ways of working which will not, of course, immediately solve the problems I began with – the problems that require the reactive or the corrective – but which at least tell us that God does not necessarily wait until we’ve solved our problems to enable us to be effective disciples. When we stand before the throne of God it will be a very poor answer if, when God says, ‘Why did you not preach the Gospel and serve the poor?’, we say, ‘We had too many internal problems to resolve; we couldn’t quite decide who had the authority to pronounce on this.’ God expects us to be disciples today, not the day after tomorrow, and the work of our networks is a great challenge and a great opening up of opportunity in that respect. Let me underline that point again: God is helping us to find ways of working that are distinctive to the Church, that belong properly to the life of the Body of Christ. Ways of working that truly exhibit that mutual gratitude, wonder, respect, and hope that ought to characterise the company of the baptised. And whether consciously or not, whether even willing or not, it is in this direction that the creative edge of our Anglican life together is moving. The networks, the Alliance, the Bible in the Church, Continuing Indaba, theological education. Do you see a pattern emerging, because I believe I do, and I believe that it is one which allows us, even when the hurt, the unfinished business, the anger sometimes that afflicts us in other areas of our Communion – even though that is still real – all of this enables us to see that there are ways of being disciples together, even so, and that we neglect them at our peril. We need to invest in their working well, their working creatively. 

And just as an addendum to that, if you pick up and read the book written by the Young Anglican leaders who were present at the mission consultation in Edinburgh two years ago, you will see something of how a younger generation sees these questions. I believe that for the authors of that book and those whom they represent the vision of, not only Anglican, but Christian structure and fellowship that is emerging has a great deal more to do with the search for enabling authority than for absolute clarity about corrective authority. Let me say again, I don’t say that the one removes the need for the other. I don’t say that the one is more vital than the other. But I do believe that the one is more distinctively of the Gospel than the other. That’s what I want to underscore here.

All of this means, I believe, that in the Communion a healthy and a holy future lies in developing more and more face to face relationship, worshipping community to worshipping community; not written paragraph to written paragraph, statement to statement, but family of God to family of God. Working at our relations as between communities of people whose faces are turned first to our common Lord and then to their brothers and sisters. Relations between one worshipping community and another, between one serving and witnessing community and another. I’ve spoken of networks in the Communion in the formal sense of the groups that have been reporting to us, but we all know the other kind of network that we all of us inhabit: the networks of diocesan links, the network of the Mothers’ Union – which, as you know, I’ve often described as the fifth Instrument of Communion – the network of sheer personal friendship, the networks created by studying together and the experience in common that that gives us. The networks that so many of us were busy building and nurturing over this last weekend. All of that is how the life circulates in our family. But there are times when I believe we have to dig our heels in and say, ‘Well that is, at the end of the day – that web of relations is at the end of the day – the most basic, fresh, and life-giving aspect of our Anglican identity.’ That is what makes us the Church, the Body of Christ. This particular way that God has given us as Anglicans. 

Over the weekend I had the privilege of spending some time in the Diocese of Christchurch, and the rather unlikely privilege of speaking at a rock concert on Saturday evening – not something which I do very often for many reasons. But that concert was organised as a thank you to thousands of young people who had rallied around the City of Christchurch and its attendant communities in the aftermath of the earthquake there simply to serve, to do small pieces of volunteering work; to pick up the pieces in quite a different sense from the one I began with. To pick up the pieces of broken lives as well as debris in the streets. And this student volunteer army, which was celebrating on Saturday with its concert, came into being not because someone had ordered it to, not because some executive authority had decreed it, but because someone had a vision that others recognised, and as young people will, he spread that vision through the electronic media, and the result was what you might call a flash mob of grace. Mysteriously, rapidly, very effectively, a large serving and witnessing community came together and did its business. That the inspiration of this was, as a matter of fact, Christian, isn’t something that everybody will know, but what the extraordinary young man who started this process took for granted was that when he held up a vision of generous service and mutual love all kinds of unexpected people would recognise it and want to be part of it. That’s enabling. An enabling, an authoritative act that comes out of the confidence that serving and loving God and one another is to go with the deepest grain of our humanity as created by God. That when God restores his image in us, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, it is that deep dimension of our humanity that comes to life. That is what enabling authority is for. That’s what we are for. We the ACC, we the Instruments of Communion, we serve the Churchly identity of the Anglican family in this way.

I want to end with a few more personal words, because this is indeed my last Presidential address to the ACC, and I am very conscious of how little it would be possible for an Archbishop to do without all those who share the Anglican vision with him, as you do. And so I want to say thank you to my colleagues in this Council. There are thanks for many other people that I have to offer, because all sorts of other bits of the job are equally impossible without other people sharing their vision. But since you’re here, I’ll say it to you: thank you for carrying the vision that has helped me and carried me. Thank you to successive Chairs of the ACC – to John and to James – and to their Vice-Chairs. I’ve mentioned already the way in which this particular kind of sharing – or indeed not sharing, naked and shameless delegation really – how much that matters in the working of the ACC, and how much that offers a model of what I believe is potentially very fruitful for other areas of our life. But I need to say thank you also to those who make these meetings possible in other ways – those who envision and plan. And there are many names to mention here, but I think you will forgive me and understand me if mention Stephen Lyon in particular for the creative work that has done and continues to do for shaping meetings such as this one. And last, but not least, I must pay tribute to the Secretary General. Kenneth has now worked alongside me in four Primates’ Meetings, three ACCs, and one Lambeth Conference. And just to make the list complete, he will of course very shortly have worked with two Archbishops of Canterbury, so it’s beginning to look like a Christmas Carol, ending with a partridge in a pear tree! But in every such context, Kenneth has worked with immense dedication, very unobtrusively so that we don’t realise quite what a load he carries so often, with great generosity, a great willingness to share and to explore and to seek for ways forward, and this is, I think, the most obvious public context for me to pay my tribute to Kenneth, as a brother and a colleague. So, I want to thank him on my behalf and yours. 

And last, but not least, I want in public to wish every blessing, every success, and every strength from God to the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, whoever he may be. I know that he will join me in that prayer, recognising as you and I do, and perhaps he won’t for a while, just what an extraordinary job it is, and just how much you need to be aware of the grace of God constantly supplementing, to pick up a favourite phrase of mine from the great Richard Hooker, our common imbecility as Archbishops, and just how much we need the love and loyalty of those around us. I hope that you will join me in prayer that he will find in this calling the joy that will sustain him, that will overflow in the common life of this Council, and our other bits of common life in the Communion, so that out of all that will indeed come for the Archbishop, for the ACC, for the Primates' Meeting, for the Lambeth Conference, a truly enabling authority, an authority that sets free, an authority that brings light and life, an authority that astonishes and changes. The authority to become the children of God.