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African and North American bishops take reconciling walk along Slave Trail

Posted on: July 7, 2015 2:56 PM
Sixth Consultation of Anglican Bishops in Dialogue.
Photo Credit: Anglican Journal/Contributed

By Diana Swift for Anglican Journal

For decades, the economy of the American coastal city of Richmond, Va., was dominated by the slave trade, of which Richmond was a major hub. The city was a focal point in an infamous transatlantic triangle comprising Britain, Ghana and the United States. From 1830 to 1860 the port was the chief destination for African slaves arriving on America’s eastern seaboard. 

A century and half later, and in a very different context, almost 20 African and North American prelates met for the sixth Consultation of Anglican Bishops in Dialogue in Richmond, May 27–31. In the meeting’s spirit of healing and reconciliation, the bishops took a sobering walk along the city’s Slave Trail, on which many thousands of slaves were driven from the docks to the blocks where they were sold and sent to the Deep South. 

“At first, the African bishops were surprised to see how many black people there were in Richmond, and then they realized that the vast majority of them were the descendants of African slaves,” says Colin Johnson, archbishop of the dioceses of Toronto and Moosonee and metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario.

Johnson was the driving force behind the founding of the consultation after Lambeth 2008, when emerging divisions on human sexuality and Scripture seemed poised to threaten the Anglican Communion. The first consultation took place in the U.K. at the Anglican Communion office in London in 2010 and the bishops have met yearly since then. Next year’s consultation is expected to take place in Ghana, a major point of slave export. 

“The dialogue continues to deepen each time we meet,” Johnson says. “We’ve moved from being like strange cats circling around and spitting and hissing at each other six years ago to realizing how many of the same things we value.”

Each year the consultation releases a testimony. This year’s document, “A Testimony of Love: Bearing each Other’s Burden,” urged Anglicans to help shoulder their brethren’s hardships in the spirit of the radical hospitality of Christ. It stated that the bishops “do not intend to exacerbate the conflicts and tensions existing within the Anglican Communion today.  We are called to work together to facilitate healing and reconciliation. While those of us who are part of this consultation come from differing points of view on issues which cause anger and frustration within our common life, such as matters related to human sexuality, our differences do not fracture the unity of Christ.  We need not walk apart in discerning the mission of Christ in the world. “

A core group of about six deeply committed bishops has attended every meeting, but each year new faces come on board as bishops retire or move on to new positions.

Among other issues, the 2015 consultation examined mission and ways new church plantings start up in different cultural contexts. “It’s surprising the number of similarities,” Johnson says. Another issue on the bishops’ agenda was how to deal with rising secularism, which is a growing problem even in Africa. 

“The thing that struck me most was the collective grace to overcome differences, the willingness to meet, learn, build friendships and correct misconceptions, as well as challenge each other as friends,” says Johnson. “The bond is there now, so you can be critical but in a way that allows for growth.”

Bishop Julius Kalu, of Mombasa, Kenya, an attendee at all six consultations who places a high value on them, says that the participants “as a group, are making a difference in the Anglican Communion...and I learned a lot from the Richmond presentations.” But in all honesty, he sensed “considerable animosity” between, on the one hand, the leaders of the Anglican Church of Canada and US-based The Episcopal Church and on the other, the leaders of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). ACNA is composed of Anglicans who have left the Anglican Church of Canada and The Episcopal Church. Kali’s hope is that “reconciliation will take place at that level as well.”

Archbishop Daniel Sarfo, primate of West Africa, says the consultation  “enlightened us more on issues of our mission such us the love of God, reconciliation, conflict resolution, fellowship, discernment, sharing and bearing one another's burdens.” Bishops, he added, “have walked together successfully. I realize that the more we continue to meet the more we understand our Lord Jesus Christ who called us and our mission as servant leaders.” 

Michael Oulton, bishop of the Kingston-based diocese of Ontario, says the consultation’s familial and welcoming atmosphere makes it easy for newcomers.  “I came in at the third dialogue and my entry was seamless—the bishops were quick to embrace me. We all share in common our ministry as servant leaders in the body of Christ and our oversight as bishops,” he says, adding, “Each time, I feel the relationship is like putting on a pair of comfortable slippers.” 

The bishop of the diocese of Niagara, Michael Bird, was impressed by what he described as the high quality of the inter-bishop dialogues. “This year we had some of our most in-depth discussions so far. The level of trust has allowed for some very powerful conversations.”

Over the years, a core theme of the meetings has been reconciliation.  “I think we’ve explored thoroughly what reconciliation looks like across different places in the Anglican Communion,” says Bird. “And we’ve explored some new truths about how it’s lived out and what a powerful agent for good it is.” 

At last year’s dialogue, National indigenous Anglican Bishop, Mark MacDonald gave a full report on the status of reconciliation in Canada. “This year, with the closing TRC event in Ottawa about to get under way, the African bishops were interested to hear where that’s gone and what happened over past year,” says Bird. “And we’ve also been privileged to get a sense of what reconciliation looks like in South Africa and in a number of different other places, as related by the bishops.”

The diocese of Virginia’s hosting bishop, Shannon Sherwood Johnston, outlined reconciliation efforts between his diocese and a dissenting group that broke away from the Episcopal church in 2006, eventually becoming the diocese of the Mid-Atlantic in the province of the ACNA. It comprises parishes in Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C.,  and northeastern North Carolina.

For Oulton, learning about reconciliation in the context of places like Cape Town and Richmond “has been very powerful. You can’t help being connected.” But the dialogue also “spent a lot time focusing on our common walk together, the foundation upon which we stand, Jesus Christ, in the world and the missional context,” he says.

In Bird’s view, the dialogue continues to be an instrument for strengthening the worldwide communion and is gaining recognition. “We’re hearing that the dialogue is being referred to in different parts of Africa and is being seen as inspirational,” he says, adding that some participants have gone on to hold prominent positions in the life of the communion.

“To be a part this group has been an incredible privilege and one of the great highlights of my time in episcopal ministry,” Bird says.