Lambeth Perspective: Unity is the theme

Canterbury: Tuesday, 21 July 98

This report was filed by Simon Sarmiento, on the scene in Canterbury.

Other Anglicans Online coverage, with links to many other articles, is on the web at


The conference is now well underway. The initial events have strongly emphasised the importance of unity among the bishops. At the opening service on Sunday, The Bishop of Mpwapwa, Tanzania, Simon Chiwanga, who is also Chairman of the Anglican Consultative Council called on his fellow bishops to be Christlike in dealing with their differences and conflicts. Here is part of what he said. For the full text see

Being Christlike in our differences does not mean having no convictions or clear position of your own. It is a call to interpretive charity in our Christian dialogues.

Interpretive charity can be defined as the ability to apply the most loving interpretation to actions and opinions of others. Interpretive charity means listening to one another in love. It demands that we restrain our impulse to start formulating our response before the other has finished what they are saying. It is difficult. It is a lot easier and more attractive to evaluate the first few words of the speaker and then plug that statement into a pre-constructed mental model.

Interpretive charity calls us to persevere with the discomfort of thoughtful silence and to use that time to prepare a loving response to what we have heard.

Interpretive charity challenges us to avoid demeaning labels that we are so eager to apply to our opponents.

Interpretive charity calls us to two further things: first not to disenfranchise or un-church anyone. Hold unswervingly to that which you believe to be of essential truth, but to God leave the final judgement in all matters. Change comes by enlightenment, not by force. Forcing your point of view by excluding from your circle those who disagree with you, or by compelling acceptance, is to usurp the place of God.

In our daily relationships with others and during this Conference, may we be aware that a critical remark, a gesture of rejection or an act of impatience can be remembered for life by those to whom it is directed.

On Monday, the Archbishop of Canterbury delivered a presidential address which lasted a full hour. I strongly urge everyone to read the full text of this speech, which can be found at

and not to rely on the summaries of it in other press reports. He opened with the following remarks about press coverage of earlier conferences:

I am frequently asked: 'What is the point of it'? and you will recall that the very first Lambeth Conference began with that kind of question and criticism. There was a certain coolness within the Church of England when Archbishop Longley first broached the subject. A number of senior bishops declared their opposition and the Archbishop even felt the cold shoulder of Westminster Abbey when Dean Stanley would not allow the Conference to have the final service in the Abbey.

Outside the Church there were those who couldn't see the point of it. The Times' comment was: 'This sort of ecclesiastical tea party at which some 70-year-old gentlemen would indulge in a mild chat about religious politics . . . was . . . frittering away their time and energy on impractical dreams'. Punch had a cartoon of bishops washing their dirty linen in public. The Daily Telegraph read the Pastoral Letter with 'respectful melancholy'.

Turning to more serious business, the archbishop discussed four main topics: the Renewal of our Vision, our Church, our Mission, and our Vocation as Bishops. He asked that the bishops should be led into a more radical discipleship through a renewal of vision, based on Irenaeus the second century theologian who wrote:

For just as God is always the same, so the human being who is found in God always progresses towards God. Nor shall God at any time cease from bestowing benefits and riches on humankind; nor shall humankind cease from receiving these benefits and from being enriched by God. For the human being which is grateful to its creator is the vessel of his goodness and the instrument of his glorification. (AH IV. 11.1-2)

His second point, renewal of the Church, also stressed the importance of maintaining dialogue. He quoted an earlier archbishop, Archibald Tait, who just over a century ago said: 'The great evil is that the liberals are deficient in religion, and the religious are deficient in liberality. Let us pray for an outpouring of the very spirit of truth.' And then he quoted Brian Davis, formerly Archbishop of New Zealand, who died just a few weeks ago: 'The Anglican via media, or middle way, has encouraged the growth of tolerance, freedom and generosity of spirit. We are not a coercive institution but depend on friendly persuasion. Within our decision-making structures we know, most of the time, how to argue and fight fairly.'

The archbishop then asked: 'If the Anglican Communion is a family of interdependent churches, and the Lambeth Conference has no binding doctrinal force, in what sense can we speak of the Anglican Communion?' and he continued as follows.

We will need to face head on both the strength and the weakness of our form of ecclesial structure. Its perceived weakness in the eyes of some is that it is not a hierarchical, monarchical form of 'top down' authority. In the absence of any universal structures of collegiality that could determine how each Province should act there are those consequently who want to give the Archbishop of Canterbury a more 'monarchical' role. Now, not only has our Communion rejected this option firmly, but so has every Archbishop of Canterbury in recent years! But if we shy away from such centralising authority in the See of Canterbury, we also tend to shy away from the empowering of the other bonds of unity-the Anglican Consultative Council, the Primates Meeting and the Lambeth Conference. In them we place structures for consultation but not for making juridical decisions that are binding on the Communion as a whole.

Thus, if we meet as a fellowship of self-governing, national churches, in what realistic form can we claim to be a 'Communion'?

The answer is found, I believe, in what we share and hold in common. A common heritage of doctrine, faith, liturgy and spirituality; an understanding of authority as expressed through a 'dispersed,' rather than centralised authority; episcopal leadership exercised in conjunction with synodical government. We make no apology for this form of polity which has real strengths because the conciliar forms of consultation are strong and rich.

Nonetheless, we need to treasure our Communion as a gift from God and also to pay attention to the tension between the 'local' and the 'universal.' To be in communion means that the 'local church' both expresses and encompasses the faith of the universal church. Indeed, that is exactly what it means to be 'catholic.' And for Dioceses, Provinces and the Communion itself, it means to keep in step; to maintain unity at all times.

In the light of these reflections there are many practical questions we need to address if we are to be open to God's renewing Spirit. How may we stay together when difficult decisions threaten to divide us?


Tuesday brought the first plenary session, with a presentation on The Bible, the World, and the Church, which provoked the first walk-out of the conference. Bishop Riah Abu el-Assal, bishop-coadjutor of Jerusalem, who walked out in protest over language in a play, "Wresting with Angels," performed by the Riding Lights theatre company of York during the morning session. "I must say I felt unhappy to the point of being sick," said Bishop Riah in a press conference following the plenary. So unhappy, he said, that he walked out during the session's keynote address by David Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge.

The source of his distress was the play's approach to the origin of Israel. Based mostly on the Old Testament story of Jacob wrestling with Esau in the Book of Genesis, the play ends with Jacob and Esau embracing, and members of the cast writing "Judah" and "Israel" on two sticks and joining them to symbolize the creation of the nation of Israel. For Bishop Riah this came across as an affront to the people of Palestine since Judah to them is the West Bank - the home of over 3 million Palestinians and territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six Day War. By symbolically joining Judah with Israel, said Bishop Riah, the play gave credence to the cause of Christian fundamentalists who support efforts by hardline Orthodox Israelis to annex the West Bank and Jerusalem. The Old Testament, said Bishop Riah, has been misused for over 50 years by Christian fundamentalists who see the creation of the modern state of Israel as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. These people, who are mostly American, he said, are more Zionist than Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel.

Bishop Riah said he was looking forward to the challenge of educating bishops of the conference on the situation of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land. "Ignorance breeds indifference. The only way to do away with indifference is to invite them to come and see for themselves," he said.

Paul Burbridge, who directed and helped script the play, said his team was aware of the theological connotations, but had no inkling of the play's political overtones. The script had been reviewed by theologians from Cambridge University. Mr. Burbridge said he would be meeting with Bishop Riah to offer his apology.

On Monday night there was a service of Ecumenical Vespers, attended by many observers from other churches, and I will report further on that aspect of the conference and other issues tomorrow.

Copyright © 98 Society of Archbishop Justus.
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