Lambeth Perspective - bishops, agendas and spouses

Canterbury: Sunday, 26 July 98

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

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

Lambeth Perspective - bishops, agendas and spouses

The Bishop of Johannesburg, Duncan Buchanan, complained at Thursday's press conference about bishops who had come to Lambeth "with agendas". He said: (

People have come from all over the world with vastly different agendas . . . and while, for some, issues around homosexuality are crucial and urgent, for others it doesn't even exist," he said. Before opening the briefing to questions, Bishop Buchanan confided that "many people have come with some very heavy agendas from their own constituencies. Some have been mandated to react and say certain things in certain contexts. It is my belief that many people have got into the section in order to - this is not substantiated, it is an instinct - in order to protect a point of view.

As The Independent reported: (

Bishops from Africa and the Indian sub-continent see no reason why the subject should be discussed at all. They deny that homosexuality exists in their parts of the world and refused even to talk to gays. Many American and some British bishops take the opposite view, maintaining that to deny homosexuals equal rights is unChristian. The two sides are refusing to compromise.

Some of their wives were at least discussing the topic. Here are two quotes from the official press release on the Wednesday session of the Spouses Programme: (you can read the complete press release at

Mrs. Juliana Okine, wife of the Bishop of Ghana, attributed Ghana's growing AIDS problem to "the unlimited matrimonial powers that husbands generally wield over their wives . . . when it comes to contraception and AIDS protection. The fact that only the male condom is widely available in itself gives a promiscuous man power to sentence a woman to death if he will not use a condom."

Sheila Ramalshah, wife of the Bishop of Pakistan, described Pakistan's allocation of only two percent of its income to health care as "abysmal." She said, "It seems that the powers that be have decided that it is more important to spend about 70 percent of the nation's income on militarism and the related repayment of international debt. Such a situation means that we are woefully ill-equipped . . . to serve our community through health care."

She said that diseases related to women were being especially aggravated by Pakistan's social structure. "In my area of the North Western Frontier Province, women can only be heard and not seen, except behind the high walls of their dwellings. Their lives become so domesticated and mechanised they are primarily perceived as child-producing machines. As for sexually related disease amongst women, we dare not even guess the true reality."

Mrs. Ramalshah said that the "whole issue of HIV positive and AIDS is still a taboo subject in our society. We are quite convinced there must be a lot of cases of this nature in our diocese - especially as homosexuality is rampant there. But there is neither public awareness nor any public debate on these issues."

She said that she and her husband often felt "frustrated in sharing these needs with the western churches, who often react to them as if the church is wasting its resources by seemingly duplicating societal programmes," and challenged the church "to be true and obedient to its call to servanthood by meeting the needs of the suffering people."

The most surprising news of the week was the appearance of the Archbishop of Canterbury at the drinks party held on Thursday evening by the British-based Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, a group which he had steadfastly refused to meet at all for the past seven years. This was reported to have followed "48 hours of careful negotiations." Not only that, but he will apparently have further meetings with them.

But the Bishop of Tirunelweli, in South India, Jason Dharmaraj, was dismayed: ( )

I'm unhappy about this. I feel sorry for this. Homosexuality is the outcome of the modern world. It's against the will of God." Bishop Dharmaraj accused Dr Carey of being "political", saying: "He wants to be one with the people and that's not good. He must take a religious stand ... all the bishops from India, Pakistan and Ceylon are against it [homosexuality]. We're just wondering why this is going on in the UK.

The Bishop of Akure, in Nigeria, the Rt Rev Emmanuel Gbonigi, said he could never do what Dr Carey had done. ( same reference as above )

"I won't listen to them, because it would be a sheer waste of time," he said.

"It's not because I'm a bigot but, as far as I'm concerned, it is against the word of God. Nothing - I repeat, nothing - can make us (African bishops) budge, because we view what God says as firm."

However, as Bill Beaver refused to answer any questions about this episode on Friday morning, the agenda of the conference organisers on this point remains unclear. Earlier in the week, Andrew Brown had written this in his weekly Church Times Press column:

The Press Centre for the Lambeth Conference is one of those modern buildings where you cannot tell if the pervasive dull booming noise comes from a background media briefing, the air-conditioning machinery, or simply a hangover. Of these, a hangover is by general consent the most informative.

With this Conference, the media relations of the Church of England have finally caught up with corporate practice. We have rival press officers briefing furiously against each other, and a huge media staff devoted to ensuring that bishops are hard to find and their spouses impossible to talk to. This is all as may be, and for the same reason. The Church of England has concluded, like the Labour Party before it, that the media has got more out of it than it was getting out of the media.

In this respect the Lambeth Conference is getting more Vatican. But the purpose of secrecy there is usually to conceal the decisions that are being taken; here it seems to be to conceal the fact that no decisions are, or could be, taken.

And Doug LeBlanc reported to his American United Voice audience:

"Purple is for safe. Gold is for secure. Pink is for danger."

Gold badges indicate writers who are on the official communications team. They are here to write stories for the full-color, glossy Lambeth Daily and for Anglican Communion News Service. A few of these communicators enjoy exclusive access to "section meetings" of bishops.

Pink badges are nearly red, and they indicate increasing danger. All independent journalists at Lambeth--whether working for daily newspapers or for "pressure groups," as some Conference Communications workers have called them in derisive tones--wear pink badges. Pink badges mean "do not talk to this person without arranging an interview through Conference Communications."

Writers wearing gold badges include some talented, hard-working journalists who also care about truth. Some of them are fighting their own battles, within the system, for candor and openness. Thank God for them. The beautiful thing about truth is that it cannot be suppressed forever. Spin doctors, apparatchiks and PR consultants--whether in governmental politics or Church politics --often attempt to lock truth in darkened corners.

The Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, Richard Holloway, certainly has an agenda. He wrote a column for The Guardian's Saturday religion slot strongly attacking the Archbishop of South East Asia, but also discussing the virtue of tolerance: ( )

Churches, unlike sects, are inclusive communities that make a virtue out of disagreement because they believe that something as elusive as spiritual truth is best served by allowing a broad range of opinions of express themselves.

Tolerance is something Christianity learned from secular society rather than from its own unaided efforts. For most of our history, Christians have thought of intolerance as a virtue, and that it was right to persecute those who disagreed with us in order to save their immortal souls. Liberal democracies are fairly recent arrivals on the human scene and churches are only now learning to copy their virtues.

The Anglican Communion, at least in theory, is probably further down this road than any other church. Our commitment to inclusivity is partly making a virtue out of a necessity, but it is mainly intentional; we believe that the cause of truth is best served by theological diversity. But it is not easy. Membership in a spiritual enterprise that diffuses authority through 38 autonomous provinces, and enjoys a theological spectrum stretching from the biblical literalism of the Archbishop of South-East Asia, Moses Tay, to the radical post-traditionalism of the Bishop of Newark, Jack Spong, calls for vast reserves of tolerance and sophistication.

We have been here before. These little feuds express the discomfort that people of passionate opinions can feel in a plural church, at each end of the spectrum. Anglicans have to learn to contend for the truth as they see it, while affirming the right of people to oppose them with equal passion. The sectarian mind finds this particularly difficult, which is why people who want exclusive versions of the truth find it difficult to live with us.

We lost some people like this from the Catholic end of the spectrum over the ordination of women. We are used to that kind of attrition and it is more than compensated for by people who join us because they like the space we offer.

To end on a lighter note, a letter to the editor of The Independent on Saturday clearly thinks Dr Beaver is doing rather too well:

Once again I open this morning's paper to find it filled with the affairs of a vocal but unrepresentative group. Notorious for their obsession with outre sexual acts, the manner in which they seek to seduce young people into practices and beliefs contrary to the order of nature, and the fondness of some of them for bizarre and ambiguous forms of dress, they nonetheless have unlimited access to the media and an influence on the political process out of all proportion to their numbers. I refer of course to the Church of England. Is it not time for legislation to prevent these people from airing their distasteful opinions in public and to force them to confine their peculiar practices behind closed doors?

And as Caroline Chartres, wife of the Bishop of London, and regular Church Times columnist, says: ( until 31 July )

"A sense of humour is an essential tool for survival in the Church, and most bishops' spouses have it in abundance. More than a hundred of us turned out for the first rehearsal of Crowning Glory (the musical drama that will be presented during the last week of the Conference). I will not quickly forget being part of a huge group of spouses, singing and swaying to what may yet turn out to be the theme song of the 1998 Spouses' Conference:

[But we must] Put on our glad rags, fix on a smile,
bow and genuflect,
Don't show your feelings, be in control,
and practise etiquette.

My husband hopes I mean it."

Copyright © 1998 Society of Archbishop Justus.
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