Issue No 6Friday 24 July 1998
The Official Newspaper of the
Lambeth Conference

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Plenary raises challenges of making moral choices
by Lisa Barrowclough

The voices of Anglicans speaking out of personal pain quickly brought the plenary on making moral decisions out of the realm of theory. Two presentations and a video offered stark stories
of very human struggles. The session, said plenary coordinator Bishop Victoria Matthews of Edmonton (Canada), sought to "find a way forward for the leaders of the Church."

Bishop Mano Rumalshah (Peshawar, Pakistan), the first presenter, spoke of deadly dangers that daily face Christians in regions where Islamic teaching is law. Bishop Rumalshah recalled the May 6 death of Roman Catholic Bishop John Joseph. His last word's were "... in protest
against [the blasphemy law] and other black laws, and in the name of my oppressed Christian people, secularism and democracy, I am taking my life."

The death generated "acute public debate on the morality of his action, because in common language, what he did is called suicide," Bishop Rumalshah said."But is it possible to think of Bishop John laying down his life as an act in the same fashion as that of Jesus? Isn't this also in keeping with the call, `take up your cross and follow me?"' Bishop Rumalshah told of a 15year#old Christian schoolgirl who was accused of insulting the holy prophet of Islam in
her classroom. More than 200 local Muslim clerics signed an oath to kill her.

"With the consent of her family and, perhaps, even her religious leaders, she converted to Islam to save her life," he said. Two of his parishioners in a part of the diocese where Islamic law is fully enforced were offered a stark choice: to be converted to Islam and accepted as a lawful husband and wife, or to be tried under an adultery ordinance and be liable to capital punishment. They became Muslims.

"In both these cases, there is a deep sense of guilt and remorse, and even spiritual strain," Bishop Rumalshah said. "In these situations of apparent apostasy, what needs to be our moral and pastoral responsibility?" Conversely, Christian converts are legally disinherited of all possessions and ostracised for the rest of their lives.There are rumours of a proposal to make both the baptiser and the baptised liable for prosecution under the draconian blasphemy law, which usually means death.

"Should we be encouraging public baptisms of those converting from Islam in such a climate? Or do we make `secret believers'--a choice I once ridiculed, but now I am struggling to accept," he said. "As always, what we need are new signposts for our generation which are applicable in our respective contexts."

Violence as a way of life
Bishop Daniel Zindo (Yambio, Sudan) brought many in the room to tears with his story of how murderous violence erupted in his home. "Here was our son#in#law who rebelled against us and killed my wife Grace Zindo, our son Yoane Khalifa, and then 30 minutes later killed himself too!" he said, as gasps echoed in the room. Minutes before the violence erupted the bishop had left to make a pastoral call.

Bishop Zindo placed his story in the context of the culture of violence created by 32 years of civil war, a culture in which a God of peace can quickly seem irrelevant. "Killing human beings . . . has become a game of interest only," he said. Personal and social violence are profoundly related. Violence in a society,"because it rises in the human heart, so easily finds a way of becoming violence in our own homes." He asked, "How does one raise children and grandchildren who have witnessed killing and suicide to believe in a God who seeks peace, and our Lord who is our peace? How does one proclaim the good news of God's love to our own families---let alone to a society---who have experienced first hand a culture of violence?"

In the video, prepared by Trinity Parish, Wall Street (New York), actors related the stories of 10 unnamed people who have confronted difficult personal dilemmas.

"My ancestors lived here long before the English and French came to our shores," began the story of a native Canadian. "We lost our land and rivers, some say we even lost our souls. "The missionaries said we must not follow our own spiritual traditions but must worship their God. `The white man brought the Bible, but we got the church.' Our culture vanished, and we were left with nothing.The government has apologised and offered compensation, but for many of us the question remains, "Who am I?"

The narrator asked, "As bishops, can we stand alongside cultures within our culture?" A woman said, "My husband and I once served as missionaries in the Far East. Today we live with a baby girl we adopted from an orphanage in Beijing. "The orphanages in China are filled with hundreds of thousands of female children. When they become teenagers these girls are forced to live on their own as peasants or prostitutes. My mind is seared by the memory of our arrival at the orphanage, a group of girls aged 7 to 10, smiling, laughing, waving to us from a balcony. Hours later, departing with a six#month#old cradled in my arms, the same girls stood by silence."

The narrator asked, "As bishops, are we able to provide leadership?" A gay man living openly with a partner sings in the choir of his parish church but does not feel welcome. He senses that some parishioners wish he would go away, "that a man who does not conceal his sexual preference, who might ask a blessing upon our union, the love we share, does not belong in their church."

But a priest feels called to counsel gay men to resist their orientation. "`Do not lose heart,' I counseled them. `Genuine intimacy between two men---without physical contact---is possible.Through prayer, you will find the courage and discipline to share your love, yet be celibate, faithful to one another and to the Church you love."' The narrator asked, "As bishops, what message do we want to send to the gay community?" Other stories raised the issue of AIDS in the context of an African culture that calls for the widow of a man who died of AIDS to marry his brother, who also may be HIV positive, of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Between each of the sets of stories, the video asked, "Will the Church help show the way forward?"

More than a supermarket choice
In an address that prompted rousing applause and a standing ovation from participants, Bishop Rowan Williams (Monmouth, Wales) offered a concluding focus on how the Church could make moral decisions.

He reminded his colleagues that making decisions is not as simple as "being faced with a series of clear alternatives, as if we were standing in front of the supermarket shelf." Decisions, instead, are "coloured" by the sort of decision#maker. "The choice is not made by a will operating in the abstract, but by someone who is used to thinking and imagining in a certain way." He referred to the writing of Welsh philosopher Rush Rhees and British Catholic theologian and moralist Herbert McCabe and summarised their points by stating "[it is] not that ethics is a matter of the individual's likes or dislikes... On the contrary, it is a difficult discovering of something about yourself, a discovering of what has already shaped the person you are and is moulding you in this or that direction."

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