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Christ and Culture: Communion After Lambeth – ed. M. Percy et al

August 14, 2018

C and CIt’s all very well for Rowan Williams, in the introduction, to say that we shouldn’t call other Anglicans ‘a different religion’ but when Ugandan and Nigerians support the death penalty for homosexuals, you have to wonder what happened to the God of love. Rowan may like debating in the senior common room but this stuff endangers real people’s lives.

Rowan also says that we shouldn’t regard then as unanglican – but when they quote scripture but ignore reason and tradition, whatever happened to Richard Hooker?

In the last several decades, the religious landscape in Nigeria has been transformed by the rise of neo-Pentecostal or ‘new generation’ churches. These churches teach a gospel of prosperity, advance an oppositional view of the world, focus on a supernatural arena of spiritual forces, accord a unique weight to the Bible, and practice a charismatic worship style. One result of the presence of these churches has been to change the face of Anglicanism in Nigeria. Concerned about the possibility of diminished influence and prestige, the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) has responded to neo-Pentecostal churches by adopting more of its rivals’ beliefs and practices – ‘Anglocostalism’.

Leading bishops from around the Anglican Communion including Rowan Williams, Tom Wright, Katharine Jefferts Schori, Geoffrey Rowell, Richard Clarke, Victoria Matthews, Drexel Gomez and others reflect on the ten main themes of the 2008 Lambeth conference:

Celebrating common ground: Anglican identity,

Proclaiming the good news: evangelism,

Transforming society: social injustice,

Other churches and God’s mission,

Safeguarding creation: The environment,

Engaging with a multi-faith world,

Equal in God’s sight: gender violence,

Living under scripture,

Human sexuality,

The Covenant and the Windsor Process.

The aim is to open up the Lambeth themes to the wider church for grassroots conversation and reflection and to provide a resource for seminaries and theological colleges training the next generation of Anglican leaders.

English Anglican bishops tend to speak in platitudes. The overseas ones seem to have been cloned to do the same.

The greatest challenge which the church must face at the next Lambeth Conference is inclusion and equality. The rights of women and the LGBT community will be supported by the churches in North America and the English Commonwealth while very different views will be espoused by African Anglicans. This group too, is diverse with various countries holding differing views. Some of the more conservative views are sponsored by moneyed North American Conservative Anglican churches which complicates the whole structure.

It is an axial time for the Anglican Communion.

Mark Chapman gives a helpful introduction to the background to the conference, and why it was mainly a listening exercise for the bishops, without resolutions. There then follow 11 essays by bishops from many parts of the world, giv­ing their impressions of the subjects that were considered.

Ian Douglas, who was part of the Conference Design Group, reflects on the hopes that have emerged from it. Martyn Percy considers the way ahead, and makes it clear that, while the Covenant process has clarified the issues, it would be un­wise to go ahead with a Coven­ant. It could become a new straitjacket.

live Handford gives a helpful paper on the way in which the nature of communion is being considered. Bishop Tenga­tenga from Malawi and Bishop Wilme from Mayanmar both give sensitive and illuminating descrip­tions of how they seek to live out the gospel in their own cultural settings.

Two English bishops, John Hind and Geoffrey Rowell, examine the complex ecumenical situation in which Anglicans now find them­selves. Dr Rowell is particularly sharp on the repercussions emerging from the consecration of Gene Robinson.

There are three papers on “Living in an Interfaith World”, which de­mon­strate clearly that relations with other faiths need to be approached with humility and understanding. Bishop Michael Jackson shows how this lies in the practice of both pre­sence and engagement. We do not hear enough these days about the theology of presence. It lies behind any concept of mission, and de­serves greater consideration.

The essays share a spirit of humility and searching with the ex­ception of the one on the place of scripture by Bishop Tom Wright, which is exceedingly didactic (he always makes me want to yawn). He gives total authority to the Bible in a way that some would question, but he emphasises that the Bible is not about power, but about love.

Christ and Culture is, of course, the title of H. R. Niebuhr’s classic work, which explores the different ways of examining the inter­action of gospel and culture. The Anglican Communion has got itself caught up in a large number of conflicting cultural expressions. That has been mainly brought about by the origins of the Com­mun­ion itself.

It’s interesting that Pope Benedict regarded the Qur’an as revealed by God:Moreover, God confirms in the Holy Qur’an that the Prophet Muhammad brought nothing fundamentally or essen­tially new:

Tom Wright is as boring as ever: This communion is catholic and universal (open to all), but it is not a communion which is simply inclusive — to participate in this communion we have to respond to an invita­tion to universal transformation.

The editor resurrects the branch theory.


Notice how empire and Gnosticism go together. Gnosticism arises under empire, because when you are powerless to change anything about your world you are tempted to turn inwards and suppose that a spiritual, inner reality is all that matters. Carl Jung put it nicely if chillingly: who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens. Welcome to the world of navel-gazing. That’s why second-century Gnosticism arose when it did, following the collapse of the final Jewish revolt in AD 135. And the empires of the world are delighted when people embrace Gnosticism. Again in the second century the people who were reading the Gospel of Thomas and other books of the same sort were not burnt at the stake Or thrown to the lions. That was re­served for the people who were reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the rest. There is a massive lie out there at the moment, which is that the canon of Scripture colludes with imperial pow­er while the Gnostic literature subverts it. That is the exact opposite of the truth. Caesar couldn’t care less if someone wants to pursue a private spirituality. But if they go around saying that all authority in heaven and on earth is given to the crucified and risen Jesus, Caesar shivers in his shoes.

Even those who recorded the prophecies sometimes began by saying ‘this is the word/oracle of God that the prophet so and so saw’. The prophets were given a peek into God’s mind! This gave them the content of their proclamation. The New Testament continues in the same vein with regard to the apostles. A qualification for one to be an apostle was that one must have seen Jesus. An apostle is one who is sent, a herald of tidings. The content of those tidings is Jesus the Christ. As the writer of the first letter of St John says `That which we preach to you is that which we have seen

But the only antidote to this plague of rashness remains a tried and tested Anglican remedy: the recovery and infusion of those qualities that are embedded in the Gospels, and in deeper and denser forms of ecclesial polity. Namely ones that are formed out of patience, forbearance, catholicity, moderation — and a genuine love for the reticulate blend of diversity and unity that forms so much of the richness for Anglican life. But in the woof and weave of the Church, these virtues have been lost — or rather mislaid — in a miscibility of debates that are marked by increas­ing levels of tension and stress.

Yet if this sounds like too much of a tangle for some, it is interesting to note that when Jesus reaches for metaphors that describe the kingdom of God (and, by implication, the possibil­ity and potential of churches), he often uses untidy images. ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’ comes to mind. No stately ce­dar tree of Lebanon here; or even an English oak or Californian redwood. Jesus chooses a sprawling, knotted plant that requires patience and careful husbandry.

In another short parable, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed — one of the smallest seeds that grows into ‘the greatest of all shrubs and sprouts large branches’ (Mark 4.30-32). The image is ironic, and possibly even satirical. One has every right to expect the kingdom of God to be compared to the tallest and strongest of trees. But Jesus likens the Church to something that sprouts up quite quickly from almost nothing, and then develops into an ungainly sprawling shrub that cannot even hold up a bird’s nest. (But the birds, note, have the wit to find shelter under the branches.)

The Anglican Communion, then, can take some comfort from the lips of Jesus. Like the mustard seed, it can be an untidy sprawling shrub. Like a vine, it can be knotted and gnarled. Nei­ther plant is much to look at. But Jesus knew what he was doing when he compared his kingdom to these two plants. He was say­ing something quite profound about the nature of the Church: it will be rambling, extensive and just a tad jumbled. And that’s the point. Jesus seems to understand that it often isn’t easy to find your place in neat and tidy systems. Or maybe you’ll feel alienated and displaced. But in a messy and slightly disorderly church, and in an unordered and rather rumpled institution, all may find a home.

So there are no easy answers of the post-Lambeth question `Where next?’. Anglicanism is primarily a patient form of pol­ity, because it gives time to issues, questions and dilemmas. And time and patience are rooted in charity and forebearance. We let the wheat grow with the tares; we do not separate the sheep from the goats. It will take more than one Lambeth Conference to work through the differences that currently appear to divide kith from kin, and to work out what they all mean. But in the meantime, all Anglicans need to heed one of the many calls from the Book of Common Prayer. In the 1549 Prayer Book this call was placed immediately before the reception of Holy Commu­nion; indeed, it is the last call before there can be any kind of Holy Communion: Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith . . .

Group activity

Several bishops spoke of the importance of praying together in the retreat at the beginning of the Lambeth Conference, and of the value of listening to one another through the ind­aba groups. The following provides a structure for groups to engage meditatively with some of the questions raised by

the bishops.

Before you begin the exercise, choose a Bible passage and a question from the list above.

1) Light a candle to indicate the beginning of a short time of silence.

2) The silence is followed by one person slowly reading a short passage of Scripture twice, followed by silence of a few minutes.

Possible readings:

Psalm 131

Isaiah 65.8-9

Matthew 17.1-5

James 3.17-18

When everyone is ready, go slowly round the group, so that everyone has the chance to say how those words speak to them.

When everyone has spoken, one person then reads the question aloud.

Go round the group allowing each person to respond to the question. Then go round the group again, allowing each per­son to respond to something that has already been said.

Silence is kept again to enable people to reflect prayerfully upon what has been said, until the candle is blown out.

Informal conversation can follow.

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