Connection to the outside world

Justin Welby is on a flight to Juba, South Sudan.

(Well not directly. I yearn for the days when you can fly from Heathrow to Juba direct.)

It is easy to underestimate the power of archiepiscopal visits. At least in England, people are used to seeing the archbishop pop up all over the place—preaching at this college, visiting that church, giving an interview to this reporter—that we can get inured to the significance of his presence. Moreover, some people—especially in the media—want action they can report. Think of the headline: “Archbishop brings peace to South Sudan.” But that’s not what the archbishop is going for. In his pre-trip interview with the BBC, he says that the purpose of the trip is, essentially, to be with people.

There is ample precedent for archiepiscopal visitation to what is now South Sudan. George Carey, archbishop in the 1990s, made two visits to Sudan during his tenure. These are vividly remembered by Christians, even today, twenty years later. On one visit, he spent time in Dhiaukuei, a remote community that had become a safe haven for Christians and a centre of learning and evangelism for them. One woman there, remembering his visit, told me that when he came, “We thought, ‘OK, if part of our body from a different part of the world came to visit us, then the message of Jesus Christ which said, “We are all parts of the same body,” is true.’”

Carey’s successor, Rowan Williams, visited South Sudan in 2006. He spent time in Malakal, a town that has been the news recently because it has been one focus of the recent violence. When I was in Malakal in September, people unpromptedly told me about his visit and how everyone—Anglicans and non-Anglicans alike—turned out for his events.

Given all that South Sudan has been through in the last six weeks, I imagine that Archbishop Welby will have a similar welcome—if he allows himself public events—and his visit will have similar significance.

Later in this visit, Archbishop Welby plans to visit the church in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The DRC has its own complex problems of violence and societal fracture. I recently read this from a bishop of the church in the DRC:

The poor infrastructure and lack of communication systems ensure that the church is internally disconnected and lacks sustained contact with the Anglican Communion… [The church] has felt proud to be part of the Anglican Communion but feels unable to fully contribute to the communion or to understand entirely its debates. Many of the problems of poverty, war, hunger, and sickness that are so pressing for the Congolese nation do not appear to be prominent in inter-communion discussions.

(That’s from the chapter by Bishop Titre Ande and Emma Wild-Wood in the new Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the Anglican Communion.)

For many Anglicans, the archbishop of Canterbury is important for what he embodies—connection to and concern from the outside world. This is what many people in conflict zones are yearning for, the assurance that someone, somewhere out there is thinking about them. By simply showing up and listening to the real concerns of real people, the archbishop of Canterbury performs a hugely important ministry.

That’s hard for reporters (and others) to grasp. But the lesson of history is that is hugely significant for the people on the ground. And in the end, that’s probably what matters.

Telling the truth

In church this morning, we read a part of the Christmas story (Matthew 2:13-23) that doesn’t often make our pageants: the massacre of the all the children under the age of two in Bethlehem by King Herod. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph flee to Egypt. Jesus begins his life as a refugee in Africa. It is an event that is remembered as the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.600px-Matteo_di_Giovanni_002

It is a deeply disturbing and troubling story, particularly to a culture that has come to associate Christmas with shepherds, wise men, the odd sugarplum fairy, and lots and lots of presents. It is easier to think about those things than it is to think about soldiers marching through the streets of Bethlehem looking for children to kill.

But by including this story in his telling of the Christmas story, I think Matthew is doing an important thing: he is telling the truth. The Christmas story contains this brutal and awful bit because the world that Jesus was born into really could be brutal and awful. Our world is no different, whether it is in violence in the Central African Republic, Syria, or South Sudan, or the more hidden brutality of children who go to bed hungry, people without a home at night, or any of the number of social problems in our society.

Christians are people who tell the truth. Christians are people who describe the world around them honestly, praising and rejoicing at appropriate times but also frankly confronting the difficult and challenging parts of our lives. The church is a community of truth-tellers.

I thought about this when I read about what Bishop Hilary Garang of Malakal, South Sudan told the BBC the other day: this violence is not right; we need mature leaders who are capable of settling their differences without resorting to violence. That is a moment of truth, particularly when political leaders are going around saying that their enemies have to be eliminated.

But you don’t have to go all the way to South Sudan to tell the truth. This week, Rowan Williams—who is now, inter alia, the patron of a food-bank organization—criticized the government for its comments about people who seek help from food banks. He said, in part:

It is not political point-scoring to say that these are the realities of life in Britain today for a shockingly large number of ordinary people – not scroungers, not idlers – but men and women desperate to keep afloat and to look after their children or their elderly relatives.

In austerity Britain, where the need for food banks has exploded in recent years, this is simply telling the truth—even and especially if it makes those in power uncomfortable.

Christian truth-telling begins with ourselves. That is why our services have times of confession when we can honestly assess our own lives and hear the true words of forgiveness and absolution. Churches are places where when people ask us, “How are you?” we don’t have to feel pressured to say, “Oh, just fine,” but can say, “Well, actually things aren’t going so well. Will you pray with me?” That the church isn’t always this place is an indictment of the church that we should face honestly.

There really is a lot of hope and peace and love and joy in the Christmas story—just as there is in the world. But the Massacre of the Holy Innocents reminds us that that is not all there is. Christians are people who honestly face both the joys and the challenges of this world, who tell the truth about them, and who work to bring about God’s peace for our communities and this world.

Patiently living with difference

Rowan Williams is no longer archbishop of Canterbury but that doesn’t mean we can’t still write about him! I was struck by the conjunction of two things: that Williams was a theologian whose work always emphasized ecclesiology and that he served as archbishop in the middle of what might be called an ecclesiological crisis. That interest gave rise to the recent article published in Ecclesiology titled, “Patiently Living with Difference: Rowan Williams’ Archiepiscopal Ecclesiology and the Proposed Anglican Covenant”:

“…we have reviewed Williams’ goal of mature, trust-full relationships in which people recognize that they must receive from those who are different to them even as they acknowledge their inability to do so. This is a compelling vision for the world of the twenty-first century, and a deeply prophetic one that deserves to be preached and made the basis of the church’s existence. The way to do so is not, I think, to insist upon adoption of a particular document and limited set of principles. Rather, the solution seems to be to articulate this vision while patiently honoring its process, a Williamsian solution if there ever was one. This will not please all Anglicans nor will it necessarily diminish the damaging rhetoric that abounds on all sides. But Williams’ own words seem pertinent here: ‘Even in local and prosaic settings, how very tempting it is to say that we want our results now, before the end of the year. We have to justify what we’re doing in the shortest of short terms and that is a curse for churches, universities, charities, community regeneration projects, all sorts of things in our society. And we need deep breaths and long views again.’ Ultimately, perhaps, as the covenant dies, the Communion can take a few deep breaths and return to the long view embodied most compellingly in Williams’ own work.

Separately, I reviewed the new book, Rowan Williams: His Legacy for The Living Church. That review is also online:

Williams’s tenure was marked by an inability to say “I have no need of you” — even and especially when so many others were demanding that he do precisely that. This deeply biblical position is surely at the root of any legacy Williams leaves and is, moreover, the place to begin building a church that is “more truly itself.”

There’s no shortage of writing by and about Williams, and for that I am grateful—even when I contribute to that list!

History repeats itself, first as tragedy then as…


Ten years ago, when Rowan Williams was new to Canterbury, there was a huge fuss over the new bishop of Reading. His name was Jeffrey John and while he was eminently qualified for the post, he was a gay man in a public, partnered relationship. (This is a commendable openness: it is widely known there are several gay bishops in the Church of England who chose not to be public about it.) Although he said it was a celibate relationship, the furore over his appointment was intense and led Rowan to lean on John to resign before he was consecrated, which he did. He’s now the dean of St. Alban’s. But the incident damaged Rowan’s standing with liberals and gave greater credence to conservatives who thought they couldn’t trust him because he’d let the appointment go forward in the first place. It’s probably safe to say it was not the tone Rowan wanted to set at the beginning of his archiepiscopacy.

Now, a decade on, the Church of England’s House of Bishops has decided that gay men in civil partnerships (this includes Jeffrey John) can be bishop, so long as they remain celibate. Leaving aside how nonsensical a policy this is, it raises the prospect that in the first months of a new archbishop of Canterbury’s term, Jeffrey John could again be appointed bishop. Indeed, there’s talk that John could be appointed Bishop of Durham, which will be vacant when Justin Welby is translated to Canterbury.

Bishops from some other Anglican provinces are already indicating their displeasure with the new policy. If John is appointed, it seems likely there will again be a furore in the Anglican Communion. It also seems that Justin Welby will have less ground than Rowan did to reverse the decision (if he wanted to): the public nature of the recent change means it would be humiliating for the church to reverse itself. (Not that the C of E is above regularly humiliating itself.)

But I’d like to think the impending John appointment is an opportunity. I’ve already written how I think it will take someone like Justin Welby to begin to heal the wounds of the Anglican Communion. This, surely, would be the moment to do so. He could embrace this move, which the House of Bishops has authorised and which, it is clear, a majority of English Anglicans are little fussed about, but at the same time draw on his relationships in the Anglican Communion to patiently explain the move. It would be a double acknowledgment: first, that this is where the Church of England is at this point in its history, and, second, that not everyone is at the point and that someone like Justin Welby has the position with which to address those concerns. I’m not saying it will result in magical healing overnight, but it could be a genuinely honest step forward. Surely, that’s better than all the games we’ve been playing?

Facing your failure and living with difference: why I give thanks for Rowan Williams’ tenure as archbishop of Canterbury

Two years before he was appointed archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams wrote

I long for the Church to be more truly itself…. Yet I must also learn to live in and attend to the reality of the Church as it is, to do the prosaic things that can and must be done now and to work at my relations now with the people who will not listen to me or those like me—because what God asks of me is not to live in the ideal future but to live with honesty and attentiveness in the present. (Christ on Trial, pp. 85-86)

As of today, Williams is no longer archbishop. For many in the church (including Williams himself, I imagine), this is a cause for relief. His tenure is viewed as a disappointment by liberals, who think he betrayed them and his own views by his actions in office, and by conservatives, who think he didn’t go far enough in using the powers of his office. The general public sees him as a figure who made (apparently) impolitic remarks on sharia and failed to get General Synod to pass legislation allowing for women to be bishops.

But before he fades much further into the past, I think it’s worth taking the time to give thanks for Williams’ tenure in Canterbury. And the place to start is with this quotation, which could serve as a programmatic statement for his tenure. On the one hand, Williams is saying, there is a vision of the church he aspires to and which he longs to see realized. On the other hand, he recognizes that the reality of the church is such that any one person’s understanding of it is insufficient. Elsewhere, he was written

Believing in the Church is really believing in the unique gift of the other that God has given you to live with. (Tokens of Trust, p. 106)

The fact that—try as we might—we cannot create a church of people who think like we do is central to Williams’ understanding of what the church is to be and do. As a leader in that church, Williams’ tenure has been about reminding us of that reality. Given the divisiveness and polarization that so mark and mar our politics (ecclesial and otherwise) these days, that reminder is both prophetic and timely.

In his closing address at the 2009 Anglican Consultative Council meeting, Williams told delegates:

the Gospel seems to be saying to us: first face your failure; your failure, not your neighbour’s; your failure, your turning away; not theirs, not his, not hers; then ask how can it be made glorious? ….But perhaps, just perhaps, thinking about those potentially glorious failures, opens us out onto the prayer that turns us back to Christ-like self-giving that lets the glory through. That’s what we hope for in our fellowship, our very fragile, very flawed, very precarious Anglican fellowship.

Repentance has always been a theme of Williams’ theology and it is something he has held up before Anglicans—often to their derision. Who, after all, wants to talk about their failures? There are many reasons why I think this is important to emphasize but I’ll note just one here: Williams reminds us that we are human and that means fallible, imperfect, and incomplete. That sounds obvious but it’s something that is frequently elided in this world of ours that puts so much focus on accomplishment—in the church and otherwise.

Williams’ tenure was not perfect. He made many mistakes. But his deeply-held theological convictions have issued in a profoundly human and profoundly humble leadership—even when it has led to his humiliation, as it has, repeatedly—that I have found refreshing and honest in this day and age, and which I shall miss.

The body of Christ on July 9

There are a lot of things that happen at a General Convention beyond the business of passing legislation: movie screenings, talks, networking, and, oh yeah, worship.

In celebration of the first anniversary of the independence of South Sudan, there was a Eucharist on Monday evening for those connected to the work of the Episcopal Church of Sudan. It was a terrific service: lots of great singing led by the Sudanese there, support from some of the many bishops in the Episcopal Church who have Sudanese congregations in their diocese, an honest acknowledgement of the pain and suffering that has happened and remains ongoing, and much else.

There is lots packed into a General Convention so the service didn’t begin until 9:30pm. As wonderful as it was, I have to say I was a bit weary during the first part of the service. That changed during the passing of the peace when the three bishops in the service took a liturgical liberty to tell the congregation about their relationship.

From left to right, that’s Ruben Akurdit, of Bor, Sudan; Cate Waynick of Indianapolis, Indiana; and Mauricio Andrade of Brasilia, Brazil. Together, they have a three-way companion diocese relationship. Last year, Cate and Mauricio were in Bor together. (Three-way companion relationships are increasingly common. We recently saw the fruit of another relationship in this letter to Rowan Williams from several bishops.)

In their comments, the three bishops stressed how they see in one another the body of Christ: difference (of race, background, culture, sex, etc.) but commonality in worshipping the same God in Christ.

I was completely awake by the time they had finished their short remarks. Then, in the Eucharistic prayer, each said the words of institution (the “take eat” part of the liturgy) in their own language. It is not often that a Eucharistic prayer I have heard so often and know so well can surprise and move me but it did on Monday night.

The act of celebrating the Eucharist in multiple languages with people from multiple backgrounds seemed to me to be so central to what the good news of the body of Christ is all about. And it’s yet one more reason I have hope about the future of the church and its role in God’s mission in the world.

Necessary qualification for the next Archbishop of Canterbury

A willingness to sit on the grass and have tea with visitors.

Here’s a picture from last year’s annual review from Westcott House in Cambridge, England. You wouldn’t notice it if you didn’t know what you were looking for but there’s the current occupant of St. Augustine’s chair, getting his trousers grassy and having tea with visitors.

I hope the next Archbishop of Canterbury is like that.

Thinking Outside the Box on the See of Canterbury

What if the next Archbishop of Canterbury wasn’t British? Who would it be?

I recommend Thabo Makgoba, archbishop of Cape Town and primate of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. He’s educated, outspoken on important issues, young(ish), and has been called “the Denzel Washington of the Anglican Communion.”

Filling Rowan Williams’ shoes was never going to be easy—any successor will have to stack up to one of the greatest theological minds of the generation. Going for an outside-the-box appointment—first Archbishop of Canterbury from outside England since Augustine?—lays to rest those possible comparisons and frees the successor to be fully himself (or herself, but that won’t happen—yet—to the see of Canterbury).

The Archbishop of Canterbury fills at least three roles simultaneously—(nominal) diocesan of Canterbury, primate of All England, and a figure of unity for the Anglican Communion. As a non-English Anglican, I, naturally, put the most emphasis on that last role, which is why I’d love to see the position filled by someone who represents the part of world where Anglicanism is growing fastest. The Crown Appointments Commission, I think, probably has that second role chiefly in mind, along with the ceremonial functions that go with being head of an Established church.

If not Archbishop Thabo, how about Josiah Idowu-Fearon, bishop of Kaduna in Nigeria? He’s super-educated, an expert on Islam, and has shown his independence from the Nigerian church hierarchy by, inter alia, calling for primates not boycott a Primates Council meeting. Not sure how old he is, though. (Wikipedia says he’s about 63.)

Other thoughts for outside-the-British-Isles picks for the next occupant of St. Augustine’s throne?