Lambeth: Paving the Way to Anglican Unity – an interview with Tom Wright

republished, with permission, from Christian Today site, 28 July 2008

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev Tom Wright, offers some reflections on the Lambeth Conference so far and how he thinks the Anglican Communion can move forward after the three weeks of prayer and discussion draw to an end on Sunday.

CT: You must have had some kind of expectation before you came to Lambeth of what it was going to be like. Have those expectations been fulfilled?

TW: I did have various mental pictures of what it was going to be like before I came and I keep on being surprised now because it has not been at all like I expected. I am not quite sure now what it was that I was expecting. It is wild and wacky and there is so much going that I have only heard about three days after they happened by reading them on somebody’s blog or whatever.

CT: Some conservatives were anxious in coming to Lambeth and some here have actually said they don’t feel any hope towards the future of the Anglican Communion. Do you share those feelings?

TW: I always tell my staff at home to distinguish between feelings and thinking because your feelings will come and go if you are tired or in a meeting perhaps and then you will feel like all hope is lost. You have to go back and pray and think.

The situation is still extremely complex. The Archbishop of Canterbury said when he invited us all that if you accept this invitation you are accepting to work with the Windsor Report and the Covenant process. The Archbishop reiterated that on Sunday afternoon and has reiterated it publicly several times.

If the Windsor Report is properly followed through and if the Covenant process actually gets somewhere where it is designed to get then things can happen which will give hope to a lot of people who are at present in danger of losing hope. I say that in general terms because I am not in charge of the process, I’m not on the group for taking forward either of those things. So I am not entirely sure what will happen with either of them and to put it devoutly I am not sure how the Holy Spirit will lead those who are working on those things.

CT: So you are open to the Covenant?

TW: Yes, sure. We have to be. In the last few Lambeths, many people believed they were working in a parliamentary style process with big sessions and big debates that would polarise people instantly and that isn’t necessarily the right way of doing Christian decision making. So the Archbishop has taken the risk – and it is a risk - of abandoning that model and saying let’s pray together, work together and be together in all sorts of contexts and we will see what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church in the midst of that.

It is a risk because it would have been “safer” to have had a parliamentary structure that you could have managed and got a desired outcome. This week is crucial and that is what we are all working towards.

CT: The Archbishop is largely positive about the indaba groups and the word on the ground is that they have opened up conversations that might not have otherwise have been opened. Is that your experience?

TW: That is certainly true but there are 15 or 16 indaba groups and I am hearing different reports from the groups. One or two have had explosions and people have lost their temper. That hasn’t happened in my group because we have got a very good facilitator who is listening carefully and making things happen and reading the group and helping us forward to do things differently.

In my group today, two of the bishops from India suddenly started telling us about the Dalits, the untouchables, their situation under the law and what happens when they become Christian and we just basically cancelled the rest of what we were going to do because this is just so important and none of us had heard this before and we just went with that. So things like that will make their way through into the process. If we just had a parliamentary style process then some of those voices might never have come out.

There is of course a danger that the indaba groups just dwindle into being a sharing of stories which really could have been done over a drink rather than in an official part of the conference. But the Bible studies are creative and lots of people are saying they are working well and the indaba groups are not quite what we expected but there are a lot of positives coming out of them.

CT: There was one report that conservatives have tried to force a vote on homosexuality and Lambeth 1.10 in the indaba groups.

TW: I have heard one person saying that other people had been saying you must go into indaba groups and force a vote on Lambeth 1.10 – or maybe I read it on the web?! There may be some people who want to do that. But that would be the wrong way of going about the issue. It wouldn’t be helpful.

CT: There were some concerns that the liberal agenda would dominate the conference and that Gene Robinson being on the fringes would change the atmosphere of the proceedings.

TW: You know, the funny thing is that everyone said that but I haven’t seen Gene Robinson! I haven’t seen these hoards of activists that we were promised. They may have been around because this is a big campus and I may have just missed them.

What we have got is a newspaper called the Lambeth Witness, which looks as if it is an official conference newspaper but is in actual fact the newspaper of a gay lobby group and I have heard other people say this is inappropriate. But it is a large campus and it is a free country and all sorts of things can happen.

One of the interesting things is that several parts of the Communion that have been genuinely wrestling with issues and are genuinely undecided seem to be making up their minds in ways that are entirely unpredictable. It’s all to play for.

CT: Do you think the bishops that decided to stay away have made a mistake?

TW: I respect those who have stayed away because that is one way to read and respond to the events of the last five years.

The sorrow we all have is that they represent, one example Henry Orombi represents one of the finest Christian leaders in the world today and that is a voice that we badly miss at this conference. I have been working with some of the Tanzanian bishops and they are terrific and the Sudanese bishops are terrific and they have not compromised their integrity one inch and I just wish we could have had more from those parts of Africa that know what it is to be up against it culturally, in terms of poverty and Aids and so on. We need those voices to be here.

I understand why they didn’t come and I respect them. I very much hope that what we do here will enable them to say right we are still onboard and we are going ahead together. That is my hope and my prayer. My hope is that the people who stayed away will see that what we do here at Lambeth creates a pathway into the future that they will be able to be part of. If we don’t do that I think we will have failed.

CT: Do you think the Archbishop of Sudan was right to issue his statement on homosexuality?

TW: It is very difficult to know when to release statements but I think there was some pressure on the Sudanese bishops to say something and when the question was put that is what they came up with and good luck to them, they have every right to do that.

Of course, some people were shocked by it. Some people have tried to dismiss it. Some people even astonishingly suggested that some westerners wrote the statement for them, which is an extraordinary thing to say.

When you just think for a moment of what the Sudanese have been through and what they face: a church without money, without buildings, without a fixed abode in many places, working locally in appalling conditions. Those Christians who live in comfortable houses who actually have a salary, we just look at them in admiration and if they believe it is time to do something then I am not going to say from my position that I can tell them they are wrong.

CT: Do you agree with the content of the Sudanese statement?

TW: What they have done in their statement is simply reaffirm what the Anglican Communion has always taught and what the historic churches in Christendom have always taught. It is sad that these things need to be reaffirmed - clearly they do. So for millions of Christians around the world all that they have said is ‘we are still believing what we have always believed’. So it’s not exceptional.

CT: Even some of the ecumenical partners here have admitted that if they were in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s shoes they also wouldn’t know what to do. How do you deal with the polar opposites in the Communion?

TW: Well, there are some polar opposites, but there are also lots of people in the shades of grey in between who are genuinely trying to listen to each other and it is frustrating because we would have thought they could have been listening for the last five years but in some cases they just seem genuinely not to have been able to do that and if this Lambeth Conference helps people who thought they were in these polar opposite camps to listen to each other and see there are ways forward…

There are no ways forward taking the two polar opposites with us but it isn’t a case of ‘either you are all the way there’ or ‘you are all the way here’. Nor is it a soggy, fuzzy compromise in the middle. There are some definite things that have to be said and done and the Archbishop has said Windsor and the Covenant are the way to go and that’s why he’s invited us to Lambeth, to help him take that path.

If we follow that through, we will find a way of keeping the great majority of the Communion on board and raising a standard to say to those who don’t want to go there, look, this is actually where the rest of us are, please can’t you see your way to join us. We don’t want to lose people. We are not in the business of getting a big stick or whatever. We are saying this is authentic Anglicanism and we do hope you will see that with us.

CT: How do you think the Archbishop of Canterbury should deal with the issue of Gene Robinson?

TW: When Gene Robinson’s consecration was mooted in 2003 the Archbishop issued a statement at the time warning that if Robinson was consecrated he could not be regarded as a bishop by most of the churches in the Communion because even if he was a priest in most of the churches in the Communion he would be under discipline for leaving his wife and setting up with a same-sex partner. In most churches in the Communion he wouldn’t have been exercising a ministry as a priest.

One of the things you do when you ordain a bishop is that you consecrate somebody to be a means and focus of unity across all the churches. You are not ordained a bishop in Durham, for me, or in England. You are ordained a bishop in the church of God. And the Archbishop warned before Robinson was consecrated that he could not be acceptable to most of the Communion and that it would therefore be very unwise for him to be invited to the councils of the Communion. The Windsor Report simply voted and reaffirmed what the Archbishop had already said and he was simply reflecting the mind of the Communion, as is his job to do, and nothing has changed in any of that since 2003.

CT: Some ecumenical partners told the Archbishop that the issues facing the Anglican Communion are the same issues they are grappling with. Yet the divide in the Anglican Communion seems to be sharper than in other communions and has attracted far more media attention. Do you think the Anglican Communion could have dealt better with the crisis?

TW: I suspect there are many ways we might have done it differently, whether it would have been better is really impossible to say. It’s like saying could I have had different parents? Well yes, but would I have been the same person? We are where we are.

We have tried to deal wisely and reasonably, biblically, cohesively with the issues and with one another. Having been part of the process, I can say in each of the four we really have done our best to do that and I don’t regret any of that.

Some other churches in some other parts of the world have done it differently. Presbyterians, Methodists, have had different processes. For some reason which I don’t fully understand, it is as though some of the great tensions of our culture are being focused on the church and some of the great tensions of our church are being focused on the Anglican Communion and some of the tensions of the great Anglican Communion are being focused on this Lambeth Conference and the next 10 days. That’s why we have to spend the coming days wisely, prayerfully, listening to God and doing what needs to be done.

CT: The Archbishop stated unequivocally that the Anglican Communion is not headed for schism.

TW: It depends what you mean by schism. The Archbishop has also said several times that we will not resume business as usual after this. There is no way back to where we were say 10 or 15 years ago. In finding the way forward we hope to find a way forward which will unite the great majority of Anglicans around the world, which will inevitably challenge some but will I hope be as much of an invitation as a challenge, can they but see that actually this is how we have to be. And some will inevitably say no I can’t see that and that has already happened. Some have already set up different bodies in various directions.

But part of the strange vocation that the Anglican Communion seems to have is to be biblical but broad-based. The Bible is a broad-based document. That doesn’t mean it is fuzzy or contradicting itself. But it just means that a biblical wisdom is a bit larger than some people often think it is and if people can hear that, our hope is that they will find a home there.

CT: There were concerns that the vote on women bishops would complicate proceedings at Lambeth. Has that turned out to be the case?

TW: The vote in Synod has nothing to do with what is going on at Lambeth. I argued in Synod that this was the wrong time to have that debate but it was too late, we had it anyway. It has thrown dust in the eyes of some people because those for whom those particular issues about women bishops are hugely emotive and contentious were so fired up with that, that they were in danger of taking their eye off the ball and the big issues that we face here in Lambeth. I think this far into Lambeth most people have parked that issue and are focusing on the issues we are facing here.

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