Saturday 26 July 2008, evening
I was overwhelmed with the messages of support and the assurances of prayer that so many of you sent as I set off eleven days ago for Lambeth with our friends from around the world. I have cards from several of you displayed around my little student room. Husbands and wives are in adjacent rooms and Maggie and I are sharing a corridor with a Canadian couple and an American woman bishop from Massachusetts.
You may not be surprised to hear that if I were to try to tell you everything that’s happened so far, and my thoughts towards this final upcoming week, it would fill a book . . . but don’t worry, I shan’t be inflicting that on you either now or any time soon. But I do want to highlight two or three things principally to ‘report back’ to my ‘home team’ who are doing the hard work of prayer and waiting and to help you to direct those prayers aright.
First, there is an enormous amount to give thanks for. The retreat which +Rowan led in the first few days was a wonderful time, both listening to one of today’s truly great Christian teachers and leaders and being able to pray at leisure for several hours in what one might describe as the second finest Cathedral in the land . . . The Bible Study groups, which have now met five mornings out of the last six (we went to London on Thursday, see below), are generally agreed to be going well. Certainly mine is great fun: I am with three Americans, an Irishman, another Englishman, the Archbishop of Mauritius (who is also the chair of the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa) a Polynesian archbishop from New Zealand, and one of his bishops from Fiji, a lovely man whose diocese consists of nearly 60 scattered islands around which he travels on his own little boat, barefoot. We are studying passages from John’s gospel which is of course very rich and suggestive and we are exploring all sorts of things in satisfying personal and theological depth, and getting to know one another in the meantime. Arising out of this, and of the ‘Indaba’ groups (pronounced inDAba), there are numerous friendships springing up as we find common interests and concerns between people of totally and radically different backgrounds.
A conference like this can occasionally produce quite hilarious fun. A few evenings ago Maggie and I were sitting at supper with a bunch of Australians, including the McCalls who stayed in the diocese a fortnight ago and Stephen Pickard and his wife who some will remember from their Durham days, when a large nearby tableful of New Zealanders, including a dozen or so Maoris, began celebrating someone’s birthday by singing several national songs. When the Aussies caught on they responded with ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and other bits and pieces, to which the Kiwis responded again, and so on. By this time a good many people in the dining room, a massive hall seating about 350, were looking in our direction, whereupon the Kiwis played their trump card, with the entire group of Maori bishops coming over to our table to perform the Haka at us. Even the Aussies have no answer for that. A good moment. New and old friendships, in worship or round a bottle of wine at the end of a long hot day, are the very stuff of Communion life.
Second, there is a sense that the Conference has done all its preliminary work, has got to know one another, and is now ready for the final seven days, beginning on Monday (tomorrow, Sunday, is more or less a rest day and that’s how I intend to spend it). The tricky thing now is that there are several different processes going on simultaneously which are designed to come together into some kind of ‘reflection’, or even ‘statement’, but nobody (except perhaps the planning group?) has a clear idea of how precisely this will happen. There are several sessions labelled ‘conference reflection’ as the week develops, and these will presumably be used as plenaries to discuss the major issues that are coming up. +Rowan said, when he invited us all fourteen months ago, that the point of the Conference was to take forward the work of the Windsor Report on the one hand and the Covenant proposals, which nest within Windsor, on the other. We are having ‘hearings’ and other sessions on aspects of these, which should then eventually dovetail with the ‘Indaba’ group processes (they report to a central secretariat which will try to pull their insights together). I spoke at a ‘self-select group’ yesterday on the Windsor/Covenant theme and was subjected to a barrage of anxious and fearful American comments, including two who were objecting that the Covenant seemed to be ‘anxious and fearful’. That’s the sort of double-edged conversation you tend to have from time to time . . . There is another ‘hearing’ on Monday to take forward the Windsor process, and we are waiting for that quite eagerly to see what the group who have been working on it will come up with. It’s all supposed to come together towards the end of the week, and this is where, please, you will focus your prayers, that we may be given wisdom faithfully to discern God’s will and the leading of the Spirit, and how our commitment to live together under scripture (which we embody daily in the Bible Studies) will translate into actual policies and healing and life for our beloved Communion.
Third, but really central to everything, the worship has been rich and varied. Inevitably some have had niggles (well, we sang ‘brother sister let me serve you’ twice in the first three days, and the only good thing about that was that I discovered that +Sentamu dislikes it even more than I do!), but it is wonderfully enriching to sing with a thousand or more others from around the world, to pray the Lord’s Prayer in our own languages and to hear that Pentecost-like babble of voices joining together. There is an excellent music group, a delightful team of Franciscan chaplains led by my old friend Brother Sam, and there have been some deeply poignant moments: when the Korean church led the eucharist a few days ago, at the end of the Intercessions the senior Japanese bishop came up to the platform and prayed a simple prayer asking God’s forgiveness for all the awful atrocities the Japanese people had inflicted on the Koreans a generation ago. A massively emotional moment, quite suddenly, just like that. I stared through my own moist eyes at the stage, aware that I had just seen a flash of pure Christianity. May it be a good omen for what faces us in the coming days.
You will have seen, I expect, the televised report of the March of Witness in London on Thursday. It was a great event from start to finish, and the centrepiece of it was Gordon Brown’s remarkable speech, passionate, without notes, all his facts and figures in place and beautifully balanced between theory, personal stories, appeal, etc. Everyone else from around the world was really quite jealous of us having such a man as our leader. (We explained that he doesn’t always come across like that . . . but you certainly could see where his heart was that day, and the answer was, ‘with the poor’.) You can tell his Dad was a preacher! Ironic that it was the same day that Labour lost the bye-election. I have been critical of the PM in some respects over recent years, but this, many of us reckoned, was his finest hour. I know some newspapers have gone on about the lavish lunch, but basically it was a reasonably simple two-course meal such as you might have at a medium-budget wedding, perfectly fitting for the occasion. Did the papers really suppose that +Rowan and Jane would bring in a MacDonalds stand for the bishops? However, at Buckingham Palace, where tea is served with dainty sandwiches and little cakes, one African bishop was seen in tears: he had been figuring out how many starving children in his country could be fed with those ‘nibbles’, which were in essence, for us, edible entertainment.
I was put in charge of His Beatitude the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilus III, for the two days he was here. He is a wonderful man and I quickly got used to surreal lines like ‘More coffee, Your Beatitude?’ He did research in Durham under George Dragas many years ago and was delighted to reconnect. Indeed our Orthodox and Roman brethren have been very much in evidence, with a splendid lecture from Cardinal Diaz a few days ago and the very visible presence of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and the less visible but no less delightful presence of the RC Archbishop of Brisbane who entertained us royally when we were there two years ago. We also had a lecture from Brian MacLaren of the EmergingChurch movement and we are to hear the Chief Rabbi on Monday . . .
So you see life is not dull. However, this is the first time for nearly a year that I have had more than seven consecutive nights in the same bed, so I am glad of some stability at least! I hope this gives you all something of the flavour of this extraordinary conference and, particularly, something of the sense of what you need to be praying for. Thank you again so much for your support and love and prayers. Bishop Mark and I – who bump into one another reasonably frequently! – will no doubt give you more of a briefing at some stage when it’s all over . . .
With warmest greetings and love and prayers as ever
Tom Wright, a former Bishop of Durham, is research professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St Andrews