Bishop of Exeter’s Reflections Offered to the House of Bishops of ECUSA

Kanuga N.C.
22nd March 2006
Michael Langrish, Bishop of Exeter

It has been really good to be with you this week and I do thank you for your invitation. This is my first visit to the USA, and so means a great deal to me. Visiting here has been on my ‘to do’ list, for years now and I have felt increasingly disabled by having no direct experience of American culture so dominant an influence is it in the world today. I do wonder to what extent Americans recognise and understand just how great this dominance and influence really is.

So thank you, thank you for your warm hospitality and for the generous way you have taken me into your life corporately and opened your hearts to me individually. That has been a great privilege.

May I also bring you greetings most especially from the Archbishop of Canterbury who specifically asked me to bring you this message and assure you of his own prayers for you this week and in the run up to General convention. I also bring you the greetings and prayers of my own Diocese of Exeter.

Although this is my first trip across the pond, I have travelled extensively in other directions and know a number of other parts of the Anglican Communion very well. I worked for three years in Nigeria; My own Diocese has strong companion links with the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf, and Thika in Kenya; As a Trustee of Christian Aid I have travelled frequently in the Middle East, and as Chairman of the Melanesian Mission in the UK I have over the past 10-12 years come to have a very good knowledge of the Church in Australasia and the South Pacific. Inevitably this experience gives me a particular set of filters, and contexts, through which I view a number of the issues facing our communion at the present time.

On the subject of context I was very struck by the question asked by Frank Griswold on Monday about why there is often such suspicion of the word ‘context’. That seemed to me to go to the heart of the matter, and I found myself scribbling down my own thoughts. I began with Sathi Clarke’s description himself and his identity as being a ‘multiplicity of unbelongings’, and it was the word unbelonging that started me thinking. With his diverse background he might easily have chosen to describe himself as the embodiment of a multiplicity of belongings, but he didn’t - he spoke of unbelongings, with that sense of both rootedness and detachment. And it was this that began to give me a clue. So often in my experience the word ‘context’ is used as a trump card played on the behalf of one belonging over another. And if that context is an imperial or superpower context then the suspicion of it being played as the card that will trump all other contexts does become very considerable. That has come home to me very powerfully in the past week. On the day before I flew out here I was in London chairing a conference as part of a week of International Church Action for Peace in Israel and the Occupied Territories. There we were confronted with a multitude of belongings par excellence—Arab, Palestinian, Israeli, Jew, Christian, Muslim, secularist, Zionist, Islamist—and many combinations of these as well. Each not only viewed both history and the current situation through the prism of their own context, their own belonging, but were fearful that in any engagement that context (particularly as all without exception saw this as being the context of a minority) would be swamped or even obliterated by a another context, especially one seen to be gaining in hegemony. Somehow having everyone at the same dialogical table there required both a sense of belonging and a willingness to face unbelonging, all somehow set within a bigger context then any single cultural or political context can provide.

Now from all of that it does seem that if the suspicion of context is to be addressed we do need to find ways of sending clear signals to one another: not only to engage—and genuinely engage — with other people’s contexts (particularly those that are deeply challenging, even offensive, to our own) and make time to do this, but also to learn to step back and appraise our own contexts afresh (to explore our own unbelongings) and to consider where in Christ there is a bigger context, some meta-narrative, that encompasses them all?

Perhaps a second reason why the word context is frequently treated with suspicion is to be teased out of the Nigerian bishop’s question: ‘You brought us the Bible, why do you not now believe it?’ From my own experience of working in Nigeria I am aware of how at times the Bible was brought to Africa (not least by Americans—and I have in mind especially the wealthy and powerful Southern Baptists who dominated the area where I was working) it was brought and offered as part of one commanding contextual paradigm, and almost inevitably there will be the experience or suspicion of something like a tectonic change or betrayal, when the presenting culture, or context, seems to have itself undergone a paradigmatic shift, particular where this occurs without engagement and dialogue (all of which takes time). Finally I found myself thinking of how much easier it is to see, and perhaps fear, another’s context—and the way in which it shapes behaviours—than it is to step back and examine our own. I was interested in the comment that many Africans, for example, read the Bible and defend it in the context of an increasingly dominant Islam, and the status that it accords to the all authoritative Koran. And I thought that perhaps we need to reflect on the contextual pressures on us as we read, interpret and defend the bible in the context of postmodernist culture in which suspicion of metanarrative appears to have become the norm.

Anyway, back to me. One of the things for which I am truly grateful this week has been an opportunity to encounter, experience and listen to the context, the culture of belonging, of this House and so a little too of the Episcopal Church of which you are a part. And there is much about this week that I have truly valued and will wish to take back as learning points for our own meetings in England. In particular I have valued the worship, and the way in which this has been so integrated with, and so had the power to infuse, the rest of the agenda. I have been struck by your having a programme that has been designed to strike an appropriate balance between your own needs to grow and develop as bishops and as persons, and the business that has to be done. I have also been impressed by your willingness to make proper time and space for these things and to allow for real fellowship and engagement, which is in marked contrast to the relentless busyness of our own House. I will also carry away with me many particular memories, not least yesterday’s presentation on the work in Louisiana and Mississippi, when as Charles [Jenkins] and Duncan [Gray] were talking about this Church’s response in the wake of Katrina, I found myself thinking of our Lord’s reply to those who had come to question his authenticity ‘Go tell John what you see. . .’

All of this for me seems to have provided a context that is particularly helpful for responding to the work of the special commission about which we heard on Saturday. I join in the general gratitude expressed in this house for the careful work undertaken, and I offer my particular thanks for the privilege of being permitted to engage with the initial report of the commission with you.

No one can doubt the seriousness with which the work has been undertaken or the significance that you as Bishops across the Anglican Communion attach to it and to its outcomes. There will he many who will be deeply grateful to you for that. They will also be praying for you (and this is especially true of those of us in England) as the work goes forward, the report and resolutions given their final shape, and General Convention makes it response.

With such seriousness and such prayer, your process must command respect and a belief that your intention and desire is to do not just what is expedient, but what is right. I believe that we all want that. Mere expediency will serve no one well - neither the church here nor further abroad. Yet, when you do come to a decision about what is right, that decision (whatever it is) will have consequences and almost certainly very profound ones. And trying to read and understand what those consequences might be, will presumably be part of the decision making too. Discerning the Body, and discerning the time, all seem to me to be part of discerning the right, the divine word for now.

As I say, speaking personally, I have found much to encourage me, and much that I will take away by encouragement to others, in the work undertaken by the Commission so far, including breaking some new ground. I was helped enormously, for example, by the work around the idea of Covenant (an aspect of the Windsor Report about which I had had the greatest doubts). However I now see real possibilities in something that is truly three dimensional (structural / canonical; doctrinal / confessional; Missional / Relational) and it may well be that this becomes a real gift to the Communion from this church. However, to speak honestly (and I am sure that you would not wish me to do otherwise) there were elements in the proposed report and resolutions which, in the language we were asked to use, gives me pause for concern. In particular I have real anxieties about the language being suggested for the proposed resolution concerning future consecrations to the episcopate. Now I know that I am not alone in this. Of all the resolutions that was the one that seemed to be the subject of the greatest scrutiny both in my table group and then in plenary. As I listened I heard real concerns about both the ambiguity of the language and also the subjectivity of what was being asked for.

[The Commission suggested that any candidate for bishop whose election would raise the kinds of reactions that have been prompted by Gene Robinson’s election, should be considered only with “extreme caution.” – JWH]

It is my belief that many in the wider Communion will feel the same, a though probably for different reasons. It is not at all clear to me what extreme caution may mean, how it would be judged and who would decide. Can you exercise extreme caution and still act in a way that injects further difficulty into the life of communion? I believe many will have similar questions about what constitutes a challenge to the Communion, or construes whether there are challenges that are acceptable and those that are not.

It does seem to me that at this point we get close to the heart of the difficulty that much of the Anglican Communion (including my own Province) has had with what the Episcopal Church did in 2003, and over which there still seems to be much mutual incomprehension. Perhaps I could illustrate this from a conversation I had earlier in the week, when someone here, in the context of great warmth and friendship, said to me: I do regret I caused you pain; but I cannot regret that I voted for something that brought so much hope and joy.’ My response was ‘I don’t want you to do either’.

It’s something different from regret that is at stake here. As you probably know, in our response to the Windsor Report the English House of Bishops sought to strengthen the language of repentance, which we believed to be more appropriate than regret. Now as we have seen so often this week language can so easily be misunderstood and divide. So let me be clear, we were not seeing repentance in punitive or scapegoating terms; rather as something much more clinical and precise—that seeing of an action or behaviour in a new light, the light; of new circumstances under God, understanding it afresh and changing behaviour accordingly, not out of fear but out of love. And the two actions that many of us believe need to be seen in the light of a bigger and more dynamic understanding of communion (as envisaged in The Windsor Report) were, firstly, consecrating a Bishop—presumably with intent to create a bishop for the church catholic—but without seeking the assent of that wider church catholic (and this is about more than consultation); and then, secondly, ordaining to the episcopate someone (and I make a general rather than personal point here) who was in a relationship not liturgically sanctioned by the church, and to that extent at least irregular. I know that this might argue for dealing with the issue of same sex blessings first, and that this would almost certainly cause even greater problems for the Communion ( and this I think is recognised by those who have been at pains to say to me this week We took an action, not a decision’.

However it has caused a double problem: both of the relationship between ordained representative ministry and relationships that are irregular and do not reflect the stated discipline of the church, and of the appearance of having in effect taken that relationship decision, without wider agreement and by creating a fact on the ground.

Over lunch the other day I was asked: Is it our narcissism or is the Church in England watching us?’ The honest answer is that it is, watching very carefully, but also for the most part prayerfully and with anxious affection. For good or ill what you do will affect us, and that in itself will impact on the wider communion, as well as on the major ecumenical and interfaith conversations in which, as a Communion, we are engaged. A heavy burden lies on your shoulders at this time, and I have been glad to share with you as you have acknowledged this and begun to deal with it.

At the same time I would want to acknowledge that this burden is not yours alone and that there are other issues requiring repentance and revisiting, and that there are also decisions that will need to be faced and taken by others if we are to go forward in fellowship and faith, in particular I shall carry away from here a reminder of the challenge to others to consider the extent to which they are fully committed to a genuine listening and conversational process in which all are willing to learn and be changed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I am also aware that there has to be a proper tackling (by us all) of the question of cross provincial interventions and a willingness to face honestly and openly with one another the issues involved in making appropriate provision for those who in conscience cannot accept, or who doubt the wisdom of, decisions made by others in their Diocese or province at this time.

As I look at the Anglican Communion at present I see its life threatened by two intersecting fault lines, each with its own totem. The first is the issue of same sex relations, with its focusing in Lambeth 1.10. The second is the nature and future of Communion, with its focus being the Windsor Report and the Windsor/Dromantine process. Looking around me I see those who not only stand firmly by Lambeth 1.10, but also see it as the litmus test of orthodoxy, and who are further opposed to, or have given up on, Windsor and all that it stands for. Probably nothing that happens is going to satisfy them. Similarly there are those who are so certain that Lambeth 1.10 was wrong that they in effect see both Windsor and the Communion as a price that it is simply to great to pay. Then there will be those (probably the majority) who while holding a variety of views on the issue of sexuality would nevertheless to varying degrees also be committed to Windsor and its outworking in the Communion’s life. That would certainly be where to a very large extent, the English bishops will be found.

On Lambeth 1.10 a wide spread of views will be found in our own House although, as our own most recent report ‘Some Issues in Human Sexuality’ makes clear, the great majority of us see the matter as being multifaceted and complex, not capable of a quick resolution, dealing as it does with issues not only of justice and moral choice, but also of the relationship between intimacy, sexuality and community, the connections between sexual behaviour and both human identity and human fulfillment, and the way in which, as part of our missiological imperative, we are to critique these things in a society where sex and choice together make for such a dominant and formative force; and of all these to be held within a coherent exegetical framework. So despite the range of opinions there is an almost total intention to stand together, and with the rest of the Communion, in taking no precipitate action, as the listening and engagement go on.

I suppose one of the major challenges for the Episcopal Church now has to do with whether there are enough of you to stand on broadly the same ground, holding a range of opinions on the issue of Lambeth 1.10 but firm in carrying forward the Windsor vision of a strengthened and enabling communion life. This, I believe, is the key question rather than questions (unhelpful questions I think) about whether the Episcopal Church will either be pushed out of Communion or consciously walk away. Let’s be clear: On the one hand no one can force another Province or Diocese either to go or remain. We are not that kind of Church. Yet equally, no Diocese or Province can enforce its own continued membership simply or largely on its own terms. There has to be engagement. There is no communion without a shared vision of life in communion (at least that is how I understand Windsor).

So it does seem to me, as I listen to those other parts of the Communion that I know best, that any further consecration of those in a same sex relationship; any authorisation of any person to undertake same sex blessings; any stated intention not to seriously engage with The Windsor Report—will be read very widely as a declaration not to stay with the Communion as it is, or as the Windsor Report has articulated a vision, particularly in sections A and B, of how it wishes to be. Having said that, I do believe that I have heard in this house this week, by and large, a desire for shared life in communion and ongoing engagement with others in just what this must involve.

If I have misread you and that is not the desire then clearly, as I have said, there will be implications not just for the Anglican Communion, but for our international ecumenical and inter-faith dialogues too. It would immediately become impossible to claim that there was any body that spoke for the Communion as a whole, and several existing relationships would be irrevocably altered. All the signals seems clear that for example there would be no further round of ARCIC and that the dialogue process with Al Azhar would end.

Given, however, a full embracing of the Windsor process as you have seemed to indicate that you wish to do, that will have implications, positive ones too. But I doubt that these will be as immediately seen and felt. It is going to take time. Reconciliation and engagement take time (which is why I guess most of us feel that the design process for Lambeth is so critical) and reaching agreement on contentious issues takes more time still. And for many that is a real difficulty—that I understand. I have heard the sense of missiological urgency to which many of you have felt impelled.

So the judgments ahead will not be easy. And we may well have to remember that there have been times and moments in the Judaeo Christian tradition when the demands of a prophetic imperative have at least in the eyes of those who felt that they must respond led to a significant disruption and disjunction. That is painful, particularly as I recall that one of the first things I learned about the biblical prophetic tradition was the view that prophecy became necessary when priesthood and the binding power of the cultus had failed, when traditional religion had become empty or impoverished in its integrity - a false or hollow shell. Then the only response is ‘Here I am I can do no other’. Of course it is only the hindsight provided by history that determines whether such action was right, and discerns the true prophets from the false. It is also clear that when real division, as opposed to temporary drawing apart, has occurred; it has then taken centuries for the break to be healed. It seems to me that a key issue of discernment is currently about the relationship between the perceived integrity of the Communion’s wider life and the prophetic imperative that a particular mission context might involve.

Forgive me if these reflections are somewhat full but I have felt that I have needed to respond seriously to the seriousness you have yourself displayed. And perhaps you will allow me just two more reflections with which to end.

The first concerns our role as bishops. The origin of the episcopate has been debated by scholars over and over again - is it to be found in the rise of a senior or presiding presbyter, or in the kerygmatic ministry of the apostles witnessing to the resurrection and charged with primary responsibility for articulating the faith and making new members of the Body of Christ? The reality is probably both, with the different elements being given different Weight at different times in history according to the church’s need. Even without the crisis that has precipitated our present discussions I see many signs not only in Anglicanism but in Episcopal churches generally calling

us, whatever our own particular church polity, as Bishops to re-evaluate and rediscover our apostolic role within the body of Christ.

Secondly, over these past three years as we have grappled with these issues that are so difficult and painful for us all, I have found myself meditating over and over again on one biblical passage from Genesis 32 & 33. Jacob knows that he cannot avoid meeting and engaging with his brother Esau. In typical, and very human, fashion he embarks on all kinds of strategies, including manipulation and bribery, to strengthen his hand in the encounter ahead, which he sees very much in terms of a trial of strength. Then in the night before the encounter someone comes to wrestle with him. Is it God or an angel of God? It doesn’t matter. It is absolute reality, divine truth in which Jacob has to face himself and God. And in that wrestling with integrity he refuses to let go until he is blessed, even though it is costly and he is permanently disabled as a result. But in a sense it is not only he that is blessed. The other is blessed too as frail human continues to wrestle with and not give up on divine truth. It is in the place of such painful wrestling, rather than disengagement, that Jacob can say ‘Truly I have seen God face to face’ and then even more remarkably when he does meet his brother on the following day he has to engage him directly too, and finds the same outcome here: ‘Truly to see you face is like seeing the face of God.’

Wrestling together until both are blessed, refusing to disengage, until both are blessed and naked we face God—somewhere in that is where I find hope for communion—koinonia—life. Of course the sting in the tale is that very soon Jacob / Israel is back to his old ways, reneging again on his promise and going off to Succoth to do his own thing. Continued wrestling together is costly and involves great vulnerability. Which is why, if there is just one thing that I could carry away from all the words that have been uttered in this room this week it would be the testimony of Duncan Gray yesterday: ‘We have discovered something about brokenness; when all your walls are broken down, grace abounds.’ In the context of the Anglican Communion and hope for its future I want to say ‘Amen’ to that.

I also want to assure you of my own continuing prayers. As I pray through the Communion cycle of prayer many names will now have faces too. Whatever the future holds the many friendships made this week will, I am sure, go on.

And if we find ways of continuing and deepening our journey together the joy will be all the sweeter. And if, God forbid, that is not to be then the tears will be more bitter and the sorrow so much deeper too. Thank you so much and God bless you all.

1 Responses. Comments closed for this entry.

  1. mccabe Says:

    Worthy of discussion:

    “ I recall that one of the first things I learned about the biblical prophetic tradition was the view that prophecy became necessary when priesthood and the binding power of the cultus had failed, when traditional religion had become empty or impoverished in its integrity - a false or hollow shell. Then the only response is ‘Here I am I can do no other’.”