Primates 2016 - encouragement and perplexity (1)
It is always risky to comment upon a meeting that one has not attended. However, after a statement and communiqué and, perhaps more importantly, a number of primates sharing over the last few weeks their personal thoughts on the Anglican Primates Meeting in January in Canterbury, a picture is beginning to form. So, now is the time to reflect on the opportunities and challenges that are emerging and I admit to being both encouraged and perplexed. Many good things came from the meeting, but a prophetic living with difference was not one of them. Maybe that is to come. The Kingdom of God is always a work in progress.
My comments and reflections will be spread over two posts. In the first, I will highlight some of the challenges when the Anglican family, drawn from a kaleidoscope of cultures and contexts, tries to relate together. In the second post, I will reflect on the outcome and process of the Primates’ Meeting, questioning whether the issues around sexuality, which have dominated Anglican Communion debate for many years, are the real source of disagreement that they are claimed to be.
First, let me lay my cards on the table. I gain my identity from being an Anglican rather than just a member of the Church of England. Having lived, worked and ministered in different parts of the Communion and having spent many years relating closely to and being challenged by many parts of it, I believe that the Anglican Communion, with all its joys and fun, with its frustrations and imperfections, is a gift of God. Many Anglicans would agree.
When visiting a diocese in Zimbabwe, persecuted by a government and judicial system that appeared to support the demands of a bishop who took himself out of the Anglican Church, I was told by Church members that the support of the Anglican Communion demonstrated that they were not alone in their struggles. Similarly, when I attended the annual synod of the beleaguered diocese of Jerusalem, I was greeted at Amman airport in Jordan with the comment that I should not think that I was simply going to a church a gathering, but that I was going to join my family. Both these dioceses have been sustained by the Anglican family – and they have much to teach the Communion about resilience and faith under persecution. Do Anglicans in the West recognise the value of the Communion as much as those beyond our shores?
But membership of our international, multi-cultural, Anglican family brings challenges: by and large, we live in different worlds, view humanity in different ways and, as the stories of the primates reminded us, we inhabit very different social and political contexts. For example, in the West, the rights of the individual are paramount whereas in many parts of Africa, the well-being of each person is bound up with the well-being of the community: this is known as ‘Ubuntu’ and is encapsulated by the sentence, ‘I am because we are.’ In many parts of the world, gay rights are openly fought for and embraced, whereas in other parts, such campaigning brings persecution and death.
One outcome of such a rich tapestry of cultures, societies and world-views is that different cultures do their theological thinking differently. For generations, western ways of doing theology have dominated the Christian world, but from the last quarter of the twentieth century voices from Korea to South America to Africa have been complaining that propositional theology articulated predominantly through the medium of western philosophy is not the only way to talk about God and it is not the only lens through which to interpret God’s world. In an article published some time ago (though it still speaks eloquently today) Desmond Tutu delightfully focuses the question in this way,
We are still too concerned to play the game according to the white man’s rules when he often is the referee as well. Why should we feel embarrassed if our theology is not systematic? Why should we feel that something is amiss if our theology is too dramatic for verbalisation but can be expressed only adequately in the joyous song and the scintillating movement of Africa’s dance in the liturgy? Let us develop our insights about the corporateness of human existence in the face of excessive western individualism, about the wholeness of the person when others are concerned for Hellenistic dichotomies of soul and body, about the reality of the spiritual when others are made desolate with the poverty of the material. Let African theology enthuse about the awesomeness of the transcendent when others are embarrassed to speak about the King, high and lifted up, whose train fills the Temple. It is only when African theology is true to itself that it will go on to speak relevantly to the contemporary African – surely its primary task – and also, incidentally, make its contribution to the rich Christian heritage which belongs to all of us. 
The question which now arises is how can the Anglican Communion speak to each other about God and God’s world without being dominated by the theological baggage of one part of the Communion. How can theology be communicated effectively across cultures?
Another challenge is brought about by the inequalities of resources and power. It is difficult to have a relationship of mutuality when one part of the Anglican family has its grip on the world’s resources and the ultimate say on how they are used. Furthermore, we live in an age of neo- colonialism when those in power, supported by the force of twenty-first century media, are zealously imposing ideologies and ways of life in places where they can gain a foothold - and when a country opens its doors, finance follows. Churches can behave in a similar way, wanting to export their understanding and practice of the Christian faith and their society’s norms into totally different cultures. While some welcome this, others on the receiving end view it as naked colonialism and resist in whatever ways they can.
Against this background, the Anglican primates met in Canterbury. Amid talk of mass walk-outs, disintegration of the Communion and schism, something quite remarkable happened. Despite the huge cultural gaps between them, their desire to live as a Christian family transcended deep differences. They were forming a radical, new society that St. Paul encourages his churches to emulate. ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3.28). Paul was not removing ethnic, class or gender differences, or pretending that they did not exist, but he was relativising their significance. He was relativizing what had become absolutes and was locating them within the horizon of God’s reconciliation of the world within which one’s life is lived.
I can imagine that members of the United Nations were envious of the outcome of the Meeting. The Primates were showing the world how it is possible for people from a wide spectrum of cultures and with opposing views on many matters to live together. But to get to this point, there was a price to pay and this is the point at which I was perplexed. The primates were making decisions about absolutes, but were they locating them within the horizon of God’s reconciliation of the world?
The Episcopal Church of the United States (TEC) was censured for its changing of marriage doctrine and banned from representative roles on various Anglican Communion bodies. Banning TEC’s representation in this way raises questions on four levels. First, what is the role of the Primates’ Meeting? Secondly, does the outcome provide a longer-term solution or a short-term fix? Thirdly, is the presenting issue, namely issues in human sexuality, the real issue that is threatening the survival of the Anglican Communion? Finally, what does all this suggest for the agenda of the Task Group, set up to continue conversation among the Primates and to restore relationships?
These will be explored in detail in my next post.
 Tutu, D, ‘Whither African Theology?’ in Fasholé-Luke, Christianity in Independent Africa, London, Rex Collings, 1978, p.369.