What is historic already is the shift in centre of gravity of the Anglican Communion from countries where the first language is English to nations in Africa and Asia. This change creates a new chance to share leadership, but if the opportunity is to be grasped certain communication difficulties need to be overcome. It was with this concern in mind and to further enable African, Asian and Latin American bishops to play their full part at Lambeth that the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies co-sponsored this recent Anglican Life and Witness Conference in Dallas.
The Ekklesia Society, the other partner in the sponsorship, had a complementary reason for promoting this gathering. Ekklesia began with members of the Episcopal Church in the United States who for two vital reasons are seeking stronger links with other parts of the Anglican Communion. First they want to share more directly in world mission. Secondly they feel in some degree on the margin of their own national church because an influential sector has for the past twenty years been moulding and changing it by pursuing (or being pursued by) a liberal, liberationist or even gay-lesbian agenda. Ekklesia now has an increasingly international membership. For the conference itself our generous hosts were the Dioceses of Dallas and Fort Worth.
Among the shining tower blocks, mesmerising motorways and ribbon development of Dallas State we were conscious of a cross roads situation for the churches. The questions we were addressing in relation to the Communion as a whole have a very sharp application in the United States. Would this nation with the biggest economy make its full contribution in cancelling intolerable areas of international debt? Would this most powerful nation use its influence in favour of just terms of international trade? Would the biggest consumer nation take adequate steps to reduce its pressure upon the world environment? Would other nations follow?
The Dallas Conference recognised international debt as one of the head-line issues for Lambeth 98. The participants were concerned not only that the Anglican Communion should add its voice to those urging a just solution, but also called for fellow bishops “to work with national political and economic leaders to develop a national debt relief plan that we can bring to Lambeth to contribute to a global plan.” What we must provide as Anglicans are ground level contacts and Biblical insights, incentives and commitments for the common economic good. Scripture pleads for justice and jubilee and its voice should be heard and obeyed. On this issue, too, conservatives should applaud the liberal conscience which seeks to hold economic liberalism in check.
It appeared obvious to those meeting in Dallas that the second head-line issue for Lambeth will be human sexuality. However, the process of the conference was not simply “issue spotting”. We were wanting “a shared and coherent orthodox Anglican Framework for considering issues and building consensus”. Such coherence clearly derives from Scripture, the Creeds, the Prayer Book and our Historic Formularies. A good contemporary summary of doctrine we found in a theological section of the St Andrew’s Day Statement.
The Dallas bishops were greatly helped through the presence and contribution there of younger theologians. They challenged us to recognise “the centrality and authority of the Scriptures in our understanding and interpretation of the world.” We were advised to underline “the importance of the obedient Christian community, empowered by the Spirit of Jesus” and recognise “the share which this whole community has throughout the world and throughout history.” The common task is to respect, interpret and apply the Scriptures in the midst of societal diversity and change, and implies the promotion of “biblical study at all levels”. We want a Church full of the Word and full of the Spirit.
A biblical and theological basis gained in this way is necessary for the moral stands we must take. Such was the unanimous view in Dallas. It sprang from moderation not extremism. This view is not sectional but reflects a world-wide majority. It affirms tradition, not to avoid compassion, but the more fully to express the love of Christ. So will there be unanimity at Lambeth on this second headline theme?
While in Dallas and Fort Worth, teams of Bishops led meetings in local churches. Episcopalians came from widely different parts of the United States to meet us. Why then had so many travelled across the States and in the case of the bishops across the world. Ecclesiastical tourism? Conservative escapism? At the final count why were we in Dallas? In a closing Eucharist the answer came out this way. We were:
“Looking through and beyond the tragedies and struggles we face. Celebrating the glorious name and mighty acts of God in today’s world. Forging strong bonds across the Communion. Learning again the deep simplicities of the Gospel and returning to our first love of the Saviour. Being humbled and discovering courage. Together with others and under the Spirit, setting an orthodox agenda for Lambeth and the future.”
Was it triumphant or triumphalistic? Historic or histrionic? Could we be seeing a change in direction in our Communion? Certainly we are discovering that no one is self sufficient now: not even the affluent provinces. We are ready to accept that God’s Word may come as rebuke to revisionists and reactionaries alike.
We are accountable to Him and to one another. If there is the beginning of real change in our Communion, and I believe there is, the Lambeth Conference will make way for greater authority and responsibility to be exercised by the Primates Meeting. For over-arching concerns is must become a place of decision and appeal. Our instruments of unity must be better equipped to encourage all positive moves in our Communion but hold in check whatever exceeds the limits of Anglican diversity. As we enter the new century the uneasy truce or mis-match with Christ denying philosophics and cultural drives is over. In a more hostile world we need more effective discipline and a deeper commitment within and between our provinces. As Anglicans, we will not identify less with the nations in which we serve, but we must be bolder in modelling a counter culture.
Dallas, as I have understood it, points us in these directions. With its unprecedented build up, Lambeth 98 will not confirm all the pointers in its preparations to date. May it, though, sharpen and extend those of God’s choosing, giving them, for the future, historic potential and proportions.
Maurice Sinclair is Archbishop of the Southern Cone of America