THE COSTLY WITNESS OF THE POOR
THE 1998 LAMBETH CONFERENCE may prove, in years to come, to have been a watershed for Anglicanism worldwide. Ever since Lambeth conferences began, it has been assumed that white caucasian bishops would form the majority consensus view. African and South American bishops were often white ex-patriates, but times have changed and it was obvious at the campus of the University of Kent at Canterbury that this was no longer the case.
It is some years now since someone pointed out to me that the majority of Anglicans worldwide were non-white. Caucasian Anglicans have been a dwindling minority ever since. Two processes have contributed to this accelerating trend. One is that the church in Africa is growing apace. In Tanzania for instance, during the decade of evangelism, they have been planting a new congregation every week and a new diocese every couple of years. That’s the kind of growth that we in the West know virtually nothing about.
In contrast, every diocese in England has been shrinking. There’s even a diocese in Scotland with fewer than a thousand regular communicants (if they were in the diocese where I live, they would amount to perhaps half a rural deanery). In Canada and the USA, a glance at membership figures would give you the distinct impression that Anglicanism was going out of fashion, though they do have lights in the darkness. The Diocese of the Rio Grande has actually grown during the decade of evangelism. They have actually planted fifteen new congregations, but their Bishop is one of those old fashioned sorts who actually takes the Bible seriously, so what would you expect?
Two things struck me about the African bishops I met at the Lambeth Conference. One was that they were so young, but I guess if you regularly subdivide dioceses you soon run out of candidates of pensionable age to turn into bishops. The second thing was that they were so evangelical. I don’t mean they were the kind of clappy-happy zombies that the secular press mean by that word, but I do mean that they took the Bible seriously, they treated it as authoritative and they had a real missionary zeal to make disciples. Talking with some of them I was left thinking that I would find it remarkably easy to become part of the establishment in their dioceses, which quite took me by surprise because I’ve never really thought of myself as an establishment figure in England – despite being on General Synod.
It wasn’t just the Africans, though. There were bishops from all over the world – from South America, Asia and Australasia and when the chips came down there was a remarkable consensus amongst them for grounding the doctrines of the Church in Scripture, as best they understood it. The amendment to the motion on sexuality from Archbishop Donald Mtetemala of Tanzania summed it up consummately and his fellow bishops endorsed his sentiments with an 80% vote.
The presenting issue was sexuality, but the real issue was clearly the authority of scripture – a point not lost on the minority. It must have come as a shock to those who have fondly imagined that their views were consensus Anglicanism, to discover that in a world context it is they (rather than the conservatives) who are out on a limb. Orthodox members of the Church of England can take heart from the ringing endorsement of orthodoxy from the Lambeth conference. Anglicanism is still orthodox, even if some English and American bishops might wish otherwise.
The Archbishop of Canterbury emerged from the three weeks of Lambeth with increased stature. He was widely credited with having managed the conference exceedingly well and my impression was that he looked far more comfortable and assured in his role as the elder statesman of the Worldwide Anglican Communion, than he sometimes does sitting on top of the ant heap that is the Church of England.
It is now plain for all to see that many of the Bishops of the Church of England are out of step with the provinces of the Anglican Communion worldwide, and that is like a breath of fresh air. Our innate insularity tends to look out from the Provinces of Canterbury and York and see only the Church of Ireland, the Church in Wales and the Scottish Episcopal Church. We find that they are in no better shape than the Church of England and in a perverse way we find that reassuring. We hear of innovations in America, Canada and New Zealand, and hearing of little else, we assume that they are typical of worldwide Anglicanism. Anywhere like the Diocese of Sydney is dismissed as untypical and like lemmings we march onward unthinkingly – until Lambeth.
Already there is talk of a backlash against the orthodoxy of the majority of the Bishops, and no doubt a backlash will come. It will be orchestrated by the dioceses (mainly American) that have their PR machines well oiled and their spin doctors at the ready. We won’t hear much from the third world dioceses who have their hands full planting new churches, discipling new converts, trying to find the means to train new clergy and trying to stretch their shoe string finances to do everything else as well.
Let us give thanks that the Lambeth Conference gave their bishops a voice. And let us remember the message their bishops gave us, because they may not have the resources to tell us twice.
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.