The first day of the Lambeth Conference was a retreat for bishops in the hallowed halls of Canterbury Cathedral. That morning I sat jet-lagged in the cathedral, waiting for worship to begin, feeling apprehensive about how the various long-running conflicts in the Anglican Communion would affect our time together. Then the organ began to play a grand, familiar tune, and I stood with 650 other bishops and began to sing “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ Her Lord.” But somehow, I found that I couldn’t sing. I was tearing up, thinking of all the times I had sung that hymn, as a child, as a priest, in churches I’ve loved, in your churches as your bishop. I thought of that same hymn being sung in other churches all over the world, to the same tune, praising the same Lord, and I wept to be part of a worldwide communion of faith that is built on our great cornerstone, Jesus Christ. As our theme scripture for the conference, 1 Peter, says:
See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame…. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 1 Peter 2:6, 9-10.
For me, that moment brought home to me my great love not only for the Christ we follow, but for the sprawling, imperfect, squabbling family we call the Anglican Communion, some 85 million people all over the world. Despite all its faults, despite the ill-advised way this conference almost fell apart over sexuality conflicts (which I’ve described to you previously), I love this family of faith, and I believe in its power to proclaim the gospel to a hurting, struggling world.
Most of the Lambeth Conference takes place on the campus of the University of Kent in England, but its spiritual home is Canterbury Cathedral, revered in literature and history. In 597, St. Augustine landed in Kent and established his headquarters in Canterbury, having been sent by Pope Gregory to evangelize the English. Augustine found Christianity already here before him (the nearby St. Martin’s Church was already in use as a Christian church, and is the oldest parish church in continuous use in Britain), yet Canterbury Cathedral is still considered the home church of English Christianity. Archbishop Thomas Becket was martyred here in 1170 after King Henry II famously cried, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” The cathedral became a destination for pilgrimages honoring Becket’s martyrdom, and one such fictional pilgrimage became the setting for Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic work of English literature, “The Canterbury Tales.”
For Episcopalians like us, Canterbury is part of a distant, sometimes quaint, but often treasured history. The Church of England was transplanted to the American continent, like many other parts of the world, through British colonialism. When the United States became independent of Great Britain, we effectively originated the Anglican Communion by continuing Anglican
Christianity in a new country, not swearing allegiance to England’s king, but creating our own structures to govern our new American church in the Anglican tradition. Other Anglican churches throughout the world are also self-governed, but maintain “bonds of affection” with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the head of the Church of England and therefore the head of the Anglican Communion. Our worldwide Anglican Communion is not one church (unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which has a unified form of governance), but a family of churches that are both autonomous and interdependent. We are the third largest family of churches in the world, behind the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the autonomy and interdependence of our churches causes tensions at times, such as the 24-year struggle over human sexuality that has drawn so much attention since Lambeth 1998. (Please see my recent letter about how that struggle played out at this year’s conference.)
It’s unfortunate that our Anglican disagreements take so much time and energy, because this year’s conference addressed mission imperatives for God’s church, and I came away feeling inspired and empowered for Christ’s ministry. The mismanaged process of issuing “Calls” nevertheless resulted in some powerful documents calling our churches to take essential actions on God’s mission. Take a look at the Call document – it has numerous important inspirations for ministry, and would make a terrific basis for study in a church (or diocese) discerning new mission. (It is not yet in final form; bishops at the conference gave input that will be taken into account in finalizing the Calls.) I am particularly interested in supporting initiatives inspired by the Discipleship, Mission and Evangelism, Creation Care, and Reconciliation portions of the document.
But even more than that, I came away inspired by the stories and experiences of our siblings in faith throughout the world. So many of our Anglican brothers and sisters live in places of poverty, where their lives are threatened by war, like the South Sudanese bishop I met who became a refugee from war three days after his consecration, and is now a bishop in exile in a refugee camp. Others are persecuted religious minorities, like my small-group member from Bangladesh, who works to maintain good relationships with the non-Christian authorities to protect his people. Others live in places of natural disasters or long-term deprivation due to climate change. One of the most touching moments came on the last full day of the conference, as leaders read statements of support for various suffering areas of the world – please read the Statements of Support here. Our own Presiding Bishop Michael Curry read a statement of support for victims of gun violence in the US. Besides the written statements linked, others were read about local situations by bishops from Mexico, Brazil, Iran, Afghanistan, Central America, Papua New Guinea, South Sudan, Kenya, and the Philippines. We Episcopalians are truly part of a worldwide family of faith, connected through Christ to difficult situations in almost every country of the world.
We are connected to them, not only in their suffering, but in their joy. The faith in Christ is palpable. This is a community of people who know, deep in their bones, that they are beloved, that Christ lived and died for them, that Christ’s will for them and this world is wholeness and reconciliation – all the peoples of the world gathered as one, in a kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven. This Anglican Communion, in all our differences, is still a community of siblings in love and partners in mission.
In his closing sermon, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby challenged us (paraphrased from his sermon, as I took notes the best I could):
The kingdom of God breaks down our theological barriers and overrules our frontiers and theological border guards. We set out as a revolutionary movement that is God’s church in Christ….God dares us to join a whole new way of being, and the Holy Spirit gives us the power to take up the dare. What we gain is not what the world tells us we should want. What the world values is not what God values. Following God guides us to riches beyond treasure, treasure in heaven, a world that looks more like the kingdom. A kingdom where people do not suffer because of where they were born, because of the scandal of poverty, where people are not persecuted because of their faith or ethnicity or sexuality. In this kingdom, we are … called again to conversion of life. Called to pray daily to God: I trust you. Hear my heart crying out to you. Whatever happens, I trust that in some wonderful and mysterious way you will feed me for eternity, with a wafer and wine over which a prayer has been said, so that in the host I see a crucified God.
This conversion expands our world. We have met with people from all corners of the globe, from contexts and experiences totally alien to ours. We have found the antidote to fear, in John: perfect love casts out fear. God’s promises will be fulfilled. We will see abundance out of barrenness, riches out of poverty. God’s promise releases us to be radical, bold, revolutionary. It challenges us today to have courage, have faith in God, be brave enough to defy the world by loving one another without ceasing.
Do not fear. Take heart. Take courage. It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
Amen, my siblings in Christ. Amen to the courage of faith, Amen to our Anglican siblings who have so much to help us learn. Amen to Christ, who leads us into mission in God’s beloved world. Thanks be to God.
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