[Episcopal News Service] Two-dozen bishops from Africa and North America have renewed their pledge to reconciliation in the Anglican Communion and to walking together as a family despite deep cultural and theological differences.
The fifth Consultation of Anglican Bishops in Dialogue was held May 22-25 in Coventry, England, and for the first time included four African primates, or senior archbishops. Together, the bishops have committed “to consider Christ’s ministry of reconciliation in the world [and] to sharing a journey … into God’s intended future for humankind and all of the creation.”
Bishop Stacy Sauls, chief operating officer for the Episcopal Church and one of two Episcopal Church bishops participating in the Coventry gathering, described the consultation as a pivotal moment for bridge-building efforts in the Anglican Communion.
“I have come to wonder if the impediment to our communion as we have experienced it is neither justice nor orthodoxy, but pride. As we have come to understand one another as children of God and bishops deeply committed to the Gospel ministry of reconciliation, the wall of pride that has divided us has begun to crumble,” said Sauls.
Diocese of Colorado Bishop Rob O’Neill was the other Episcopal Church bishop attending the consultation.
Sudanese Bishop Anthony Poggo from the Diocese of Kajo Keji said he has greatly valued being a part of the consultation. “It’s important for us to respect each other and continue to talk with each other as part of one family,” Poggo, who was attending his third consultation, told ENS. “Some of us have taken a different view on various issues within Scripture, but this does not mean we look at the other person as an enemy.”
For Poggo, one of the main fruits of the consultation has been “to meet with my brothers and sisters from other parts of the communion, to renew friendships and also to have hope that we are one family although we have different opinions.”
In a testimony, released May 29, the bishops recommit to what they identify as their “foundational call as reconcilers” and ask forgiveness for their failures.
“We testify first that we find ourselves to be brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. It seems an obvious point, but it has not always been taken for granted. Some have claimed otherwise. It is a deception,” they say.
The leaders – from Burundi, Canada, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, United States and Zambia – also commit to understanding one another’s differences, listening more deeply, and learning about each other’s contexts.
“We have a lot to witness to a much-divided world,” Archbishop Colin Johnson of the Dioceses of Toronto and of Moosonee in the Anglican Church of Canada, told ENS. “Conversation is powerful as we ‘turn toward’ one another in mutual respect, learn from each other, and in the process of conversation we are converted by the always present third party to the conversation, the Holy Spirit.”
The consultation – which has met previously in London (2010), Dar es Salaam (2011), Toronto (2012), and Cape Town (2013) – was created in response to differences concerning human sexuality issues and grew out of an informal gathering at the 2008 Lambeth Conference that Johnson convened.
“I was determined that the moderate voices among Anglican bishops needed to be heard,” Johnson told ENS. Those voices, he said, include people who believe that the Anglican Communion is not falling apart and who want “to maintain and indeed deepen the relationships of mutual support and prayer that have been the hallmark of our life together as Anglicans.”
The Rev. Canon Isaac Kawuki Mukasa, who served on Johnson’s diocesan staff at the time and who was named in January as Africa relations officer for both the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, organized the first gathering of 11 bishops in London.
Since that first meeting, other bishops have been invited to join the consultation to replace retiring members or supplement those who could not attend.
Kawuki Mukasa believes that the consultation over the past five years has made a “considerable impact” on communion-wide reconciliation.
At the first meeting, “there was a good deal of apprehension on both sides,” Kawuki Mukasa told ENS. But with each successive meeting walls were broken down and the bishops came to realize that “they were actually doing the same kind of mission in different contexts,” he said by telephone from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where he is meeting with church partners.
Kawuki Mukasa noticed that the questions and engagement between the bishops became more candid. “That truth-telling and honesty began to show there was a great deal of trust building between them, which reflected the kind of friendships that were developing,” he said.
Kawuki Mukasa described the Coventry consultation as “a gamechanger.”
“It’s not that they are in agreement on the issues that divide them but they are committed to walk together,” he said.
Kawuki Mukasa, who was ordained in the Anglican Church of Uganda in 1984, said that many African bishops “are tired of fighting.
“They have strong beliefs about human sexuality, but they also feel they were misled by their leaders,” he said, noting their recognition that conservative and breakaway Anglicans “came and occupied provincial offices and tried to lead them into a fight. Many African leaders are beginning to get tired of being used to fight this war.”
There is a “great appetite for conciliatory voices,” Kawuki Mukasa said. “We are turning a corner.”
Johnson told ENS that the main objective of the consultation is “to listen more than speak, to learn about each others’ missional contexts and to understand one another.
“We have discovered that what brings us together is much more central to our beliefs and profound in our calling than what causes division. We have discovered that we are all faithfully trying to live out Christ’s call to be disciples and to be the Church in our local contexts. We have learned from one another and we have developed deepening friendships.”
Johnson said that bishops have a responsibility to build bridges across divides, “interpret our local community to the wider church and the wider church to our local church. This group is doing that informally, as a grassroots initiative.”
The decision to meet at Coventry Cathedral was described in the testimony as “providential.” Out of the ashes of the former cathedral, destroyed during World War II, grew a ministry of reconciliation, symbolized by the resurrection of a new cathedral built in the 1960s and embodied in the Community of the Cross of Nails housed there.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who has identified reconciliation as his main priority, joined the consultation for a day of prayer, teaching, and conversation. Welby’s presence “had a profound impact on each of us and was an important influence in our subsequent deliberations,” according to the testimony.
“We were struck by Archbishop Justin’s own request for prayer. Pray, he said, for the wisdom to know the right way toward reconciliation, for the patience to know when to act, and for courage to act. Finally, we testify to our intention to pray for Archbishop Justin as well as the Anglican Communion, especially for wisdom, patience, and courage. We commit ourselves to each other’s prayers, and yours, as well. Pray, we ask, for wisdom, patience, and courage.”
The group also heard presentations on reconciliation efforts from other parts of the Anglican Communion represented by bishops present at the consultation.
In their testimony, the bishops recognize that reconciliation is possible only among those willing to be reconciled and commit to “being a Eucharistic community, invoking the Holy Spirit by gathering together as diverse people to be strengthened by prayer, word and sacrament in order to go into the world to witness to the reconciling love and power of God.”
The bishops also commit to encouraging similar conversations among others “and deepening our understanding of the cultural influences on the theology that underpins reconciliation.”
The Rt. Rev. Mark MacDonald, National Indigenous Anglican Bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada, said he found the gathering invigorating and illuminating and sensed an “openness and willingness to listen that is rare.”
MacDonald, who also participated in the 2013 consultation, said the gathering has helped him to view the Anglican Communion in a different way. “We have a unique, critical and essential role to play in the body of Christ,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt such an urgent need and calling to preserve the blessed vocation that we have in the Anglican Communion.”
Although the consultation grew out of theological and cultural differences concerning issues of human sexuality, MacDonald said the conversations were not dominated by that topic. “Certainly those things didn’t disappear and disagreements didn’t disappear. There was a lot of honesty and openness about those. We have profound differences and nobody wanted to paper over that,” he said.
But despite those differences, MacDonald said that the consultation provided an important opportunity for deepening fellowship.
“We talked about the fact that one of the primary signs of our redemption is our love for other Christians … We came away from this reminded of that, but also with some sense that we do really love one another. Despite our differences there is passion about who we are as brothers and sisters in Christ, but also who we are as people with a very distinct calling.”
Johnson says he has grown increasingly hopeful with each encounter. “It is clear to me that the Anglican Communion is full of life and has enormous potential as a witness that unity is not uniformity, that diversity is a gift of the Spirit and does not necessarily lead to division (and is a reflection of God’s own life in Trinity), and that conflicts that arise because of differences can be healed by praying together, conversation, listening, mutual understanding and patience, rather than by separation and dis-enfranchising the other.”
Information from the previous consultation meetings, including testimonies and video interviews, is here.
– Matthew Davies is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.