Divisions are deep but can be healed, Archbishop of Canterbury tells ACC

Communion's future rests on how it structures its relationships, Williams says
May 10, 2009

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in his presidential address to the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) here May 11 compared the Anglican Communion's long-standing divisions to those in the Holy Land.

"The other day we were giving quite intense attention to the situation in the Holy Land and in that discussion I thought there are echoes of language we hear nearer home," Williams said. "Well, thank God, our divisions and our fears are not as deep and as poisonous as those between communities in the Holy Land, but I think you may see why some of the same language occasionally awakes echoes."

It was also through the lens of Holy Land politics that Williams suggested during his address a possible way forward.

"People find each other in the depths of suffering they have endured; something shifts when those who bear the heaviest cost on either side find each other," he said.

To illustrate this, he shared the story of an Israeli mother whose son had been killed by a Palestinian sniper and a Palestinian man whose brother had been killed by an Israeli soldier. The two travelled Britain together and shared their stories and talked of the "imperative necessity of being with one another."

He then asked: Who are the people who bear the deepest cost in the Anglican Communion?

"There are some who would say that in this conflict the credibility of Christianity itself is at stake," Williams said.

For some gays and lesbians, Christian credibility has been shattered by a sense of rejection and scapegoating, he continued. They cannot commend the Christianity they love and believe in because they are caught up in a community where scapegoating and rejection is ingrained, he said.

Others feel the decisions made elsewhere in the world have undermined their witness which, Williams said, prevents them from commending the Christianity they long to share with ease and confidence with their neighbors.

"Deep costs; different costs. How can they come together so that they can recognize the cost that the other bears and recognize the deep seriousness about Jesus and his gospel?"

The answer, he suggested, might not solve the problem, but it could go towards dealing with conflict in a Christian way.

The May 2-12 meeting of the ACC, Williams said, has not given any evidence that the Anglican Communion doesn't have a future. Instead, questions surround what that future will look like.

Williams said that some people see the communion looking like a federation -- a more dispersed association where some alliances are stronger than others. Such an organization, the archbishop warned, may be inevitable if all provinces don't sign on to the covenant once it is sent to them for consideration.

"I hasten to add that's not what I hope, it's what I think we have to reflect on as a real possibility," he said, noting if that is the direction that communion takes, the challenge will be how to carry out its shared mission. If the communion is to have varying allegiances, Williams said, the instruments of communion will become even more important in connecting those relationships to a common vision of mission.

"It is the ceaseless rhetoric of fear and competition directed backward and forward in the fellowship that are fatal to that life-giving exchange," Williams said.

Williams commended the council for their May 8 endorsement of many of the recommendations in the Windsor Continuation Group's final report and the planned revision of last section of the proposed Anglican covenant, as well as the timeframe for that work.

He recognized the ACC members' potential reluctance to discuss the proposed covenant in their home provinces because such discussions might bring divisions to the surface. However, he encouraged them not to delay the discussion until Section Four and its dispute-resolution process is revised.

The full text of the presidential address is available here.

Following Williams' presidential address, the Rev. Ian T. Douglas, the Episcopal Church's clerical representative, said he found Williams' use of the Holy Land metaphor particularly powerful because it put into stark reality how the communion's difficulties measure up to other conflicts, he said.

Bishop Catherine S. Roskam, bishop suffragan in the Diocese of New York, expressed appreciation for Williams' gracefulness. "He has an extraordinary ability to speak to the different points of view," she said. "As for the rest, I will have to reflect on it further."

As Bishop Ikechi Nwachukwu Nwosu of the Church of Nigeria made his way out of the chapel, he slowed down when asked for his thoughts, but didn't stop. He shook his head and said: "Anything anyone is doing without an eye on success isn't worth doing." Nwosu was apparently referring to a distinction that Williams made between "glorious failure" in which one must face one's own failing and try again, and "miserable failure" in which one convinces oneself that failure hasn't happened.

After the address, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori focused on Williams' reminder that the ACC had done a great bit of planning for common mission in theological and development work, and how Anglicans can better partner to accomplish that mission.

The 40-year-old ACC is the communion's most representative decision-making body and includes bishops, clergy and laity. While it has no jurisdiction over the provinces of the communion, it makes policy, approves the Anglican Communion Office's budget and encourages the communion's members to engage together in mission and ministry. The Anglican Communion is made up of around 77 million members in 44 regional and national churches around the globe in 164 countries.