When Bishops arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for their annual fall meeting in late September, the destruction from Hurricane Katrina weighed heavily on them. Some compared it to a previous meeting in Vermont, just one month after 9/11.
They changed the agenda to hear from bishops whose dioceses suffered from the storm and floods and to discuss the federal government’s lack of response after the destruction of thousands of homes and businesses and dislocation of a half-million people. They also talked about societal problems revealed by the hurricane.
“The harsh wind of Hurricane Katrina exposed fundamental injustices and environmental neglect and abuse, and blew away any pretence that the inequities of race and class have been overcome in our nation or among us,” they said in a statement after their six-day meeting.
“A crisis like Katrina strengthens our resolve to challenge racial, economic and other social injustices and to respond to the unmet needs around the world, as well as close to home.”
They adopted a resolution opposing the suspension of the provisions of the Federal Guidelines of the Davis-Bacon Act, which call for paying prevailing wages in federal contracts for relief and rebuilding areas affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Despite their opportunity to plan strategy for hurricane recovery, several bishops expressed frustration when they had to discuss the current internal dissent and fracturing within the denomination and in the Anglican Communion, rather than deal with mission.
“We have collectively the power to do so much good,” said Suffragan Bishop Johncy Itty of the Diocese of Oregon, adding he was impatient by the failure to move ahead. “We have to think creatively about using our power for good.”
Bishop Paul Marshall of the Diocese of Bethlehem suggested a “fast.” “For the next 18 months, let’s not talk about how we’re getting on and focus instead on what we’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “Let’s be more focused on mission.”
The bishops spend too much time “rearranging chairs,” said Bishop Michael Klusmier of the Diocese of West Virginia. “We need to do maintenance and mission. We have accountability to one another, but also to our church and our Lord.” The bishops have one more meeting planned, a retreat at a conference center near Houston next March, before General Convention meets in June.
Two guests, retired Bishop Michael Nutall of the Diocese of Natal, who worked with South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Archbishop Khotso Makhulu, retired primate of Central Africa, talked about forbearance and reconciliation. They spoke from their experience of the effects of apartheid in South Africa.
“Let us begin to recognize our mutual belonging and responsibility for one another,” Makhulu said. “This can be expressed through encounter, listening and hearing, meeting
each other -- an open mind, humility, prayer, love and infinite patience, and mutual engagement enhancing bonds of affection.”
The Anglican Communion “is living a number of inconsistencies,” he said, specifying that “it is not so long ago when divorces were dealt with in a legalistic manner ... that opposition to the ordination of women was justified on the grounds that it conflicted with Paul’s view of headship ... that the Lambeth Conference of 1988 gave a pastoral report on polygamy.
“I would be interested to know how those who take a literal view of Scripture square their agreement to this ... and now sexual orientation is generating a lot of heat with vehement denials out of Africa,” he said. “South Africa is quite open about it, whilst other people in other parts of Africa are obliged to live in a clandestine manner.”
Makhulu said he was disappointed to learn that some bishops deliberately stayed away from the bishops’ meeting because of theological reasons. Those absent included several bishops affiliated with the conservative Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes, said Robert Williams, the church’s communication director.
Nuttal talked about the concept of “spiritual desolation” and his belief that it can be a corporate as well as an individual experience. “I suspect the concept of corporate desolation is something the Anglican Communion may be experiencing right now,” he said.