Hearing the call
I didn't expect to hear seagulls in Canterbury, but they were a frequent and insistent background as we listened, conversed, prayed and sang together through the nearly three weeks of the Lambeth Conference. For me, those seagulls were a recurring reminder of the presence of the Spirit.
Our time together began in retreat at Canterbury Cathedral. The Archbishop of Canterbury gave several meditations, and the bishops had abundant time for reflection and prayer in the ancient holy sites: a shrine of Thomas Becket, murdered in the cathedral; the oldest Huguenot worship space, still used by French protestants each Sunday; a chapel of the saints and martyrs, where the Melanesian martyrs were remembered in the closing worship service.
Our first Sunday Eucharist was highlighted by a remarkable sermon from the Bishop of Colombo and a gospel procession led by the Melanesian brothers and sisters. A profound Pentecostal moment arose each time we prayed the Lord's Prayer in our own mother tongues.
Our days were shaped by Bible study in groups of 8-10. I joined bishops from Scotland, Ireland, England, Guinea, Tanzania, New Zealand, Japan, Massachusetts, and a Japanese-English translator. As we studied, prayed over and discussed the "I am" sayings in the Gospel according to John, we built and deepened relationships and discovered common challenges as well as major differences in our various contexts. We were able to have challenging conversations, in a respectful atmosphere that encouraged us to understand our differences, even if we did not agree. That intimate relational work undergirded all of the other work of the conference.
From Bible study we moved to work in indaba groups of about 40. This Zulu word names a communal process of discernment, like the talking circle known to Native Americans or the quietness committee of the Quaker tradition. We discussed a wide-ranging series of topics, all relating to the bishop and mission.
We spent a day together with the spouses in attendance discussing the abuse of power. On one day in London, we marched together through the streets in support of the Millennium Development Goals, and were addressed by the prime minister, who promised significant work on the part of his government toward meeting those goals.
The overwhelming sense was of relationships made and strengthened, a firm commitment to remain in relationship despite the challenges and a yearning for greater exchange between the widely separated parts of the communion. We did not resolve anything, but we did discover how much we have to learn.
One bishop in India reported that a priest had to obtain a certificate from the local magistrate before conducting a baptism, to prevent coerced conversion. The penalty for conducting a baptism without such a certificate is 3-4 years in prison and a major fine.
Others talked of the difficulty of evangelism in Muslim societies. Yet others told of social customs that made pastoral support very difficult. A widow in some parts of Africa may be forced to marry her dead husband's brother if she wants to keep her children and any property her family has accumulated. Refusal means all will be inherited by her husband's family. The church finds it difficult to support either a woman's right to self-determination, or her entry into a polygamous marriage.
Many non-Western bishops found their understandings of same-sex relationships expanded.
Bishops in Madagascar spoke of cyclones that destroy much of the crops and buildings in their dioceses, often several times in one year. They hope to build churches that can be havens from the storms and educational centers during the week. One said to us, "I
will build more churches and fill them with the poor."
That image underscores the necessity of our partnership in God's mission with other parts of the communion. Together, we compose one of the largest distribution systems on the planet, one that can begin to build the reign of God, if we can answer the call to be Christ to our brothers and sisters.
The challenge for us will be sorting out how we live together in this diverse communion. That is not a new challenge, but it is exacerbated by the rapidity and pervasiveness of today's communication and the need to honestly confront the legacy of colonialism. The coming months and years will bring invitations to enter more deeply into challenging relationships. Those invitations will annoy, sadden or frighten some of us, yet that is where God has always called us to go.
We are a pilgrim people, and we are not invited to settle down in comfort until all God's people are able to do the same. This Lambeth Conference was a profound reminder that we are responsible to and for each other, and that the journey is about being companions of Jesus on the Way. Along the way, we are meant to listen for the call of the Spirit, in seagulls and the stranger.