Wednesday 20 August 2008

To the People of God – To the Laos

August 2008

Dear People of God

It is good to be home! Our dog, Toffee, is completely delighted that Lungi and I are back from the Lambeth Conference, and greets us with particular enthusiasm each morning!

My heart and mind are still overflowing with memories of our time in Canterbury, where we exchanged Cape Town’s cold wet winter for hot summer weather. I think of the beauty of the Cathedral; and the wonderfully uplifting worship we enjoyed there and in the ‘Big Tent’ on the university campus where we were based. Here, as all of us, bishops and spouses together, shared in morning Eucharists and evening prayers led by the various Provinces, we were drawn closer to God and one another, even in tense moments: the morning we were to discuss human sexuality, the service was infused with a profound sense of the Lord’s grace and love among us. I think too of the long, but inspiring, day in London, beginning with a walk of witness together with other religious leaders, highlighting the Millennium Development goals and calling on world leaders to meet them, and to form better partnerships with faith communities for overcoming poverty. After lunch in the beautiful grounds of Lambeth Palace, the home of Archbishop Rowan and Jane Williams, we then went to a Buckingham Palace tea party hosted by Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip – an event we shall never forget!

But when I look back, I realise that most of all Lambeth was about relationships – with Jesus, with one another in Christ, and with the world.

From beginning to end, Jesus as Saviour, incarnate in our contexts, was at the very heart of our time together. We started our time together with a wonderful 3-day retreat led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, where he asked us to consider what it means for every believer to be called to be a place where God’s Son is revealed to others. He challenged us to reflect on where we find Jesus revealed, whether through others, through encounters and conversations and circumstances. Many of us were nervous, defensive, or even a bit aggressive, about the disagreements within the Anglican Communion. Our retreat helped us to start by ‘finding ourselves’ in Jesus Christ, and so to be ready to find one another, as brothers and sisters also in Jesus Christ.

We then moved from Retreat to Conference. After Eucharist and breakfast, each day proceeded with Bible Studies in which the same eight of us looked at John’s Gospel, focussing on the person of Jesus, and his ‘I am’ sayings – I am the bread of life; the light of the world; the gate for the sheep; the good shepherd; the resurrection and the life; the way, the truth and the life; the true vine. These Bible Studies were marvellous. As we met morning by morning we were surprised with joy and delight at the extent to which we found Christ in one another, and found one another in Christ.

We were very different in our backgrounds and views, but we learnt to share our faith journeys, the joys and pains of ministry, and our hopes and fears for the Anglican Communion, with ever deepening trust and honesty, openness and vulnerability. It was intensely moving to build relationships in Christ that were far more profound than the differences with which we find ourselves labelled.

After a coffee break our Indaba groups, each comprising five Bible Study Groups, then tackled various aspects of Anglican Identity, and of Equipping Bishops as Leaders in Mission – the twin themes of the Conference. These too became places of deep trust, even as we exchanged very divided opinions and sharp disagreements – but we learnt we could be honest, and held in love and respect by one another. Some people were afraid the Indaba approach was a tactic for avoiding difficult questions. But the reverse was true. We created a safe space where everyone could have their say. We could peel the layers off the onions, so to speak, getting beneath the surface, and grappling with what really mattered. Some members of The Episcopal Church (TEC) in my indaba group, for example, discovered how ignorant they were of the situations in other parts of the world, and of how their actions affected the lives of Bishops and ordinary Christians far away. Other Bishops came to realise that the accounts of the American church that are beamed round the world on television and internet are often not accurate, and certainly don’t tell the whole story.

We also enjoyed many other opportunities to encounter one another and exchange views on important subjects: through optional afternoon seminars on a huge range of topics, through meetings with inspiring speakers, even through conversations in queues at mealtimes!

What then, did we achieve out of all this? Well, one thing we did not do was produce reports and recommendations that were put up for debate and vote, as past Conferences have done. Those of us on the Conference Design Group were conscious that this time we needed something different. The problem with voting is that it means having to take sides, yes or no, for or against, and there has been far too much taking sides, or trying to force people to take sides, within Anglicanism in the last few years. This approach also privileged those who were fluent in English, and practiced and confident at taking the microphone and addressing huge plenary sessions.

For this meeting of the Lambeth Conference, we felt we most needed an opportunity to involve everyone in exploring deeply together both the life of faith to which we are called, and called as leaders of the Anglican Church, and how we are to share that faith through participating in God’s mission to his world. These two objective became encapsulated in our twin themes I’ve already mentioned, of Anglican identity and Bishops as leaders in mission, and we structured the programme far more around small groups, Bible Studies and Indabas – acknowledging also that at previous Lambeth Conferences bishops themselves had generally referred to the fellowship they shared in small groups as what they had valued most.

I think that, to a very considerable extent, we achieved our objective of deep exploration together. What we concluded was this: we do have big differences, and we don’t easily know how to deal with them – but, more than this, we all belong to Jesus Christ, and therefore we belong to each other, and we must, we must, keep on debating and discussing, in mutual care, respect and trust. As several bishops said, the indaba must go on! Of course, it will not be easy. Some bishops stayed away, and we were diminished by their absence. Their perspective would have enriched our sharing, and challenged us more sharply over our disagreements, forcing us to draw even more deeply on the reserves of our common life in Christ.

Therefore, our commitment – as we said in the ‘Reflections’ document that recorded our discussions – is that we should now ‘build bridges, to look for opportunities to share with them the experience we have had in Canterbury and to find ways of moving forward together in our witness to the Lord Jesus Christ,’ and that in the interim, the recommendations of the Windsor report must be upheld – that is, moratoria on the ordination of persons living in a same gender union to the episcopate, on the blessing of same-sex unions, and on cross-border incursions by bishops. In the Reflections, it is suggested that perhaps this might be seen as a ‘season of gracious restraint’. And in the meantime, debate and discussion around these questions will continue – including within our own Province.

At the level of Communion, we will continue to work with the Windsor Report, the draft Covenant, a Pastoral Forum, a possible gathering of the Primates next February, and the planned meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council next July. And we will aim to do so with generosity of spirit. Not everyone is going to agree – but I think for the great majority of us at Lambeth, what matters is relationship more than rules, and this is summed up in our affirmation that ‘The Lord Jesus Christ is the centre of our common life.’

And I hope that we will also take some of these lessons of the Lambeth Conference into the life of this Province and its Dioceses too – especially what we learnt from the indaba processes, and how we must not just be driven by agendas and decisions and outcomes. We will take this to heart at the Synod of Bishops and Provincial Standing Committee meeting in September. Please pray for us as we take all this forward.

More than this, every one of us needs to be conscious of building our lives on our relationship with Jesus, and the relationship that we have with others in him, and in sharing his gospel with his world. This must be the engine of our lives. If we go forward on this basis, the Lambeth Conference was surely a success.

From a personal point of view, it was particularly good to meet my colleagues from the Global South and the Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa, CAPA, many of them for the first time, and begin building relationships with them. Lungi too made many new friends and shared deeply through the Spouses’ Conference, where they also spent a significant and intensely moving time together. They committed themselves to plant a tree each, on their return home, so it might be a prayerful reminder of their rootedness and connectedness – a rootedness and connectedness to one another both through Jesus, and through each being part of God’s creation. They also decided that every spouse will maintain a relationship with one other spouse from somewhere else in the Communion; and that the spouses of our Province should also meet together annually. In addition, they will each take up the challenge to empower and encourage two other women, in order that these in turn can empower and encourage others in witnessing positively to Christ and in community building, as tangible signs of participating in God’s mission, wherever we find ourselves.

There is so much more I could say about our time in Canterbury. Within our discussions, the questions of poverty, of the environment and climate change, of the co-epidemic of TB and HIV and AIDS, and of malaria, were absolutely vital and should not be overshadowed by concerns about human sexuality. Bishops and spouses also grappled together with the hard issues of abuse, especially abuse against women and children, that permeate all our societies and churches. You can read about these, and everything else we considered, in the Reflections document, which is available on-line at

Southern Africa was well represented at the Conference. Congratulations to Bishop Dinis Sengulane, who was the longest serving Bishop present – at his fourth Conference! Our Province, guided by Bishop Merwyn Castle, our liaison bishop for liturgical matters, led Evening Prayer on one occasion, with a good multi-lingual service featuring English, isiXhosa and Afrikaans (though I acknowledge that it was more ‘South’ than truly ‘Southern’ African, with apologies to Dioceses in Angola, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland and St Helena). Several of our bishops also participated in a Sunday service at St Dunstan’s, Canterbury, which was broadcast live on BBC radio ( and link to 27 July), and at which Archbishop Rowan Williams preached the sermon ( I must say that in this, his retreat homilies, his Presidential Addresses, his other sermons, and in the way he led us, he demonstrated his remarkable gifts – not only as a great theologian and teacher and pastor, all that a bishop should be, but as a humble man of great prayer, profound spiritual depths, and a radical and unconditional commitment to personal holiness of life. We are more than blessed to have him as our Archbishop of Canterbury. Do keep him (and Jane who gives him marvellous support and who is a significant Christian leader in her own right), fervently in your prayers, for the times ahead will continue to be more than challenging.

All in all, it was an unforgettable three weeks, though which the Lord blessed us all richly, as we had hoped, and in ways we could never have imagined. Thank you for your prayers – we were very conscious of being carried by the intercessions of God’s faithful people all around the world, as we met.

Let me end this long, long letter (for once the subject warrants it!), with an apology to all those whose nerves were, rightly, jarred by our hybrid mix of Latin and Greek in entitling these ‘Ad Laos’! As you will see, we have amended this slightly, but I do want to retain the word ‘Laos’, as it is used so beautifully in Scripture, for example, when Peter writes of us being ‘God’s own people’ or, in other translations, ‘a people for his own possession’ (1 Pet 2:9). Let us never forget that this is who we are.

And finally, I pass on greetings to you all from our former Archbishop, Philip Russell, who telephoned me before I set off for Lambeth with words of encouragement, especially about the role that we, the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, are called to play as reconciler, given our own profound experiences of the God who reconciles.

Yours in the service of Christ

+Thabo Cape Town

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