Tuesday, September 02, 2008
Lambeth: Something Old, Something New
A long, long time ago, in a galaxy of reality far, far away, I was once a labor-delivery room nurse. My shift was characterized by long periods of anticipation and boredom, punctuated by intense moments of activity.
A very short while ago, in a galaxy of reality which seemed further away than it actually was, I was at the Lambeth Conference 2008 in Canterbury, England. My time there often felt very much like my shift in the labor-delivery room.
Our Presiding Bishop believes that something new is about to be born in the Anglican Communion. While she may be right, that was not exactly my experience or perspective. Rather, it felt to me as if some things very old and most ancient were struggling to stay alive.
What things, you ask?
Patriarchy. Hierarchy. Sexism. The certainty that comes with the traditional cultural paradigm, the structure that supports it and the system which enables it.
The Indaba Groups, from the South African term for “doing business” proved, for the most part, to promote “business as usual”. The prelates in our church spent much of their time learning what it means to be a bishop in the Anglican Communion from a variety of personal perspectives and worldviews.
I suppose that is, in and of itself, not a bad thing, especially if it was as necessary, as the Archbishop of Canterbury and his planning team apparently determined that it, in fact, was.
It does, however, beg the question, “Why?”
In the tediously long hours of anticipation and boredom, I had some time to consider this question. The short answer is that when we elect or, as in the case of some provinces, appoint a bishop in the church, I think we forget ourselves, what it means to be a bishop in and of the Church. We forget our own catholicity at our own peril.
Too often, we elect or appoint leaders who will make us feel good locally, who won’t rock the board. We want someone who is strong, but not necessarily courageous. We want someone who is articulate, but not necessarily outspoken. We like to think we have elected a prophet, but woe be unto the bishop who actions are considered ‘prophetic.”
We forget that, increasingly, a bishop is someone who will be a participant not only locally in our churches, or at the diocesan level or even nationally at General Convention, but internationally on the world stage of the global Anglican Communion.
Suddenly, the stakes of our actions in electing spiritual leaders in the church have become almost as high as electing the political leaders of our government.
Let those who have ears, hear.
Which brings me to an insight about Lambeth in general and the Church in particular: I think we, in the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion, are living out in microcosm the tensions the world knows as globalization.
One of the highlights at Lambeth was listening to Sir Jonathan Sachs, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, UK. An orthodox (but not in the sense that many Anglicans use that term) Jew, he is very concerned about the impact of the market-driven nature of communities around the world – from the most remote citizen in a primitive culture to the individual person in the pew in churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues in the sophisticated cities of the Western world.
He argues that globalization is ‘profoundly destabilizing’ and that organized religion can provide identity and meaning, which lead not only to the stabilizing development of moral and ethical codes of behavior, but also to the development of sacred covenants of faith verses fate (this was the topic of his presentation to the Primates and Bishops which you can read about here.)
In his book, The Dignity of Difference, he writes, “If we are to live in close proximity to difference, as in a global age we do, we will need more than a code of rights, more even than mere tolerance. We will need to understand that just as the natural environment depends on biodiversity, so the human environment depends on cultural diversity, because no one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth; no one civilization encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind.”
Not only do bishops need to hear this from and about their own cultural and spiritual contexts, so do we who elect and/or influence the appointment of these spiritual leaders of our Christian communities need to be mindful of the need and respect for diversity in our own church, our Communion, our world.
One thing has become very clear to me, post Lambeth: something that is struggling to stay alive must die in order that something new can emerge and have life. It will require patience, as it will take some time – perhaps another decade or so – which will produce long moments of institutional boredom and anticipation.
In my experience, the institutional church never does well with boredom and anticipation, especially in times of cultural anxiety. We always end up using Scripture as a political football (see cartoon above).
Mostly it will take what Rabbi Sachs calls a “spirit of generosity” to make room for others who are different.
The good Rabbi didn’t say that we must ‘change for others’. He said that we will need to ‘make room for others'. That doesn’t sound like anything vaguely familiar to patriarchy, hierarchy or sexism to me.
It sounds more like life on a galaxy that is moving closer and closer to becoming our present reality.
Are we ready for that?
If Lambeth is any indication, I’d have to repeat a phrase we sometimes used in the labor and delivery room: “Ready or not, here it comes.”