It is now Day 3 of the Lambeth Conference (29 July) and Archbishop Justin Welby has just given his opening keynote address (more of that below).
But what on earth have all those bishops been doing, since some of them arrived on the Kent campus on Tuesday evening 26 July? Some of them, of course, will have been recovering from long air-flights, more than 24 hours from some Pacific locations. They then had a day and a half in retreat, for study, prayer and devotion. In other words, talking with God rather than with each other.
One must not think of a Lambeth conference as an event starting on a certain day but rather as a process, with preparation and planning that started a few years ago. The Conference programme lists three phases:
- Walking together:
Bishops have already been meeting online in groups to have conversations about the themes some months or even years ago
- Listening together:
This is the full event which is happening now, of meeting in Canterbury
- Witnessing together:
This will happen after the Conference as the Lambeth Calls are shared and further action is taken around the Anglican communion.
God’s Church for God’s world
The theme of the conference is “God’s Church, for God’s World”.
The Bible meditations are based on the first letter of Peter. Each day of the conference will begin with meditation shaped by chapters of 1 Peter. It is worth a read to see why this has been chosen. It starts with praise and living hope, but also mentions that the Christians are suffering from various trials.
In the last chapter it speaks directly to the “elders”, who we may assume are church leaders, the ones who “tend that flock of God whose shepherds you are.” Continuing with the shepherding theme, it goes on with the memorable verse “be alert, your enemy the devil, like a roaring lion, prowls around looking for someone to devour. Stand firm in faith.”
This theme is picked up by Archbishop Justin in his opening address. The full text of it can be found here (23 minute read). Like Peter’s letter, this starts with the joy of faith in Jesus, but moves on to the suffering of Christians:
“Many come from places of suffering”
“Many, perhaps most of the people here, certainly a majority, come from places of suffering. I know that. I’ve had the privilege of visiting many of them with Caroline.”
It is telling that one reason Justin Welby gave for not scheduling the Lambeth conference for 2018 was that he wanted to visit more of the dioceses of the Anglican Communion first to understand where participants were coming from.
Bishop as shepherd
It is the job of the bishop to protect the flock from “roaring lions.” What are these? Archbishop Justin goes on to list:
“For those here who came in 2008, in the last 14 years, we have seen since then the impact of the collapse of western banking system, the end of globalisation of trade, Covid-19, the catastrophe that we are facing and particularly in the global south over world food prices and availability, the biggest crisis in food availability in over half a century – a major war involving a nuclear armed power – as well as hundreds of other conflicts impacting so many of us here; and with growing force and spread, we are affected by climate change.
On top of those global changes, there has been a great roaring of lions in so many of our own countries. Wars, persecution, civil disorder, poverty have struck hardest at the weakest and the poorest in the flock…”
Call to look outward
He goes on to give a warning about the church being too preoccupied with internal disputes. This a reference to the debate about the marriage of homosexuals, which has already been headlined as a major cause for division in the Anglican communion. He states “the church that turns inwards, that fails to hear the roaring of the lions, is going to fail.”
The church must be God’s for God’s world. So for the bishops, “Unless we understand what is happening in the world, we cannot prepare for the opportunities or the threats it brings. We cannot teach the people of God properly how to face the crises they experience.”
The lion’s roars
He then runs through a list: first is the “roar” of science, with developments in health research, in artificial intelligence, new weapons like drones, and crop research. The second is power and wealth, where the rich gain from all these advances and the poor are shut out. Here he also mentions the education network of the Anglican Communion where the young can gain access to science and technology.
The next “roar” he mentions, the biggest, is climate change which may also bring huge migration of peoples.
Then there is religious extremism: “Since we last met in 2008, thousands of Anglicans have lost their lives as martyrs.”
And government or factional hostility: “We only have to look around this room – look at your neighbours and you will see those who live amidst war and Government oppression.”
He also talked of economic inequality and the rich who hide their wealth in tax havens. And the inequality that causes banditry, with a grisly anecdote about how he was threatened at gunpoint by a drunk militia leader in Nigeria.
Beware of a culture without God
The final “lion” he describes is stealthy, “the culture that seeks to construct itself without God”. He points out that “Culture consumes us so cleverly that we do wrong without even being aware of it.”
He rounds off with the exhortation, “We must, as God’s shepherds hear the lions, understand them and be a global church.”
Expect the bulletins in Kent Bylines during the forthcoming days to reveal how God’s shepherds propose to deal with all those lions! The agenda systematically covers those that the Archbishop listed in this opening keynote address.
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