Last Lambeth Stuff: Unpacking (not just the suitcase)
The bags are unpacked. The truly heroic weight of printed material is put away.(Okay, well, not all of it, yet. There was a lotof paper.) I am already having to think about the logistics for the next journey.
But before all that, I’m taking stock of how much my imagination has been challenged by the days just past.
I couldn’t imagine being a bishop in a place where your communities are divided between different tribes, in a place where tribal identity is something people kill each other over. And I couldn’t imagine being the only person in that setting with the respect to collect the leaders of both of those tribes in my car, drive them to the local prison, and keep them there – so they would be safe from being killed – until they worked an agreement. But my for my brother Bishop Richard, who ministers in western South Sudan, that’s the mission of God.
I couldn’t imagine being a bishop in a place where the language of my people would mean speaking of God with the word “Allah” – and being taken to court to deny my church the right to use the word. But for my brother Bishop Nelson of Eastern Malaysia, that’s the mission of God. (Ultimately the court in Malaysia ruled that Christians could indeed use the word – but tensions have not abated.)
I could not imagine being a bishop in a diocese where the rate of suicides in the communities I serve is ten times higher than the national average – because of hopelessness, despair, and the inheritance oppression in indigenous communities. But for my brother Bishop Joey, who ministers in the Diocese of the Arctic in Canada, that is the mission of God.
I could not imagine being a bishop in a place where young Muslim men are promised money if they impregnate Christian girls; but for my brother Bishop Vithalis, who cares for communities in the region of Tanzania nearest the Ugandan border, that is the mission of God.
I couldn’t imagine being a bishop in a place where, after more than a century of service to the local community in running schools and a health clinic, a Hindu nationalist government would openly discuss taking the schools by force, refuse permission to train new teachers, or threaten to pave a road through the middle of the compound. But for my sister Bishop Pushpa, the first woman to be made a bishop in the Church of South India, that is the mission of God.
And I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be a bishop so trapped in the assumptions and expectations of the surrounding culture and its economic structures that other bishops would think tragic an inability to understand or effectively act against the damage wrought by that culture to God’s creation, and the climate that is its breath. But I learned that for so many bishops outside the West, that is exactly how they first see me.
Depending on the window you look through, the Lambeth meeting offered glimpses of outrageous hope, times of profound disagreement, moments of profound humility, and a heightened awareness – for all present – of the immense breadth and variety of the cultures, peoples, and hopes bound up in this idea called the “Anglican Communion.”
It was also a salutary reminder, at least for me, that when we fall into the temptation of simply wanting to jettison any further relationship with people who differ from us – when we question the value of this whole enterprise at all – all we are really doing is enacting the larger cultural narrative around us, the one that gives us nationalism, insularity, suspicion, and hatred.And that can only diminish all of us.
That tendency to fall out of community is a story as old as the scriptures and as contemporary as the newspaper. There is nothing new, and certainly nothing original, about tearing apart what is trying to stay together.Critiquing other people’s decisions is easy. Understanding the context in which those decisions get made is not. Said differently, falling out of relationship is the easy thing to do – especially when it seems without apparent cost.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a cost, though.
One of the most interesting and instructive conversations I had during the whole week was with another Canadian bishop who ministers in another far-northern part of the world. He explained to me why the indigenous people in his diocese simply were not ready to take aboard wholesale the Western, progressive, inclusive agenda.
“A long time ago, these communities fully understood the presence of two-spirited peopleamonng them,” he taught me. “Then the church came along and told them that they were wrong. We broke up their families and ran the residential schools that their kids were sent to.
“So now when we come with this new message, it isn’t that my communities oppose or don’t understand the message. It’s that they are tired of being whipsawed by the church.They will get there, or somewhere, on their own terms, rediscovering their own teachings, and reinterpreting ours.”
This same colleague offered a wonderfully corrective view of the whole communion, at least the one seen through North American eyes. After all, we think of religion as a kind of free marketplace of ideas; if you don’t like what’s on offer in the place where you started, you can just choose to move on to another church down the street that might be more to your liking.
We think the world of choice is – at least ideally – unlimited. Indeed, one of the unspoken premises of Western culture is that the more choices you have, the better off you are.
“That isn’t how the world looks from an indigenous village in the north,” my new colleague taught me. “If you leave – just where do you think you’re gonna go?Between you and the next church is four hundred miles, and bears. So where do you think you’re going?”
If that’s the world you live in, the discipline you bring to staying in community is a great deal more developed. But – here is the real wisdom in what my friend taught me - the world you and I live in may be a lot more like the world his indigenous communities see than we know.Really, if we walk away from this Communion – just where do we think we're gonna go? To a place of people who all think like me? Where’s the growth, the challenge, the reminder of humility, in that?
I don’t know whether I’ll ever be able to attend another Lambeth. I’m not even sure there will be another one; the centrifugal forces on the Communion are powerfully strong just now, and don’t really have a lot to do with the presenting issues of sexuality. There is something else happening, something about power, and a sense of exhaustion (or resentment) at being condescended to for so long, and an open questioning of the value of multiculturalism, not least (perhaps especially) within the church.
But I certainly have been changed, in good ways, by this experience. My imagination has been stretched far more than I thought it could be. From here on out, I think I'll pack less – so that I can carry some of that with me.