Presidential Address – Governing Body, September 2003

During the week last April when I was elected Archbishop, I must have
given at least twenty-five interviews to the press and television in
both Welsh and English. Two matters dominated the questions asked. The
first concerned the constant decline in membership of the Church in Wales
over the last ten years and what I intended to do to reverse that trend.
(It’s interesting to note that the media at least think that the
Archbishop has real power and think it’s all down to me to reverse
this trend – no matter how many times I said that it did not all
depend on me, but on all of us, they would not let go of the question).
It is of course a crucial matter and I will return to it in a future
presidential address since we are trying to do something about this at
the present time in the Diocese of Llandaff. But it definitely is not
just a matter for me. The second question concerned human sexuality.
The line here was, given Archbishop Rowan’s liberal views (how
he loves being called a Liberal!) did I intend to follow in the same
vein? Again the assumption was that it was the Archbishop alone who determined
such matters. All of that happened of course, before the appointment
and withdrawal of Canon Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading and the subsequent
furore at the appointment of Canon Gene Robinson to the bishopric of
New Hampshire in America. Those two things have, to say the least, caused
debate across the Anglican Communion and beyond. Those two events had
not occurred when the Primates met in Brazil in May this year, but as
a result of them, the Archbishop of Canterbury has called an extraordinary
meeting of Primates in Lambeth in October. The press has been constantly
asking me whether I have any advice to give to Archbishop Rowan. My response
has always been that he has received more than enough advice already – most
of it unhelpful and it was not part of my job to add to his problems.
Nor do I want in this presidential address to deal in depth with human
sexuality in general or same sex relations in particular, but what I
do want to do is to look at the some of the general issues that are at
stake here and the background against which the debate needs to be conducted.

The five general issues that I want to talk about are:

  1. The Authority and Interpretation of Scripture
  2. The nature of Anglicanism
  3. Decision making within the Anglican
    Communion
  4. The place of Lambeth Resolutions
  5. The sexual issue in a wider context

Now all of those are enormous questions in themselves and all I can
do is to touch upon them, but by doing so you might be able to see how
any one issue has any ramifications in all kinds of ways, which is why
of course feelings are running so high within the Communion.

1. THE AUTHORITY AND INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE

The central issue is the use and interpretation of Scripture, since
the critics of developments in the Anglican Communion claim that Scripture
must be followed without deviance.

The Anglican understanding is summed up in the Thirty-Nine Articles
of Religion. The sixth article of religion states that the Old and the
New Testament “contain all things necessary to salvation”.
They are the word of God, not because God dictated every word in them
but because the Church came to believe that God inspired its human authors
through His spirit to reveal His plan of salvation for the world. The
Holy Scriptures provide the basis and guiding principle for our relationship
with God and they do so through narrative, law, prophecy and poetry through
quite a diverse collection of documents written by a variety of authors
at different times and places. Here are to be found the responses of
God’s people to God’s saving acts – which come to a
climax in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus who for
Christians is God’s human face. The New Testament bears witness
to Jesus and the effect he had on the early Christian community. You
might then think that if we want to know what the Bible says about a
particular topic all we have to do is just look it up, see what it says
and then apply it. The snag is that that method of reading scripture
can lead to problems, e.g. Exodus 21.15 reads, “whoever hits his
father or mother shall be put to death”, Exodus 21.17 reads, “whoever
curses his father or mother shall be put to death”. Deuteronomy
25.11-12 says, “a woman who tries to protect her husband in a fight
by seizing his enemy’s genitals should have her hand cut off”.
Deuteronomy 21.18-21 says, “a stubborn rebellious boy who drinks
and eats to excess and refuses to obey his parents should be stoned to
death”. Deuteronomy 23.19 forbids taking interest on any money
that is loaned.

Now I have chosen some rather extreme examples to make the point that
we do not observe all biblical injunctions. We are selective in the way
in which we treat the Bible because we do not regard all its injunctions
in the same way as if they all had to be obeyed. The question is how
does one interpret Holy Scripture? The Declaration of Assent taken by
all clergy before they take up office puts it in this way: “The
Church in Wales is part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,
worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes
the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the
Catholic Creeds, which faith the church is called upon to proclaim afresh
in each generation”. In other words it grounds itself on the Bible
and the traditional Creeds – but also recognises that these truths
have to be interpreted afresh to each generation and that is where the
problem begins. The question is what can and cannot be changed? What
can and cannot be disregarded? Put another way what is the role of reason
in Anglican theology? Or how does the Spirit lead us into truth, whilst
at the same time enabling us to be true to both scripture and tradition.
In short how do we come to a belief system?

Let me give you some examples of what I mean. Over the centuries the
Church has opposed things, which are clearly advocated by Holy Scripture
and allowed acts that are prescribed by it. In the Book of Genesis both
accounts of creation restrict human beings to being vegetarians. After
the flood however, the eating of animals is allowed, but their blood
was
not to be consumed. The Council of Jerusalem in the Book of Acts
upheld this as being binding on Gentile converts to Christianity. The
Canons of the early church continued the ban. Augustine however, argued
for a relaxation of the ban and in Article Nineteen of the Thirty Nine
Articles of Religion it says that the Jerusalem Church erred in this
and other matters. Some churches today still forbid the consumption of
blood on the basis of the ban after the flood and the ban imposed by
the Council of Jerusalem but most Western Churches have set it aside.

Or take another issue. Slavery is accepted without demur in the Old
Testament and Leviticus 25 sets out the rules for having slaves. The
New Testament tolerates slavery and Paul merely asks for slaves to be
treated well. He does not ask for it to be prohibited. Yet the Church
in time, came to see slavery as morally wrong. It is not something that
we would want to defend on scriptural grounds. We now argue that our
understanding of the moral law informed by respect for individual rights
in the light of the Gospel demands that we abolish slavery. Many Christians
in fact quoted Scripture to defend slavery against those who wished to
abolish it.

Or take the question of divorce. Jesus forbade divorce in the strongest
possible terms and re-marriage after it even more strongly. He says in
the Gospel of Mark1010-12 “whoever divorces his wife and marries
another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband
and marries another, she commits adultery”. When his disciples
question him why Moses allowed divorce, Jesus responded that it was because
of peoples’ hardness of heart that it was allowed but that the
original intention of God was that there should be no divorce and no
re-marriage. In other words Jesus recognised that Moses allowed it but
based his own prohibition on another bit of the Pentateuch, thus showing
an inconsistency even within those five books. Let’s leave to one
side the whole argument about whether Jesus was legislating here and
whether his statement on divorce was any different from the rest of his
sayings and teaching on moral matters, and let’s look instead at
what the Gospel of Matthew has to say on this issue. In it, there is
a significant difference from Mark’s Gospel as far as divorce and
re-marriage are concerned. In Matthew 5.32+19.9 Jesus says, “everyone
who divorces his wife, except on the grounds of porneia, makes her an
adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery”.
In other words there is an insertion here by the Matthean Church to the
original teaching of Jesus, allowing divorce for porneia. Obviously then
St Matthew’s Church did not think that Jesus was legislating for
all time and modified the teaching of Jesus on divorce. Porneia for Matthew,
whatever that means – perhaps adultery, is sufficient ground for
divorce. Moreover the Orthodox Church has always permitted divorce and
remarriage for certain reasons –adultery, suspected adultery, attempted
murder or insanity. In the reformed tradition divorce is allowed and
remarriage allowed in church according to the discretion of the pastor
and the Anglican Church has moved in this direction in recent years as
well. So here is a clear move away both inside the New Testament and
since, from the clear teaching of Jesus. One of the arguments that we
have used in the Anglican Church is, that we have allowed on our reading
of the New Testament as a whole of a Jesus who reached out in forgiveness
to those who had failed and who allowed people a second chance, precedence
over his literal words in a particular context.

The way we have been shaped and formed as Christians and the context
in which we live affects our interpretation of scripture. Different
people interpret scripture in different ways and often the plain text
of scripture, as I have just shown, has been put aside by the church
in response to the needs of the world and its current understanding
of the mind of Christ. In doing so, the church has done no more than
Jesus did in his own day by ignoring parts of the Old Testament that
required lepers, prostitutes, gentiles, sinners and others regarded
as unclean to be excluded from God’s presence.

2. THE NATURE OF ANGLICANISM

As I understand it, the Anglican Church has from its inception been
a broad and comprehensive church. It has often been called the Church
of
the Via Media – the middle way. That certainly doesn’t mean
that it is halfway between Roman Catholicism on the one hand and the
Protestant Reformed tradition on the other, but rather a church which
draws its insights from all kinds of places and is not too anxious about
pinning people down too precisely. Read again Cranmer on the theology
of the Eucharist. At times you think he is Zwinglian in his emphasis
on Holy Communion as just a remembering of a past event. At other times
he puts emphasis on the real presence of Christ in the elements and at
other times on the real presence of Christ in the heart of the believer.
What kind of presence is there in the Eucharist? You see the dilemma
in the words of administration of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which
are actually a combination of what Cramer set out in his 1549 Prayer
Book and his later more reformed 1552 Prayer Book. The words are, “the
body or blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve
thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance
that Christ died for thee and feed on him in thy heart by faith with
thanksgiving.” That is a fairly comprehensive statement and it
could embrace a number of viewpoints. The Elizabethan Church followed
Elizabeth I’s injunction that she did not want to make windows
into men’s souls. There has always been room for a variety of interpretations
about a great number of things in the Anglican tradition, for instance
the place of bishops. Are Bishops of the essence of the church i.e. no
bishop no church? Are they of the bene esse of the church i.e. are they
just a way of exercising good oversight, one that is less problematic,
than other methods of church government or are they of the plene essence
of the church i.e. the church can only be found in its completeness or
fullness where there is an episcopate as part of the order of ministry.
All three viewpoints are held by different Anglicans.

The same variety of viewpoints is held on moral questions. There is no
one Anglican line, on for example going to war. Some Bishops have in
the past-blessed
naval nuclear submarines and others have been pacifists. Christians disagreed
about the ethics of going to war against Iraq. To some it was justified because
of the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s regime towards its population for
eighteen years in defiance of UN resolutions. To others it was a violation
of the principles of a just war – taking pre-emptive action against a
nation which was not about to attack us; whilst for other Christians any reason
for waging any war against any nation is wrong.

Devout Christians and Anglicans after prayer, struggle and reflection
have come to widely different conclusions on a whole variety of doctrinal
and moral issues, conclusions which to some of their fellow Christians
seem at the very least wrong headed and at worst perverse. So here we
are as Christians struggling with the same data, reading the same scriptures,
having to listen to one another as fellow members of the body of Christ
and yet coming to different conclusions. That’s what an imperfect
body of Christ is like – recognising that all our understandings
are partial, provisional and that we have to be open to one another and
remain in communion with one another.

Is that possible? In a lecture at the Lambeth Conference of 1998 Archbishop
Rowan put it like this “In the body of Christ, I am in communion
with past Christians whom I regard as profoundly and damagingly in error
– with those who justified slavery, torture or the execution of heretics.
They justified these things on the basis of the same Bible as the one
I read, and these were people who prayed – probably more intensely
than I ever shall. How do I relate to them? How much easier if I did
not have to acknowledge that this is part of my community, the life I
share; that these are the consequences that may be drawn from the faith
I hold along with them. I do not seek simply to condemn them but to stand
alongside them in my own prayer, not knowing how, in the strange economy
of the Body of Christ, their life and mine may work together for our
common salvation. I do not think for a moment that they are right on
matters such as those I have mentioned, but I acknowledge that they ‘knew’ what
their own concrete Christian communities taught them to know, just as
I ‘know’ what I have learned in the same concrete and particular
way. When I stand in God’s presence or at the Lord’s Table,
they are part of the company to which I belong”. In other words
then we have to live with differences of viewpoints on a whole range
of moral issues. Those who threaten splits on any issue should listen
hard to the wisdom behind Archbishop Rowan’s words especially when
the issue is a moral rather than a doctrinal one.

3. DECISION MAKING WITHIN THE ANGLICAN COMMUNION

We do not have a centralised
system of government in the Anglican Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury
is not our Pope. Bishops at Lambeth Conferences
do not have authority to legislate. The Anglican Consultative Council
is precisely that – a Consultative Body. The Primates meeting together
do not have authority to legislate either. The Anglican family and the
Anglican identity is defined by our acceptance of scripture, the Creeds,
the two dominical sacraments and the historic episcopate locally adapted
– what has been called the Lambeth quadrilateral. Each province is autonomous.
Obviously we have to be sensitive to one another’s needs and to
our wider inheritance of faith but at the end of the day we are all self
governing provinces with our own system of choosing bishops, our own
synodical procedures and our own way of dealing with moral issues. In
other words, as Anglicans we believe that we learn our faith in a particular
place, be that in Wales, England, Canada or Africa. That doesn’t
mean that we are swamped by the local culture, but it does mean that
Christian communities in different parts of the world have different
emphases. Thus provinces have moved at different paces both with the
ordination of women to the priesthood and to the episcopate. The Church
in Nigeria allows polygamy because it is found in the Bible whereas we
in the West believe in monogamous marriage relationships. This is part
of what it means to belong to a worldwide church, which is not uniform
or monochrome.

4. THE PLACE OF LAMBETH RESOLUTIONS

Lambeth Resolutions are not meant to be prescriptive – rules binding
on all provinces of the Anglican Communion. At Lambeth, the Bishops of
the Communion agree on the importance of certain matters and commend
them for study and discussion and possible implementation to the wider
church. The trouble is, that the resolution on human sexuality has become
the only resolution that people remember and it seems to have become
the defining resolution of who is and who is not a Christian or at least
who is or is not an Anglican. You could swear that Lambeth ’98
discussed nothing else. In fact there were sixty two pages of resolutions
dealing with things such as the universal declaration of human rights,
religious freedom and tolerance, uprooted and displaced persons, justice
for women and children, the plight of people in various parts of the
globe, nuclear weapons, landmines and international debt. Which province
and diocese has taken to heart the challenge to fund an international
development programme by giving 0.7% of annual total diocesan income
to this cause?

Moreover the resolution on human sexuality is far wider than the resolution
on homosexuality. It speaks about violation of women, AIDS, and the abuse
of children. It was a document that was discussed for two whole weeks
by a group of bishops who discuss little else. They were very diverse
in their views and in their approaches. It was chaired by the Archbishop
of South Africa and he said that after two weeks of prayer and study
they had arrived at a statement on which they could all agree. When they
took that statement to the Plenary Session of all the bishops of the
Communion he thought that it was understood that it would not be modified
or amended but accepted as a statement of the group’s understanding.
In fact it was amended, chaos ensued and it unbalanced the carefully
crafted statement. The Lambeth debate on human sexuality was an object
lesson in how not to do theology. No other resolutions were treated in
this way in plenary and most of these to be honest have been confined
to the dustbin. In all of this, one also has to remember that this is
not a doctrinal issue but a moral issue.

5. THE SEXUAL ISSUE IN A WIDER CONTEXT

Finally, I now want to look
at the wider questions concerning the Mission and Ministry of the church.
After Lambeth ’98 the then Archbishop
of Canterbury set up a group of bishops to look at issues in human sexuality.
That group came to the conclusion that “the legislative process
was an inadequate way to discern the mind of Christ in some of the sensitive
issues that face us as we continue to grow as a communion of Churches.
What we need is face to face conversations across provincial lines”.

I have just come back from the Central Committee of the World Council
of Churches in Geneva and it too has been looking at issues in human
sexuality and set up a group after the Assembly in Harare in ’98
to provide what it called “Space for discussion, debate and analysis.” A
number of consultations were held on this issue at Bossey where individual
participants were able to be open and vulnerable to one another and were
able to share reflections. It concluded that, “the mainstreaming
of positions and the production of authoritative statements is counter
productive and deepens the rifts within and among churches. What there
is need for is space for encounters, analysis, dialogue”. In other
words the WCC concurs with the post Lambeth bishops about the most creative
way forward being through conversations not through strident statements.

The Anglican Communion has a great deal to learn about that method
of discourse because what has happened in the last few months has not
been edifying. No real communication or conversations have really taken
place – just the assertion and counter assertion of differing
viewpoints. What kind of witness has that given to the world about
our way of engaging with God and one another? The church claims to
be the Body of Christ, where members are urged to look not to their
own interests but to the interests of other members of the Body (Read
Ephesians). It most truly witnesses to the Gospel when it tries to
serve Christ in the other person. In other words there ought to be
about us a selfless attention to the other because of God’s selfless
attention toward us. That is the heart of the Gospel. In an attempt
to state views stridently on this one topic we have missed something
fundamental as a Communion on the core values of the Gospel. Or to
use Jesus’ own picturesque language “we have strained at
gnats and swallowed camels”, for we seem to have forgotten that
we live in a world ravaged by bloodshed, poverty and disease. We are
in danger in the Anglican Communion of making this sexual and relational
issue, the only real issue that counts – almost the defining
issue for who is and is not an Anglican or even a Christian. If we
do that then we are in danger of failing to take seriously both the
central values of our gospel and the traditions of our Church.