Presidential Address Governing Body – April 2005
2005 is an important year – and not just for the Church in Wales because of the decisions it has to make about its own future but because:
- The United Kingdom is President of the G8 Group of nations and the European Union.
- It is the 20th Anniversary of Live Aid and the 10th Comic Relief year.
- The Commission for Africa reports in April.
- 5th June is World Environment Day when individuals and businesses will be encouraged to sign up to a series of environmental pledges.
- There will be UK Elections this year.
Each of the above events is worthy of our attention. Taken together they ought to encourage us to realise that this year is a year of special opportunity.
Many churches have already joined the “Make poverty history” coalition. It is right that this Governing Body will consider a motion to identify ourselves with that coalition. Of course, there are many problems, and none of this is easy. It is about political will but also appropriate actions and behaviours from governments, multi-nationals and individuals.
A General Election year gives us all an opportunity to think of where we are going as a nation. It also gives us as individuals a chance to assess what factors we ought to take into account in casting our vote. Do we vote for the party that we think will protect our own personal interests – financial or otherwise or will we as the Epistle to the Ephesians puts it ‘look to the interests of others’ or as Karl Rahner puts it “how do we listen to life under the influence of the word?”. Here are some issues that I think merit attention for Christians – for after all our faith affects or ought to affect the great moral issues of our age. We have seen the laws regarding abortion raised already. How we vote is in the end a personal matter but there are other issues that need reflection in the light of Gospel values, for those values have implications for our society and world.
1. Britain has a billion pound nuclear weapons programme. This was set up to eliminate targets in the Soviet Union that ceased to exist 15 years ago. Is this the best use our resources?
2. Should the United Kingdom be the first country in the world to consider withdrawing from the 1951 United Nations Convention on refugees, which protects 17 million displaced people worldwide? As Church leaders in Wales said recently “the intention to place a 5 year limit on refugees appears draconian and may hinder plans to integrate displaced people. These limits do not encourage highly skilled refugees to retrain or invest in establishing much needed businesses in Wales”. The UK is home to less than 2% of the world’s refugees – around a quarter of a million out of nearly 10 million worldwide. Africa and Asia host 60% of the world’s refugees.
The Christian faith reminds us of the fragility of life and the vulnerability of particular people and groups within it. Our attitude reflects God’s attention and concern for these people not just as objects of our concern, our giving and our aid but of new hope for the world because there is a blessedness in the Kingdom of God which applies to all people, however vulnerable, and perhaps especially to those who are vulnerable. I commend to you the Welsh Refugee Council’s leaflet on this subject “The truth about asylum”.
3. Thirdly there is the question of poverty at home. Churches Together for Britain and Ireland launched a book entitled ‘Prosperity with a Purpose’ in London in February and at the National Assembly for Wales on 7th March and it focuses on the need to move people out of poverty into prosperity. It is broadly true that most people in most countries, if not all, have got richer over the past 50 years. Even most poor people are better off but inequality continues to increase and the very poor are still increasingly vulnerable. As prosperity is increasingly dependent on better education and better job opportunities within a climate of political stability and economic growth, it is clear that sub-Saharan Africa is particularly vulnerable. Prosperity of course is about far more than money alone, although as Christians we would want to affirm the economic content of prosperity. It is important that people have access to good jobs, good standards of housing, good healthcare, good social networks and all these things have a political context, but prosperity will also include relational values and self esteem. We are very lucky in the Church in Wales that our social responsibility projects are helping young parents and children at an early age to experience positive values in this way. For too long Christians have separated spirituality from economic and social realities. The challenge for all of us now is to find a new integrated approach to the problems we face.
4. Fourthly there is the question of world poverty. The ‘Make poverty history’ campaign is focused on debt cancellation, more and better aid, trade and justice. Each of these is equally important. I remember when I was in Zimbabwe in 1998 there were at the beginning of that year four Zimbabwean dollars to the US dollar and by the end of that year there were 34 Zimbabwean dollars to the US dollar and since aid had to be paid back in US dollars you can see the devastating effect that had on that country’s economy. By now there are 17,000 Zimbabwean dollars to the US dollar. However we also know that without better governance and political stability in African countries, more aid won’t help in the longer run. The African Union itself has admitted that 148 billion dollars of aid and inward investment money is lost every year through corruption and inefficiency. Zimbabwe of course is a classic case. How do you link aid with better governance?
All of these challenges focus our Christian attention during this special year. There is a public dimension to our faith and this affects, as I have tried to show, a whole range of issues. How do we in the light of the Gospel cast our vote to serve the common good? It is right that we lift our heads up over the parapet to look at wider horizons. We cannot trap ourselves with our own internal concerns for God is concerned about the whole world. On the other hand we cannot ignore issues that face our church either.
During the month of February I attended both the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches at Geneva and that of Anglican Primates in Newry, Northern Ireland. The WCC has 550 million members across 120 countries with 342 different member churches, whereas the Anglican Communion, as you know, has about 70 million Anglicans across the world in 38 different provinces. The WCC is holding its 9th Assembly at Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2006 on the theme “God in your grace transform the world”. The only large church not to be a WCC member is the Roman Catholic Church although it has observer status. All the Orthodox churches are represented on it and indeed the Moderator is Aram I, the orthodox Catholicos from the Armenian Church of the Lebanon. During the week with the Central Committee we looked at documents dealing with the WCC’s relationship with the Roman Catholic Church as well as issues dealing with Iraq, the Middle East, the Pacific, the ministry of healing, faith and order matters and how one reaches decisions consensually. One of the mornings however was given over to what the WCC called a Hearing on Human Sexuality asked for by the last World Council Assembly in 1998. The resolution was “to engage in a study of human sexuality in all its diversity and to make it available to member churches since it is recognised that this causes divisions both within and among churches”.
Two things happened as a result of this resolution of 1998. First, the Central Committee appointed a reference group, which examined every single statement produced by every member church on this topic and the reference group summarised and reviewed these diverse statements – reports, resolutions, recommendations or study guides and presented them to the Central Committee. At the same time the World Council of Churches sponsored three seminars (on Human Sexuality) at its study centre in Bossey. It invited a broad range of participants with different views from various regions of the world to share their cultural, local and global perspectives on human sexuality. These participants – only about twenty in number – also had a facilitator present in order to help them articulate their feelings and help them interpret their viewpoints to one another. The Bossey group expressed the belief that the best kind of theology emerges from real life experiences in relation to sacred theology and by sharing personal stories of pain and guilt within a confidential setting and the seminars were marked with, I quote, “openness and became encounters with sacred humanness”. In other words people felt able to speak openly and honestly because they were listened to with respect and understanding.
Please don’t think of a hearing as anything judicial. (Gwrandawiad in Welsh captures the meaning in a much better way.) A hearing in WCC terms is a presentation on a topic from several different angles followed by questions and discussions without coming to any conclusions. This hearing on human sexuality was to my mind one of the best sessions of the Central Committee because it managed to deal with this controversial topic in a mature and open way, allowing a discussion that was humane, theological and thought provoking. Now I raise all that because also in 1998 the Lambeth Conference in plenary session had a discussion, if you can call it that, on human sexuality and the fall out has been with us ever since. It is easy to criticise a body such as the World Council of Churches but the way in which it has begun to deal with the issue of human sexuality in the manner I have just outlined to you and the way the Anglican Communion has set about things means that we have much to learn as a church.
I also raise the issue with you because, as you know, the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Nottingham in June has been asked by the primates following the Windsor Report to organise a hearing on human sexuality. What is needed at the ACC is not a theological rant or a throwing of verbal grenades at people who happen to disagree with our own particular positions, but a reasoned, balanced, discourse of some of the issues involved and the giving of space and time to every kind of viewpoint. It would be better not to have a hearing at all in June if it is going to degenerate into some kind of verbal slanging match. How can we as a communion carry on saying as Lambeth 110 does and as the primates do that we “should listen to the experience of homosexual people, be committed to their pastoral support and see their victimisation or diminishment as abhorrent” and be unwilling somehow to concede that all of us have much to learn about ourselves as sexual beings.
I am grateful to the group convened by Dr Peter Sedgwick the Principal of St Michael’s for its response on behalf of the Church in Wales to the Windsor Report – it has been included in your papers. Since there was no Governing Body before the meeting of the Primates we felt as Bishops that this was the best way of dealing with that report
I am also grateful to the Reverend Jenny Wigley for editing Theology Wales following on our discussion on human sexuality at this Governing Body in 2003 and what we have there is a study guide for us to look at this issue in all its complexity and to take the discussion further there will be a day organised at St Michael’s College on 11 June. What we need is not confrontation but a willingness to engage in discussion.
Let me now share briefly some of the insights I got from the WCC which could be of enormous help to the Anglican Communion at this time in dealing with this topic:
- Human sexuality is not simply about matters of same sex relations. Sexuality is basic to all human beings and affects all of us as at points of extreme vulnerability. Lambeth 110 is not just about homosexuality but human sexuality in general.
- Most churches of the WCC acknowledged discontinuity between traditional church positions on human sexuality and the reality of the world we live in. In other words there is a gap between what we say as churches and how Christians actually behave.
- Most of the church statements produced for the WCC, whilst regarding the Bible as the main foundation for ethical decision-making recognised the need for further study and also the provisionality of many church statements. In other words the approach was a humble one. Whilst a central place was given to scripture by all the major churches, there was disagreement as to whether the Bible alone determines our ethics or whether tradition and reason have a role to play and how you hold these in balance. Most church statements were willing to engage in a critical approach to the Bible and to look at texts in their cultural contexts rather than accepting them as God’s literal and final words on this topic.
- All the statements affirmed human sexuality as intrinsically good and as a gift to be celebrated and we were reminded that this was a departure from the view of St Augustine, believed by the church for centuries, that sex and sexuality were really a curse.
- Sin should be seen in the context of our total response to the love of God or our failure to respond to that love and not be restricted to sexual matters. In other words sexual sins are not the only sins and are not even the main sins.
- Theology has to be open to the possibility of encountering God’s revelation of truth in new and novel ways – that’s what the doctrine of the Spirit is about after all, because the church has in the past changed its mind on many topics.
- Debates and confrontation sometimes have an ideological tone and what is lost in the noise is the person. In the Hearing at the WCC we were reminded that there is a mystery and sacramentality at the centre of the life of each of us, and all of us, are fragile creatures and need to be handled with care. What is needed is for us to see one another through the eyes of God since we are made in his image and the God we believe in is a God who is interested in our restoration and healing.
- We need discussions and openness not confrontation and a break down in relationships. If the church of God can’t conduct a debate in a civilised way when it claims to be a reconciled and reconciling community – what message does that give to the world? We cannot as a church call for compassion, peace and justice in our nation and in our world, if we as Christians do not exemplify those virtues in our own lives and in our dealings with one another.