Friday, 1 August 2008

Rivers of Bishops

The ubiquity and interchangeableness of the bishops swarming the fields of Kent University in their matching florid mauve shirts remind me for all the world of the oompah-loompahs from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This reminiscence first came to mind as Steve Schuh, Bob Webster, and I waited to talk to Canadian bishops as they left their Thursday indaba groups. As we stood in the foyer of the Keynes Building, where the bishops were meeting, all of a sudden they started flooding from their rooms - ripples of purple streaming through the hallways like salmon on their way to their spawning grounds.

All joking aside, the three of us had excellent conversations with a dozen of our bishops, as well as a couple of Americans. Obviously, I won't repeat the discussions here or they'll never talk to me (frankly) again; but I think it is fair to characterise their dispositions as positive. The bishops genuinely seem to be making an effort, by and large, to listen to one another - to be patient, tolerant, and forebearing. The feedback I have heard from my American and British colleagues has confirmed the impression left by our own bishops. This Lambeth Conference may be one of those rarest of international Anglican gatherings - one in which everyone leaves feeling warm and fuzzy.

Thursday evening, I went to a talk given by Dr. Richard Burridge, Dean of King's College, London. He gave an excellent presentation comparing and contrasting the debates over slavery, apartheid, and sexuality in the Christian community. His argument was not that these debates were interchangeable, but rather that the same strategies and claims with respect to biblical authority by both sides have been used in all three instances. Specifically, those who argued in defence of slavery and apartheid relied on clear biblical texts and solid exegesis in defence of their positions, and accused their opponents of undermining the authority of the bible through adopting secular innovations.

The discussion following the presentation was equally illuminating. The first audience member to speak, a bishop from India, pointed out that even discussing sexuality in his culture was taboo. Given this, he asked what "the west" was "prepared to sacrifice" in order to respond to realities such as this. The most cogent and moving responses actually came from another audience member, likewise an Indian bishop, who said that perhaps the real problem was the taboo in discussing sexuality, especially given the largely undiscussed problem of the abuse and exploitation of girls and women in that country. He challenged his colleagues to take the lead in breaking the taboo. Another audience member, a priest from Uganda, talked of his courageous ministry to gays and lesbians in Kampala; for which he was removed from his parish post. He identified the problem as one of theological education in Africa, and challenged North Americans and Europeans to offer themselves as educators of those seeking a deeper understanding of the scriptures in the poorer nations of the world.

As I prepare to pack my bags and leave Canterbury, I am grateful to Integrity Canada for the unparalleled opportunity to be at an important international Anglican gathering at this vital time in our Communion (come to think of it, it always seems to be a vital time for important meetings in our Communion!). I take back with me a renewed energy and focus for full inclusion, in the context of a truly comprehensive Anglican Church.

Neil Fernyhough

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