Canterbury Tales

by Robbie Low

 

BY THE TIME you read this the Lambeth Conference 1998 will be over. The Australian church will have led the final worship and the bishops of the Anglican world will have taken their trains and boats and planes from the great cathedral city of Augustine and begun their small and great journeys home.

At the time of writing this article the conference is but a week old, a third of its way along, and whatever I say now may be overtaken by events and what is a scoop today is stale news in a fortnight. It is the lot of the monthly scribbler to live with these time lags and frustrations, to sit in a press conference desperate to be returning copy with the daily hack, adrenalin pumping to catch the angle, the titbit, the insight that the others miss that will make the difference between headlines and pedestrian nib. The consolation of the monthly is the time to reflect a little, an increasingly precious gift in a world which all too often worships celerity and superficiality.

With the help of a retired priest I managed to get forty-eight hours away, and with the assistance of a New Directions Press badge, access to the great event. Others will, in due course, reflect on the theology, momentous issues, conclusions drawn, progress made etc., which will go on reverberating ‘til the next Lambeth in 2008. My purpose was simply to visit and just give you, the reader, a snapshot of what it’s like to be at this extraordinary event - after all you paid for it and, upon its deliberations, may yet hang the future of our church.

Round the M25, over the Dartford Tunnel bridge and down the long eastern spur of the M2. It is sunglasses-and-wring-your-shirt-out at the end of it drive. My exhaust blows and I arrive on the hill outside the city sounding like a cross between Michael Schumacher and Massey Ferguson. Forward in Faith is headquartered at the Catholic chaplaincy immediately opposite the entrance to the university campus courtesy of an old friend and champion of orthodoxy, Fr. Peter Geldard - one of the more notable of the “lost” Anglican leaders who would have been our bishops in better times.

 

Here is a hive of activity.

The basement houses three computer terminals manned by a variety of dedicated traditionalists from around the globe writing copy, responding to stories, producing daily bulletins. The ground floor is open house to all our bishops and their wives, a place to meet off campus, to talk privately, get encouragement, pray together and network. There is a daily celebration of Holy Communion in the 1st floor chapel followed by an excellent lunch. Every day is sixteen hours long and, at the heart of it all, as ever, are Kirk and Parkinson, apparently tireless.

There is a full team of dedicated and warm hearted American Prayer Bookers, clergy and lay, battling for a church which has long been notorious for its disobedience and economic power within the communion. The Aussie contingent are hysterical - serious theology and journalistic repartee are bandied about in hilarious impersonations of Dame Edna and Sir Les Patterson - I relearn adjectives that, as a clergyman, I have tried to forget.

Out of this apparent chaos, fun, loyal friendship and utter seriousness emerges the key support units for the traditionalist bishops conference which is running alongside the big show over the road.

A shot of caffeine and, in the company of Archdeacon Armitage-Shanks, I hit the campus. It is a spectacular setting above the city - a great green hillside which, after a ten minute walk, exposes a series of modern and post modern buildings which eventually become a huge spread of housing estate style student accommodation.

There is not a bishop in sight - they are all in a bible study plenary session prepared by a theatre group and the Regius Professor at Cambridge which is later to make the next days headlines.

 

Stories in the press so far are curious.

The Archbishop of York, David Hope, is going to start a new traditionalist movement to undermine Forward in Faith! No traditionalists have heard of this or been consulted and neither, as it turns out, has David Hope.

The Archbishop of Canterbury wants to be a sort of Pope of the Anglican Communion! Without a magisterium, a tradition, a catechism or a common liturgy this would leave Anglicans absolutely at the mercy of any theological genius or retard elevated to Canterbury. This is certainly not what George meant and it’s another case of over enthusiastic reporting.

Shock, horror - rumour is spreading that the Panamanian dance troupe in the opening liturgy are really from North London. This turns out to be true though they were nonetheless jolly for all that. Such is inevitably the nature of news before anything happens. The press, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

Crossing the road at the first roundabout we spot a stooped and lined elderly figure crossing in the path of an oncoming bus. The bus misses him but we do not...... it’s Jack Spong! Within five minutes we’re at a cafe table in full interview mode and you can read it here exclusively next month!

Across the campus is a miniature version of the Christian Resources Exhibition. There are the usual bookstalls, Mothers Union, Church Army etc., the women’s groups and the church silverware. I have a fascinating conversation with the Billings Method (the natural method of birth control) stall staff. In “the condom society” it’s good to meet people who understand just what a perversion of sexual relations and diminution of respect for women is engendered by a contraceptive mentality. But the tent is, for the most part, filled with clerical outfitters, vestments - tat, tat, tat. An innocent Philippine bishop is being measured next to the Canterbury enthronement robes in that unforgettable “Sunday School Crayon” school of liturgical art - give me a Jacquie Binns iconographic set any day.

At the next stall a horizontally challenged woman bishop is struggling with a vestment assisted by none other than Bill Beaver, the Lambeth spin doctor. He turns to the assistant and asks “Do you have any that don’t smash your breasts?” Such a way with words. He goes on, “?It’s really difficult for women.” Hard to tell whether this is tautology or simply a comment on the process of reception.

The most telling clue to the politics of the organisers of Lambeth ‘98 is that the stall at the entrance which all must pass is occupied by Affirming Catholicism, the Vichy of Tractarianism. Its value to the establishment is that it has abandoned large areas of orthodox doctrine but its members still know how to dress the part and can be palmed off on unsuspecting parishes (and dioceses!).

 

Space for Worship?

From here it's on into the “worship space”. The corporate worship takes place in a large curtained arena, all led from a stage with guitars, many languages, overhead projectors etc., But the quiet “space” is a light octagonal upper room, again curtained, prayer stools, carpet, a suspended central cross, a distant Ikon, reservation and, in the centre, three open bibles on columns. Much of the argument and discussion at this conference will centre on the authority and interpretation of that Word. There is a smell of joss sticks or cheap scent on the stairs and my fellow scribbler hates it. I find it pleasantly peaceful and tastefully done but not really my cup of tea and when a rather self conscious lady starts rocking herself into a trance we decide to leave.

A few minutes later I am enjoying a solitary cup of tea in the warm sun outside the campus cafe. I am joined by another solitary who turns out to be David Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge and theological consultant to the conference. He is astonished that I think the ordination of women is a Christological question and he cannot comprehend its divisiveness. He has just been working with Angela Tilby on the video and drama that the bishops have enjoyed on “The Bible, The Church and The World”.

As we are talking, out of a cloudless sky emerges the Bishop of Ely to inform Ford that the Bishop of Jerusalem has gone “ape” over the presentation and has gone to the press with his grievance. Apparently the actors waved sticks, symbolising Israel and Judah, clashed them and then bound them together symbolising Israel. This, according to Riah (for it is he), legitimises the State of Israel and is an insult to Ishmael and Arab Christians. Those who read my interview with Riah a couple of years back will know what a tough job he has defending his people and he also never misses a trick to get publicity for the cause. It becomes tomorrow's headline. I don’t have the heart to tell Ford that an elderly orthodox bishop later tells me he didn’t understand the drama and thought it was a glorification of Morris dancing. Most, to be fair, whether they understood it or not, thought the actors did a good job.

Bishops begin to emerge from their “sections” - not a term under the mental health act but the name of the study groups (sex, Islam, debt etc). Shorn of Episcopal grandeur most of the white bishops would pass for refugees from the local bowls club and they are clearly enjoying each others company. There is a relaxed air of friendliness. It is a relief to be away from the pressures of the diocese and talk with other burden bearers. At moments like this there is that quintessentially English decency and niceness that is so attractive about Anglicanism and makes people want to stay a part of it. You can see why they love coming to Lambeth.

We move into evening worship. Two readings are barely audible, the sermon (being in a foreign tongue) incomprehensible to most of us but there is a jovial Episcopal guitarist throbbing and our hand movements and arm waving are obedient to the lyrics on the overhead projector which is flanked by a cross and the Lambeth logo. On the way out a little shrivelled black granny figure in a wheelchair is getting exasperated as some Asian bishop’s wives are too slow to crush themselves against the wall and give her urgent passage “Don’t these women ever listen” comes the Yankee rasp. The following day the same figure appears in full purple cassock on a motorised buggy careering down a steep embankment towards the photo call, fag in hand, still giving peremptory instructions to her minions. It is none other than the lovely Barbara Harris, cause celebre, and suffragan bishop of Massachusetts.

 

Cardinal Issues

The campus has been slowly digesting Cardinal Cassidy’s address at vespers the day before. The gist is that any further innovation in Christian teaching (see Section 4 on sexuality) will scupper what is left of ecumenism. The last time such a warning came from the Vatican the Bishop of Birmingham assured us that it would be all right and General Synod agreed to ordain women. This time there are a good number of third-worlders who are quite clear that they are fed up with American-inspired dilutions of and deviations from the faith.

News emerges that the African bishops were only just defused after a row over the opening ceremony. The use of Swahili was intended to show solidarity. Unfortunately Swahili turns out to be a slave language imposed upon blacks by Arab imperialists and persecutors and therefore definitely not kosher. As large areas of Christian Africa are at present enjoying renewed bitter persecution from the forces of Islam while a secular West wrings its hands and counts the oil money, this is an explosive area.

That evening the orthodox bishops have lectures from Dr Mary Tanner and Fr Jeremy Sheehy. Sheehy's paper is good, closely argued theology but the real interest is in Tanner. A member of the Eames Commission and personally much liked, she is clearly shocked and disappointed in the way our people are treated in America. She cannot believe this is so in Britain. It is the beginning of a long evening culminating in dinner and rumbustious debate and a post midnight celebration of Mary’s birthday. It was brave of her to come and she handles it very graciously but she is clearly disturbed by the consistent revelation of another face of those bishops she has worked with as church civil servant and theologian and who have consistently assured her of their just dealing and benevolence.

 

The Morning After

The morning press conference is a hoot. Bill Beaver treats us all as if we are eight years old and introduces Bishop Victoria Matthews as “My Lady”.

We are told that sex is, after all, not on the agenda today. There is a good reason for this which doesn’t emerge till later in the day. Those of us who took Viagra to cope with the excitement are understandably disappointed.

The Primate of Brazil is wheeled on to talk about the destruction of rain forest and the needs of the landless poor. Innocently he begins, “Bishop Matthews has asked me not to speak about sex. Of course we enjoy it but we don’t talk about it.” He lasts five minutes before corporate woman takes over and treats us to twenty minutes of droned sociology. A black African correspondent wants to know how a Christian can give apparently equal weight to the Bible and culture. Matthews offers the insight that Leviticus is really a treatise on modern western consumerism. The West and the rest are not talking the same language.

We are then given the information we have been awaiting. Which bishops are off to the House of Lords. Ten are listed; in the event, nine vote (For “Gay sex at 16”: BATH & WELLS, LINCOLN and OXFORD. Against: ELY, LICHFIELD, MANCHESTER, RIPON, SOUTHWARK, WINCHESTER). The press want to know why Canterbury, York and London are not going. Various excuses - courtesy, hospitality, vital private pastoral meetings - are put forward. The truth is that it clashes with the Nikean Club dinner and, when one naughty orthodox journalist drops this titbit, the room explodes in laughter and Beaver warns us all against trivializing this great event!

The news that 10 bishops are going is news. Only 24 hours ago, the word was that probably only the two on duty would go. Since then, several things have happened. It is clear that the press is limbering up to write stories of the “all talk no action”, “failure of moral leadership”? variety but much more significant is what has gone on behind closed doors.

In Section 4 (sex) apparently the African bishops, led by Nigeria and Uganda, have blown a gasket about homosexuality leaving the big bluff white liberal Bishop of Johannesburg “traumatised”?. So great has the row been that it has been heard in another section in a neighbouring hall! The black Africans will not play ball...no discussion...no commission...the Bible forbids it, end of story. They also want Jack Spong and all bishops in favour excommunicated. (Jack has only recently insulted them by explaining their theological naivety as being because they are “only one generation removed from witch doctors”.) The fifty Lambeth press officers are running around with fire blankets.

 

The Fruit of the Rowan Tree

We move into the great meeting hall to hear what, I suspect, is intended to be the keynote address for the conference by the Bishop of Monmouth, Rowan Williams. I don’t know anyone who isn’t fond of Rowan, but his journey from orthodoxy to liberalism has been an ikon of the tragedy of the western church. The talk is on making moral decisions. It is immense and magisterial, appearing to reject individualism yet constantly returning to it, plausible but unconvincing - your truth and my truth - wholly different but somehow a communion, passionate yet curiously insubstantial and largely untroubled by revelation. It is the long goodbye to any recognisable identifiable faith deposit from which evangelism, doctrine, ethics, holy living might spring. For all the protest to the contrary, it is essentially cultural relativism.

The liberals are ecstatic, a work of genius. The traditionalists are saddened but not surprised. The third-worlders are wholly baffled. As the hack next to be remarked. “I bet that’ll go down a storm in Zambia!”

The virtue of the paper is that it traces the fault line of Anglicanism with all the intellectual precision that you would expect of someone of Rowan’s integrity. The tragedy is that it is no longer a fault line but a yawning chasm.

I sort out another interview and mooch along to chat with some ever present homosexual campaigners. We have known each other a long time and it is good humoured - the angst of the Lords vote will not be present till the following morning. A senior Anglican clergyman greets them and commends their “?softly, softly” approach. “Keep it up. It’s going well for us”, he confides. Perhaps he hasn’t heard the explosions.

It is the afternoon of the photograph. Blazing sunshine, huge scaffolding, much merriment, a scrum round plus George, and a thousand purple cassocks say “cheese”. Pure Gilbert and Sullivan and a much needed light relief.

The evening is straight out of Brian Rix. The orthodox secretariat go for dinner to a local restaurant and, two tables away, are joined by Holloway, Spong and a cluster of women bishops. Even the waiter asks why the atmosphere is so electric.

The morning press conference is a double helping of sex as the Bishop of Johannesburg goes in to bat. He is honest, amiable, forthright, and the press like him. He refuses to give a personal opinion but he doesn’t need to. There is virtually no hope of agreement and little of dialogue. But, he says, he is “a prisoner of hope” - if God wants gay marriages they will happen. I ask him afterwards if he sees any prospect of the Anglican church being able to make an authoritative statement on anything ever again.

“That”, he ponders, “is the worst case scenario and I hope we can do a little better than that. But right now... No.”

The two-thirds world bishops are anxious to discuss mission, persecution, the threat of Islam, the debt crisis, the Gospel partnership and strategy. Instead, the priority is becoming as many of us feared: what the white man does under his duvet.

 

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St. Alban's. He visited the Lambeth Conference at the University of Kent at Canterbury during its first week

 

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