Wednesday, July 30, 2008

No Word For 'Resurrection'

What do you do when there’s no word for “resurrection”?

The topic for discussion in our Indaba Groups today was the interpretation of scripture. The specific question posed to us was “What would you consider are Anglican Ways [of] interpreting the Bible?”

The conversation uncovered many principles of interpretation held in common across cultural lines—a respect for biblical scholarship; the necessity of interpreting scripture in both its biblical and historical contexts; the fact that scripture is most properly read and understood in community and primarily in the context of worship; the challenge of reading the scripture in the context of the culture while at the same time allowing the gospel to stand over and against the culture; the importance of giving room to the Holy Spirit to inform our interpretation; and the role of the bishop as a bridge of interpretation between different contexts.

There were more contributions as well, and the presence in our group of Cardinal Walter Kasper from the Vatican (President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) confirmed that these principles are not uniquely Anglican but are indeed shared across denominational lines.

Given the controversial issues that are before us as a Communion—issues that have caused some to claim that others are rejecting the very authority of scripture itself—the subject of interpretation becomes particularly important.

To the task of interpreting scripture we inevitably bring our lives, our different cultures, and our personal histories. It is a fact that our fellowship as a global communion “is both greatly enriched, and at times challenged and confused, by the variety of ways of encountering Scripture.” These are the words of the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission in a report addressing the centrality of the bible in the Anglican tradition. The report goes on to say, “The rich variety of material within the canon [of scripture] resists all human attempts to reduce it to a flat or uniform agenda. At the same time, the biblical writings are consistent witnesses to the trustworthiness of the triune God and, for all their differences of style, content, and opinion, they are clearly part of one conversation that intends to be open to hear the Word of that one God.”

Not surprisingly, in today’s Indaba Group, the foundational issue of language showed itself once again to be one of the greatest challenges.

A bishop from the Democratic Republic of Congo informed us that in his language there is no word for “resurrection.” A bishop from Burma said that there were no words for either “shepherd” or “sheep.” Something as basic as that—the lack of a concept and the lack of a single word—he observed, makes it difficult to teach people that Jesus is the good shepherd let alone one who has risen from the dead.

Which brings an element of creativity into the task of biblical translation and interpretation.

A bishop from Canada told the story of translating a passage in Luke 10 for the Inuit people among whom he was working—that story in which Jesus appoints seventy to go before him to proclaim the gospel. When it came to the part that reads “the seventy returned with joy” (verse 17), the translator informed him that there was no word in the vocabulary that would do. After searching a moment for a concept that would remain faithful to the text and, at the same time, would work for a people living in an environment of cold and ice, dogs and dogsleds, the translator finally explained to the people quite simply that the seventy returned “wagging their tails.”

Think about it.

Could it be that the interplay between scripture and culture and the inevitable tension that it brings to the task of faithful interpretation is, at the same time, the very thing that brings the Living Word into life?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, spoke to a plenary session last evening about the concept of covenant as it is found in the Hebrew Scriptures. Author of numerous books, including The Dignity of Difference and The Home We Build Together, his lecture was passionate, provocative, and wise. The full text of his presentation can be found at and is, in all honesty, a "must read." I recommend the two books as well and am confident that his insights will bring a breath of fresh air to our conversations about the proposed Anglican Covenant over the next few days.


Indaba: the word is Zulu and Xhosa and means quite simply “an important conference or gathering.”

It describes a process used in a number of African countries by which a community can address any problem or issue that may arise. It demands a kind of corporate or communal listening, as I understand it, that is based on real attentiveness to “the other” and is characterized by two key features: (1) that the community as a whole must define the problem or issue without rushing to a conclusion until the point is reached that everyone can agree upon what the problem or issue actually is; and (2) that in both defining and resolving the problem or issue at hand, every individual must be able to speak and every voice is heard.

The process of indaba has been perhaps the most innovative feature of this year’s Lambeth Conference—a gathering that has been radically overhauled in terms of its organization and structure. Rather than plenary sessions with many hundreds in attendance, affording few and time-limited opportunities for only a handful of bishops to find their way to microphones to publicly state positions, we have been working from the first day of the conference through a process of small group bible study (eight bishops) followed by “Indaba Groups” (forty bishops) in an effort to meet face to face, to speak our hearts and minds, and to really listen to one another—something that is far too rare for a body that claims to be a global communion.

Although the process as it has been practically implemented here has been widely criticized, I am mindful of the question posed by the Archbishop of Canterbury during his first presidential address—that is, “how effective has the old process been?”

In spite of its flaws, I have found that in my “Indaba Group” we are indeed speaking our hearts and minds, we are listening, and in a process that may not travel easily across cultural differences, we are teasing out a more fulsome description of our life and our issues as a communion.

That process stands in stark contrast to the second hearing of the “Windsor Continuation Group” that was held yesterday afternoon. Picture a large plenary session in a sweltering hot room with few and time-limited opportunities (three minutes for each speaker to be exact) for a handful of bishops (approximately 20-25 according to my math) to find their way to a microphone and state their position in response to a paper entitled “Preliminary Observations Part Three” (a document that was officially released to the press this afternoon, is said to be provisional in nature, about which some are rushing to conclusions, and because of which levels of anxiety are inevitably rising both here and at home).

It’s not that there weren’t good and helpful contributions from those who spoke at the hearing, and as deeply challenging and offensive as I may have found some comments, it was still good and helpful to listen.

But as a bishop from another part of the world said only a few days ago, so long as we gather in the old ways “we shall only be doing difference as difference has always been done.” Instead, he continued, “we need to do difference differently.”

In the spirit of indaba, I am not rushing to conclusions.

Last night when Sir Jonathan Sacks (Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth) spoke to us about the concept of covenant, he observed that “the hardest thing in the world is to hold the adherents of a faith together.” He said, “The Anglican Communion has held together more strands of faith and has done it more graciously and successfully than any other religion I know.” He concluded quite simply and powerfully by saying, “This is your unique contribution to the world.”

Perhaps the heart of Anglican Christianity, in its own peculiar but wonderful way, is indaba after all.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Getting To The Point With John

Lambeth Conference support staff, led here by Professor Gerald West of the University of Kwazulu-Natal, are participating in the same bible study that marks the beginning of every day's agenda. The series, focusing on the "I Am" statements of John's gospel, has proven to be a prayer-filled and insightful experience for all of us in the small group in which I participate.

Each of the encounters with Jesus described in these passages (listed further down on right-hand side of this page) pose, in different guise, two of the most basic questions of faith--that is, who is Jesus, and who are we in relationship to Jesus?

And just as significantly, these passages have led us quite naturally and inevitably to a much deeper place of encounter, providing both the framework and the context in which we have addressed many of the troubling issues of our Communion that are at the heart of this conference. Those conversations (involving in my group English, American, Mexican, Australian, Caribbean, and South American voices) have been characterized by candor, forthrightness, thoughtfulness, attentiveness, honesty and compassion.

When we first assembled well over a week ago, Rowan Williams stated that he did not expect that in two weeks time we would find a solution to all of our problems. That is realistic. He went on to say, however, that it was his hope that we would "find the trust that will give us all the energy to change in the way that God intends."

That too, I would hope, is the point of encountering the gospel.

To the degree that I can, I'll say more in the days ahead about some of the difficult and challenging experiences that I have had in the larger scope of the conference's agenda and activities. For now you should know that, at least at the beginning of the day, my small group bible study is actually getting to the point.

Friday, July 25, 2008

London Day: The Walk of Witness

Yesterday was officially “London Day” in the Lambeth Conference schedule—which meant at the very least an early start to load some 1600 people (bishops, spouses, and staff) onto buses for the two hour trip to into London.

Although the Archbishop of Canterbury hosted a luncheon at Lambeth Palace, and although the day culminated with a garden party with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, the most important part of the day, to my thinking, came at the beginning with the “Walk of Witness”—a public demonstration of 670 bishops and 1,500 other faith leaders, politicians, and diplomats—which began at Whitehall, then passed Downing Street, the Houses of Parliament, and Westminster Abbey before crossing the Thames and concluding at Lambeth Palace.

In the words of The Archbishop of Canterbury, the walk was intended to be “a poignant act of commitment by the Anglican Communion and other faith groups to continue to put pressure on those who have the power and resources to help end extreme poverty across the globe.” It was, he said, to be “about pledging, as a Church, to play our part in continuing to develop lasting solutions.”

Those words—a noble sentiment so easily spoken—assumed the form of a haunting and challenging question yesterday. With the words of Archbishop Ndungne, the former Archbishop of Southern Africa, spoken two years ago in Boksburg, South Africa ringing in my ears—that “we live in a world in which the rich are getting stinkingly rich while the poor are becoming desperately poor”—I could only be struck by the radical contrasts contained within the walk itself. Tourist waved at us eagerly from passing busses, eager only to get some video and photos for the record. Workers from office buildings, taking a break from the routine of the day, came out to watch an unquestionably intriguing sea of purple. A news helicopter circled, then hovered, then circled again, capturing footage for the evening news. Photographers and reporters circulated around the fringes of the walk taking statements and looking for photo opportunities. All of it was directed more to the spectacle than to the substance of the story itself .

Prime Minister of England, Gordon Brown, spoke both eloquently and passionately, without a single note, about the need for churches and governments to work together to eradicate poverty. When he finished, an English bishop standing beside me said simply "he really means it too." His speech, well worth hearing, can be found at Reporter James Macyntire gave a thoughtful and accurate report on the walk itself in The Independent (see

But add to the spectacle, the gathering at Lambeth Palace. Then follow that with tea with the Queen. Then insert, somewhere in the midst of it all, the glaring fact of global poverty—absolutely incomprehensible to those of us who live in the first world—set against a background of Whitehall and Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament, while at the same time I am walking side by side with brothers and sisters from Burundi and Sudan, and Zimbabwe and Burma who live daily with a kind of courageous witness to the gospel that is simply not known in our experience—and the only question that comes to mind is a plain and simple “why”?

While there is no disagreement on the sentiment of opposing global poverty, our collective will is sadly lacking. If we, the Church, do not speak a powerful word of compassion and equality and justice (the very words of our Lord) into the indifferent structures of our government and society, then who will? Is that not what the prophet Micah meant when he wrote, “and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

It gets back, I think, to the fact that when it comes to participating in God’s mission “the road is made by walking it.” Period. End of sentence. This is what our world longs to see—not spectacle, but women and men of faith standing together courageously, without condition, in Love.

Until we Christians are willing quite literally to stand in complete solidarity with the poorest of the poor in our world, we bear witness to nothing more than a garden party and we have no good news to share with a world that not only needs it but is longing to hear it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Brian McLaren, author of A Generous Orthodoxy and More Ready Than You Realize (to name just two), spoke last night to bishops, spouses, and guests at a plenary session on evangelism and emergent culture. It was a breath of fresh air, and I highly recommend the books.

The Road Is Made By Walking It

Having been here for a week already, it is surprising to realize that today is only the second full day of the “working” schedule of the Lambeth Conference—a schedule that has been so filled with meetings and gatherings that there has been almost no free time in which write updates to this blog. For that I apologize. I will continue to write more, and I encourage you simply to keep checking in.

Sunday morning began with the celebration of the Eucharist at Canterbury Cathedral. The mere fact of a service comprised of people from all continents (bishops, spouses, ecumenical representatives, Lambeth staff, and more) participating in worship in many languages, gathering around one and the same altar, and celebrating the Eucharist was in itself the incarnation of the unity that is already ours in Christ.

Even so, I continue to be amazed by the complex of challenges we all face as we work to live into the fullness of that gift. Theological issues aside, the practical realities are staggering. The conference employs, for example, fifty-seven interpreters just to bridge the language barrier alone. Beyond language there remains the vast differences in culture and political contexts among us, let alone the community histories and personal experiences that we bring with us.

It makes for conversations that are both challenging and wonderful all at the same time.

Yesterday morning I sat with a group of four bishops with the purpose of discussing what it means to be a bishop. That discussion, however, needed to take place in four languages—English, Spanish, Burmese, and an Indian dialect. Across those linguistic divides and out of those radically different cultures, our task was to write one sentence that accurately described our understanding of what it means to be a bishop in Anglicanism. Remarkably, with one bishop having served only nine months and another having been ordained bishop for nearly thirty years, we discovered a surprising convergence and easy agreement.

Today, however, I worked among a group of some eight bishops—English, Australian, Burmese, Indian, South American, Kenyan and American—to discuss evangelism, service, and prophetic witness. The Americans and English, on the one hand, expressed the need to make service to the poor more explicitly Christian as a way of bearing witness more directly to the gospel. The Burmese, Indians, and Kenyan, on the other hand, expressed their need to bear witness implicitly—their good works alone speaking for themselves—some of them living in an environment in which either to mention the name of Jesus or to live openly as a Christian is to risk one’s life. About the need for effective evangelism, in other words, there was no disagreement, but regarding the methodology for undertaking that part of our mission there was considerable divergence—all of it shaped by our particular contexts.

This is, of course, one of the hallmarks of Anglicanism.

Still it is all a reminder of how difficult it is, and can be, to work through the many issues that are before us. If the layers of translation needed for effective cross-cultural, missional partnerships on such basic matters of ministry are so plentiful, how much more so when it comes to the more controversial issues before us?

Which puts me in mind of the Pentecost event: not a moment in which a disparate body of people are made into a community, but an epiphany in which a divided body of people discover the deepest reality of their lives—that across all the barriers that divide them, they are already more deeply related than they have imagined, that they are already one, that it is not of their own doing but is instead a divine gift.

It is just that discovery that we all need—the consequence of simply sitting together, staying together, praying together. Could that be what the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, meant when he wrote: “Caminante no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.” (“Walker there is no road, the road is made by walking it.”) ?

Friday, July 18, 2008


Enfolded as it were in the spectacular confines of Canterbury Cathedral—painstakingly cut stones, soaring arches, hand carved wood, ancient and brilliantly colored stained glass, stone steps worn away over centuries by the feet (and knees) of pilgrims—it can be challenging to move internally from that sense of being a tourist to the reality of being a retreatant called to sit quietly and prayerfully in the perfect presence of the living God.

That may well be the point—that as we bishops gather from around the world, the very stones that surround us serve as a tangible reminder that we are all but one small part of a divine work that is much greater than any of us individually and spans both space and time.

Today we are mid-way through the bishop’s retreat that precedes the official opening of the Lambeth Conference this Sunday. It is just the first of many significant changes that distinguish this conference from past ones. We have been treated so far to four superb talks by the Archbishop of Canterbury inviting all of us to reflect on the nature and work of being a bishop. The talks have been set in a context of prayer and song (harmonies that literally fill the Cathedral), and while not everybody is disposed to keeping a strict silence during the times set aside for reflection, many are. The simple fact of seeing so many bishops from around the world sitting in the nave, or in the choir, or in the crypt, or up around Saint Augustine’s chair, quietly studying scripture, or writing in journals, or sitting quietly in contemplation, is in itself inspiring.

That also may well be the point (and not just for bishops and not just for a conference held once every ten years)—that if we wish to see Jesus among us, and if we wish to be those through whom the Christ is revealed, we would all do well to let go of those things that so distract and preoccupy our affections so that we, by the grace of God, no longer tourists, might live out of a deeper place.

As Paul writes to the Colossians: “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving. At the same time pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ….”

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Beginning

The 2008 Lambeth Conference officially began this evening with a formal welcome by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

In his brief opening remarks, Archbishop Williams spoke candidly about the tensions and divisions within the Anglican Communion. He spoke of the grief that is ours to share because of the absence of those bishops who have chosen not to attend. “We need their voice,” he said, “and they need ours in learning Christ together.” He went on to invite our prayers, our love, and our respect for those who are not here, observing that while we are indeed a wounded body, “the body of Christ is always a wounded body because we are a body of sinful human beings.”

The emphasis during our time together, he reflected, must be upon deepening our relationships, not imagining naively that building relationships alone will solve our problems but understanding that we dare not pretend to address the issues before us without first offering one another the kind of deep and loving attentiveness to relationship that Jesus in fact commands.

To that end, our time together over the next several weeks will be grounded in daily prayer and bible study—the source from which our other conversations will flow. As Archbishop Williams observed, “scripture gives us the language that draws us together, and we need to be fluent in that language.

I couldn’t agree more, and I feel privileged to have been invited by Archbishop Williams to facilitate one of the numerous small bible study groups that will meet each morning. The focus of our study—very ably prepared by members of the conference design team—will be on the “I Am” sayings found in John’s gospel. For those who may be interested, I have posted the biblical readings for the next week on the sidebar to this page—something to note or use in any way you feel led, perhaps even to pray along with all of us here.

Over the next two days, we will be on retreat at Canterbury Cathedral (down the hill from the University of Kent where we are staying). During that time the grounds of the Cathedral will be completely closed to the public, and in addition to listening to addresses offered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, we have been invited to use that time of silence simply to rest, to be still, and to be fed by God.

The tone this evening was, to my ear, both realistic and hopeful. We should not expect, Archbishop Williams stated in a dose of realism, that in two weeks time we shall find a solution to our problems. It is however realistic, he observed (even faithful I would add) to hope that in two weeks time “we will find the trust that will give us all the energy to change in the way that God intends.”

Friday, July 4, 2008

The First Lambeth Conference: A Conference & Nothing More

The first Lambeth Conference was held in September of 1867 at the invitation of Archbishop of Canterbury, C. T. Longley. Of the 151 Anglican bishops who had been invited, 76 attended.

Although the possibility of such a gathering of bishops had been entertained for years, questions had been raised by some bishops about the legality of such a conference, and there had been resistance by many to any kind of assembly that might assume a kind of legislative or canonical authority. In response, Archbishop Longley made it clear that he intended to convene a conference and not a synod, saying:

"It should be distinctly understood that at this meeting no declaration of faith shall be made, and no decision come to that shall affect generally the interests of the Church, but that we shall meet together for brotherly counsel and encouragement.... I should refuse to convene any assembly which pretended to enact any canons, or affected to make any decisions binding on the Church."

One hundred fourty-one years and many hundreds of bishops later, while the face of the Anglican Communion has changed significantly, the concerns remain much the same. Should the Lambeth Conference evolve into a more formal structure exercising authority over a global Communion, or should it remain as it was intended to be from the beginning: a conference and nothing more?