A Global Church: part 1.
It’s always good to have our horizons expanded. Whether you are part of a village church meeting with deanery colleagues, or a city church travelling en mass to a summer festival, the effect is the same. We realise that we are just one small part of something much bigger, and as our horizon expands so the problems which seem so big at ground level, can be seen in a new perspective.
The Lambeth conference, a gathering of 650 bishops from around the world began this week and already I feel my eyes being opened to a bigger reality. One of my first encounters was with a Sudanese bishop who lives in a refugee camp in Uganda. Most of his diocese is with him in the refugee camp – the geographical area of the diocese is deserted. ‘How can I pray for you?’ I asked him. ‘Pray for my priests as they care for people in the camp, and pray for me as I talk with the government and work for reconciliation.’ This is a very different ministry to most other bishops around the world.
And alongside these deeply moving encounters, I am also loving the mix of cultures and the mix of approaches to worship and community life. I’m so pleased that the first address at our retreat was given in French (having worked in a French speaking country in Africa, I know how much the French speakers feel undervalued in the Anglican Communion). I was delighted that one of the first songs that we sang was in Indonesian (the country of my birth). And we’ve had Bible readings in Swahili, Hindi and other languages (we have printed books with the translation). All this is so affirming of the different cultures represented and a wonderful reminder that the Church of England is one small part of something much bigger.
Of course, all this has its challenges too. We’re studying the letter of 1 Peter in our retreat and we have had a range of approaches in the talks – from the detailed exposition of individual verses, to the big metaphor - the church has a ‘hole in our bucket’ and the water is leaking out – how do we fill the hole? And so I found myself wondering if our different approaches to studying the Bible come from our different cultures or our different theologies (and can the two be separated)? Can we ever find a way of agreeing on the interpretation of the Bible, or must we just live with the varying interpretations?
The danger in any celebration of different cultures is that we end up with an ‘anything goes’ approach. Everything must be acknowledged as an expression of a particular culture and therefore can’t be criticised. Yet all cultures are a mix of good and bad (just as all human beings are) and therefore need to be questioned in the light of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Generally, I would argue that this questioning can only be done from within the culture i.e. by those who are part of the culture and context. But sometimes we need our horizons expanded by the challenge that comes from someone of another culture, someone who makes us question why we do things the way we do, and why we believe the things we believe.
And this is the real joy and challenge of the Lambeth Conference. Can I both celebrate the mix of cultures and be open to the way these may challenge my own beliefs and assumptions? It’s the same joy and challenge faced by every local church – are we open to having our horizons expanded, with the risks that this will involve?