Power is a part of every human encounter. And power has certainly been on display at the Lambeth Conference – sometimes in positive ways and sometimes negative.
There can be many possible reasons for differences in power. Money, education, place of birth and upbringing are just a few. The differences can be subtle or they can be very obvious. Sometimes the power is symbolised by uniforms or robes, sometimes it is hidden and unspoken, apparent only when it comes to decision making or access to resources.
At Lambeth, we’ve been doing daily Bible studies on 1 Peter and we’ve been reminded that the letter was written to people who were ‘exiles and strangers’, a minority group who had experienced real persecution and abuses of power. We’ve heard stories from representatives of the Anglican Indigenous People’s Network - people who have experienced generations of powerlessness and suffered intergenerational trauma. We’ve heard from people living in places of conflict and people living in real poverty. We’ve listened and many of us have been deeply moved.
I say this because there has been much talk about power in the context of decision making at the Lambeth Conference, and most of it has assumed the worst. Does one Province or Diocese of the Communion have the power to tell others what they can or can’t do? (Answer: no – we are a Communion not a legislative body.) Where are the voices of LGBT+ people? (Answer: there are some here, and they have participated in the group discussions even though this was undoubtedly painful for them.) Why is it that bishops from the West, who represent dwindling dioceses with congregations of just a few hundred people, have the same influence as bishops who represent growing dioceses with congregations numbering tens of thousands (Answer: we’re invited simply as bishops, whatever the size of our diocese, yet inevitably we bring something our diocese with us). And what about our history of abuses of power – from slavery to colonialism to safeguarding? (Answer: we’ve talked openly about this and expressed our sorrow verbally while acknowledging there is much still to do if our repentance is to be shown in action.)
So, let me repeat myself, power is at play in every human encounter. We did not choose where we were born, nor the colour of our skin, nor our education and worldview (though we can be re-educated). Some of these things automatically give us power or influence over others, and sometimes all we can do is acknowledge this and be open about it.
The Archbishop of Canterbury acknowledged that his position gives him enormous power yet he has wrestled continually with the question of how to use this for good, knowing that he can’t give it up completely. Yet there are also times when we must acknowledge and apologise for the abuses of power that we or our forebears have made - and yes, I do think it makes sense for us to apologise for the actions of our forebears, as they were often also the source of our current privileges. And there are also times when we must find a way of letting go of our privileges and the power they give us. A very simple example of this is choosing to stay quiet even when everything within us wants to shout, in order to give space for others to speak.
None of this is to deny that there have been conversations on the edge of meetings where people have tried to influence things in unhelpful ways. Nor is it to deny that well educated, white, middle-aged men (like me) have tended to dominate discussions. And it is well documented that some have chosen to stay away from the conference, and others have refused to receive Holy Communion – both of which sadden me greatly. But overall, I am hugely encouraged by the relationships, the listening, the naming of difficult issues and above all the love which has been so evident in this gathering. It would appear that our growing awareness of power dynamics is leading us to a deeper communion.
And this matters because we live in a deeply divided world. A world which needs the Anglican Communion to stand as a witness that the body of Christ transcends nation states, is an instrument of reconciliation for past divisions and has the potential to be an instrument of healing today. As you may be able to tell – today I’m quite proud to be an Anglican.