Seven years after the first Consultation of Anglican Bishops in Dialogue was held at the Anglican Communion offices in London, England, in 2010, a record 24 bishops-including four primates-came together in Accra, Ghana, from May 25-29 to learn about the unique contexts and challenges different parts of the African, North American and English churches are facing.
In a testimony released following the consultation, titled “Unity in Diversity,” the bishops looked back on what has been accomplished since 2010, and said that in order to build a stronger sense of unity, the Communion needs to turn to the past.
The testimony held up the concept of sankofa, common to the Akan people of the Gold Coast, as a useful way of doing so.
Sankofa can be translated as meaning “it is not a taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” As the testimony explains, it is a way of seeing the past as a dynamic reality that should be examined and used as a resource for shaping the present and the future.
“As we look back on the history of the Communion we see and recognize the strong desire everywhere to be a family,” the testimony says. “We note that it is counter to African and most Indigenous cultures to say that a person is disowned or left behind. Rather, the process of resolving differences and conflicts starts with the recognition that all belong.”
At a time when debates bout the place of LGBTQI [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex] people in the church have left the Anglican Communion riven with fault lines and fractures, the testimony states that the consultation does not see itself as “solving the problems of the Communion,” but rather [as a way] to “deepen relationships and…nurture mutual understanding.”
Several Canadian bishops were present at the meeting, including Jane Alexander, of the diocese of Edmonton, Michael Bird, of the diocese of Niagara, and Michael Ingham, of the diocese of New Westminster (retired).
For the first time, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, was also in attendance, albeit only for the first day and a half. He was joined by three other provincial leaders: U.S. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, Primate of West Africa Daniel Sarfo and Primate of Central Africa Albert Chama.
Hiltz said he was invited by Canon Isaac Kawuki-Mukasa, the Anglican Church of Canada’s Africa relations co-ordinator and The Episcopal Church’s Africa relations officer, as a replacement for Archbishop Colin Johnson, Metropolitan of Ontario and diocesan bishop of Toronto.
When he was invited to share some of the challenges he is facing in his own context, as is usually done when new members join the consultation, Hiltz used this opportunity to bring up the Canadian church’s upcoming vote on same-sex marriage.
“I plunked it right on the table: the marriage canon [vote],” he said. “Some of them, I think, were actually relieved that the elephant in the room was no longer the elephant in the room, that I actually had put it right on the table.”
Hiltz said the consultation has come under fire in the past couple of years from critics who accuse it of shying away from facing the very real divisions that exist in the Communion. But with The Episcopal Church voting to allow the marriage of same-sex couples in 2015, and the upcoming Canadian vote, avoidance was no longer possible.
“I think the fact that [Curry] and I were both there, and both of us named it was good.”
Networks of communion
According to Hiltz, meetings such as the consultation have become some of the most functional tools in keeping the communion together.
With the more formal “instruments of communion” frequently jammed by very public disagreements over human sexuality, it is in the informal bodies, like diocesan partnerships and the consultation of bishops, that a lot of important work gets done, said Hiltz.
“We have these four commonly held instruments of communion, [but] we also have another whole list of things that really speak to the life, the vitality, the compassion, courage, the pastoral and prophetic witness of the communion,” he said. The four “instruments of communion” include the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Primates’ Meeting and the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC).
The consultations began at the 2008 Lambeth Conference in London, England, when Johnson organized a small, informal gathering of bishops from Canada and a handful of African provinces. Papers on mission in post-colonial societies were shared, and the bishops talked about the challenges of their ministry contexts.
A year later, with the help of Kawuki-Mukasa, Johnson organized the first dialogue, which brought six African bishops and six Canadian bishops together to exchange another round of papers.
“We were a bit like cats meeting for the first time, sort of wandering round in a circle trying to suss each other out,” Johnson recalled. “Then there was a breakthrough when we suddenly realized that actually we were all dealing with similar issues in our own dioceses, and that became a much better conversation.”
In the years since, the consultation has grown to involve dozens of bishops from dioceses across Africa and North America. Since the 2011 meeting in Dar-es-Salaam, each consultation has released a testimony.
The wounds of history
Fittingly, for a meeting that talked about the way the past is alive in the present, the Accra meeting also engaged one of the ugliest episodes in the history of African-European relations: the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
This has been an ongoing feature of the consultation, with the 2015 meeting in Richmond, Virginia, confronting head-on the Anglican church’s complicity in and profit from the slave trade.
Like Richmond, Accra was a focal point in the infamous “triangle trade” between the North Atlantic, the Gold Coast and the Caribbean, and as part of the consultation the bishops were taken to one of the coastal fortresses where enslaved Africans were held before being brought to the Caribbean and the American South.
“We were deeply moved and shocked as we visited the dungeons and punishment cells,” the testimony says. “At the time, our churches were complicit in this tragedy and scandal. Now we can commit ourselves together to face the past squarely and to pray, share and unite around a future of peace and freedom.”
Next year, the consultation will leave the North Atlantic triangle behind to meet in a place of more contemporary political importance: Kenya.
As a key supporter of the Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON), a conservative organization within the Anglican Communion that has been deeply critical of any accommodation of provinces that allow same-sex blessings and marriages, the Anglican Church of Kenya has often distanced itself from more liberal western churches.
For it to host the consultation is, as Hiltz put it, “quite significant.”