Bishops reflect on Coventry dialogue

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby spent a day with the bishops from Africa and North America gathered in Coventry. Photo: Michael Ingham
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby spent a day with the bishops from Africa and North America gathered in Coventry. Photo: Michael Ingham
Published June 20, 2014

Coventry, England, was an inspiring setting for the 24 bishops from Africa and North America, who met there from May 22 to 25 for the fifth Consultation of Anglican Bishops in Dialogue to talk about reconciliation within the Anglican Communion and in the world.

The ancient Coventry Cathedral was destroyed in November 1940 during the Second World War. And yet in a BBC radio broadcast from the ruins on Christmas Day that year, provost Dick Howard told listeners that when the war was over they should all work with those who had been enemies “to build a kinder, more Christ-like world.” That history impressed Bishop Michael Oulton of the diocese of Ontario. “The cathedral was still a smouldering ruin when [church leaders] were saying that, so I think that’s powerful,” he said

A new cathedral was built alongside the ruins and connected to it, and it is home to the Community of the Cross of Nails, which is devoted to working for peace, justice and reconciliation around the world. “To be part of the Sunday worship in the “new” Coventry Cathedral on the 52nd anniversary of its consecration, was deeply moving and symbolic,” Bishop Garth Counsell told the Anglican Journal after his return to his diocese of Cape Town, South Africa, where the bishops met in 2013.

Bishop Jane Alexander from the diocese of Edmonton said the examples of reconciliation work done in both post-apartheid South Africa and Coventry were “really encouraging for us in many ways.”

The bishops’ dialogues grew out of an informal gathering that Archbishop Colin Johnson of the dioceses of Toronto and Moosonee organized during the 2008 Lambeth Conference. The hope was to increase understanding between parts of the global Anglican Communion that were divided over issues such as human sexuality and moves in the North American churches to bless same-sex unions and consecrate bishops in same-sex relationships.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Isaac Kawuki Mukasa, who served on Johnson’s diocesan staff at the time and who was recently named Africa relations officer for both The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, organized the first gathering of 11 bishops in London and has been instrumental in bringing a growing number of bishops together each year since. Efforts have been made to better understand mission in local contexts and to build relationships.

“When the consultation was started it wasn’t with the idea ‘let’s all keep talking until we all agree’ on a particular topic, whatever that topic would be,” explained Alexander. “It was more about ‘let’s understand one another and let’s really have an appreciation for one another as faithful brothers and sisters in Christ.’ And I think that is certainly there now and that is huge.”

Counsell has participated in all five dialogues, which he told the Journal has strengthened his “long-held view that, as a Communion, there is far more that unites us than that which threatens to divide us. I have come to realize that appreciating the other’s context for ministry is critical if we are to understand our different positions on issues.”

He added that the experience has “also underscored the immense value, and indeed the necessity, for keeping the communication channels open through honest and continuing conversation so that we are able to listen, hear, understand, trust and respect one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, even when we do not agree

The Coventry consultation was the first in which Bishop Joel Waweru of the diocese of Nairobi in Kenya has participated. Reached by email once he returned home, he told the Journal that the experience “has helped me accept and accommodate people who have different opinions [and] approach issues with an open heart and mind with the love of God in Christ Jesus. [I] am reminded of Christ, who met with the prostitute and the tax collector, and he accommodated them.”

All the bishops spoke of their deep appreciation of the day Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby spent with the group. “We got to see first-hand the depth of his commitment to reconciliation within the Communion,” said Oulton. He recounted that one of the bishops asked Welby what he would like them to do for him. He asked that they pray for him, and more specifically for “wisdom, patience and courage-wisdom to know what to do, patience to know when to do it, and the courage to act.”

“I think it was powerful for all of us,” Oulton said, “but it also struck us that we are praying for him out of relationship with him and with one another and with those who would find it difficult to be in that room.”

Oulton was part of the writing team that crafted the six-page statement issued by the bishops “Testimony of our Journey to Reconciliation,” [link to PDF] which spoke of the Anglican Communion as a family of churches. There was a commitment, he said, to continue to walk together, build partnerships and relationships, and engage in the difficult issues they face in those relationships. Human sexuality is just one of those issues, Oulton said. “For me, as part of the dialogue, the issue was not as much front and centre in our dialogue, as it was building the foundation from which we can have these conversations, and that may be, in my personal view, what has been lacking up to this point.” He added that it seems that Archbishop Welby is working hard to lay that foundation.

“This has to be much more than an internal conversation,” said Oulton, explaining that it is essential “to talk about reconciliation within the life of our church and the life of our Communion…[and] how do we give that sense of reconciliation as a gift to the world because we have a world right now that is just ripped and torn in so many places.”

The bishops heard presentations on reconciliation from Canadian and Kenyan perspectives. Bishop Anthony Pogo talked about the church and conflicts in Sudan. Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon spoke about Nigeria, including the situation in the north, where the extremist Boko Haram is prevalent, but he also talked of his passion for Muslim-Christian dialogue.

Many people will rush to one side or the other of issues and conflicts, said Bishop Oulton and asked, “Who are the people who are going to try to stand in the middle ground? It’s a difficult place to be,” he acknowledged. But in his earlier comments he said the middle may be where Anglicans are called to be and where reconciliation happens. “I think that’s the gift the church brings to the world,” he said.

-With files from the Episcopal News Service


  • Leigh Anne Williams

    Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.

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