Primate looks ahead to Lambeth with hope and anxiety

Published July 14, 2008

Archbishop Fred Hiltz

Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, sat down for a short interview with the Anglican Journal before he left to attend the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England. Excerpts:

Q: What are your thoughts as you prepare to leave for Lambeth?

A: I’m hopeful that the conference will be a true reflection of the theme, which is “God’s people for God’s mission,” and that every effort that’s been made to plan the conference would, in fact, materialize in a lot of conversations about mission. The anxiety that a lot of us have alongside that hope is that there may be some other agendas at work which would steer us into some very difficult conversations around sexuality. We’re going to have those conversations but my hope is that those conversations will not dominate the agenda or in any way skew the agenda that’s been planned. The themes of the day also reflect the whole variety of perspectives on mission and that looks attractive, certainly to me, and lots of others.

Q: What personal preparations are you making?

A: I’ve tried to be prayerful as I think about this conference. I’ve certainly read everything that’s come through although there’s not been a lot of advanced material for the conference. I’ve taken a peek at the Bible study booklet. It’s a commentary John’s Gospel. There are a couple of things I’m going to be responsible for – one is the eucharist on the 29th of July; Susan Johnson (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada national bishop) and I will be involved in a couple of self-select sessions in the afternoons around Anglican-Lutheran relations… The other thing I’m thinking about and which I’ll know more about once I get there is that I’ve been asked to facilitate one of the Bible study groups, so as soon as I arrive in Canterbury, I have to go through a training session on how they want this to function. I think the main thing about the Bible study groups would be around taking some time with the scriptures and in the context of that, getting to know one another, and as Rowan Williams (the Archbishop of Canterbury) has said, “deepen our relationships with one another in Christ.” That’s his big hope for the conference.

Q: What advice, if any, have you given to the Canadian bishops who are going? And, in particular, to bishops whose dioceses have been struggling with the issue of sexuality and have passed motions asking their bishops to allow same-sex blessings? Have they sought your advice?

A: I would say that in conversations with them individually and in some cases, as a group, particularly the bishops that have been in synods that have passed resolutions, I’ve suggested to them, “You need to simply try to be as clear as you possibly can in articulating what actually happened. Articulate to them the wording of the resolution; give some indication of the tone of the debate and the feel of the synod once the resolution was dealt with. I’m just giving them advice that I tried to follow myself when I wrote to the primates back in January to say, “I’m not writing to defend this position or that, but to simply clarify for all our benefits what’s actually happened and is happening in Canada around this conversation. That’s what I said to the bishops, “You need to be very clear about simply telling them how this conversation proceeded in your synod.”

There’s also an agreement amongst us that, if need be, we will get together as a group of bishops, or as a house of bishops, if we’re really feeling that there’s a need for us as a community to come together and just try to assess where things are in the conversations, how they’re feeling at this particular point in time. One of the things that I will certainly be trying to do in the course of the conference is to be touching base with bishops for whom I know certain conversations in the conference will be filled with some anxiety for them.

Q: Everyone but two bishops are going?

A: (Archbishop John Clarke, diocesan bishop of Athabasca and metropolitan of Rupert’s Land) will not be there; he’s recovering from surgery and so has sent his regrets. And the other one is Bishop (Bruce) Howe, simply because he’s announced his retirement also for ill health.

Q: Back in 1998, when women bishops were invited to Lambeth for the first time, many were predicting that it was the beginning of the end for the Anglican Communion. Today, the same thing is being said about this year’s conference. How different is the situation then and now? Is the situation more serious now?

A: Oh yes, I think it is. It’s much more acute. People have drawn their lines in the sand. Some people like the group that gathered in Jerusalem, they’re very clear that the communion is about to come apart. And their outlook and their language is all oriented that way. And their voices are loud. But I said in my response to the GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference) statement, I don’t believe for one minute that the Anglican Communion is paralyzed because (as GAFCON said) we’re preaching a false gospel in certain parts of the world. I don’t believe that.

I think that relations within the Communion are strained and in some cases they’re sprained, they’re broken, they’re hurting. But I don’t believe that the Communion is about to disintegrate because I think the vast majority of us still believe in the Communion and things that draw us together, hold us together. The vast majority of bishops in the Communion and the churches in the Communion are really quite prepared to continue conversations around, say, the Windsor Report, the idea of a covenant among the provinces. There’s some anxiety around that (covenant) but there’s a commitment to at least talk about it. And the whole premise behind the Windsor Report and the idea of a covenant among the provinces is simply to say, “In the midst of all our tensions, our huge differences, and theological perspective, can we find a way to maintain the highest degree of communion possible? The vast majority of our people are really committed to that kind of conversation.

When people talk about schism and division and brokenness, I’m always really sad when I hear people speak that way about the church because, to put it quite simply, to quote an old hymn, “The church of Jesus constant will remain.” In the midst of all these tension, all these strains, we’ve got to remember who the head of the church is; that we’re simply the body, Christ is the head and our task is in all things to seek his mind and his heart and then get on with being his body in the world.

Q: Some bishops and primates belonging to GAFCON have challenged the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Would you say there is a power struggle to seize control of the Communion?

A: To a certain extent it’s a struggle over power and where does it reside. I think that’s very true. Some people want to give to the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury the authority that it’s never historically had and when they don’t see people picking up on that or the Archbishop (of Canterbury Rowan Williams) himself claiming more authority… it seems to me that’s frustrating to some people on all sides. GAFCON people would say, “He’s not strong enough, he’s not weighing down the gavel and saying, ‘You know, this is the word of God and you abide by it according to a certain interpretation’.” And then there are other provinces, other bishops in the Communion who would say, “Why won’t the Archbishop speak up and say clearly to primates and bishops who are interfering in the affairs of other provinces to stop it?”

There’s a lot of stuff around power and authority. It’s no longer in the Communion a debate about sexuality. One of the interesting things is that if you listen to a lot of the language, say from the Anglican Network in Canada or from the GAFCON group of bishops, a lot of them are saying that the blessing of same-sex unions is kind of the tip of the iceberg or it’s the current presenting issue, and behind that issue there’s a 30- or 40-year history of the Anglican church in decline, departing from Orthodox teaching of the faith. They all cite the ordination of women, they cite liturgical renewal, all kinds of things that the church has worked its way through. But you wonder, have they worked themselves through these things? There’s frustration here over liturgical renewal, there’s frustration here over the ordination of women, there’s frustration here over a theology that says, “all the baptized are engaged in ministry.” There’s frustration here over issues of sexuality and this the current issue before us. It has the potential to be the most divisive because it touches the very core of who we are as sexual beings.

Q: What things are you looking forward to at Lambeth?

A: The opening service is always – well, I shouldn’t say always, I was only over there in 1998 — but my memory of (that) service is that it was a wonderful event. It’s truly wonderful to be in that great international gathering and to see the Archbishop of Canterbury take his seat in the chair of Augustine. It has a powerful sense of where we’ve come from historically as a church. And to hear the Gospel proclaimed in so many languages, to hear everybody saying the Lord’s Prayer their own tongue. It’s like a Pentecost experience. And then to share eucharist with people literally from all over the world, it’s like the hymn says, “We are one body in this one Lord throughout the earth.” The opening service really has the potential to set the tone for the entire conference. I don’t know who the preacher is, but I expect that that person will address the theme of the conference, “God’s people for God’s mission.”

The other thing that is really wonderful are the Bible studies. We spend a good chunk of the day in Bible studies… In a group of 10 to 15, that’s where you really get to know people, where they’re from, what are the delights, what are the challenges in how their ministry is in their context. You hear some really horrendous stories about the kind of suffering that so many Christians experience in the world in terms of trying to bear witness to the Gospel. But that’s where relationships really get to develop and that’s what holds the conference together.

We’re going to spend an hour and a half in Bible study and then the next half of the morning involves five Bible study groups coming together to form the indaba group which is when we begin to look at the issues that are before the conference.

(Indaba) is an African word (for) a meeting for purposeful conversation among equals. Every one of those words in the meeting is important – it’s a meeting, it’s purposeful, it’s conversation – we talk to one another, not at or about one another. And, among equals – equal in terms of who we are before God as children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ and each and everyone called to in service, to be a leader in mission.

A lot of us are looking forward to that as a different approach than in 1998 where we spent a lot of time in huge plenary sessions; there was one on evangelism, ecumenism, mission, Gospel and culture, and sexuality. We spent about two weeks where we were assigned one of the four… we spent two weeks in sections, talking, preparing reports and resolutions, and spent the last week debating the resolutions. This time the conference will be different because the Archbishop (of Canterbury) is calling the bishops into a couple of days of quiet before the conference starts. The afternoons are self-select; you go to what you want. It’s really different that way. Some of the plenary sessions will be in the evening, but some will be given to receptions and gatherings that will be hosted by different agencies and societies. Rowan Williams really made it clear to the planning team that his hope was that this conference will be ‘resolution light’, whereas the last one was ‘resolution heavy’.

The challenge that that presents, though, is if we don’t pass resolutions, we’re not writing a whole pile of reports. What are we going to be saying to the church of the world, and how are we going to say it? Will there be some statements? Key messages? Resolutions? It’s still unclear how we will report to the church of the world the outcome of our conference.

The bishops’ spouses will have their own conference but there will also be opportunities for us to be together as a group and I’m also looking forward to that.


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