JUST AS Jesus sent the 70 to preach the Kingdom and heal the sick, so the priorities of the Primates’ Meeting next week — the life of the Anglican Communion and Africa’s needs — span our Lord’s concern for the breadth of humanity’s spiritual and physical well-being.
Meeting on this continent for the first time since 1993, we face pressing concerns, including famine and flood (on which the province of Burundi has issued an appeal), conflict, and disease, to say nothing of our 48 million orphans — all within the context of extensive poverty and the disproportionate consequences of climate change. We need a united front. The challenges we face are too great for a divided Church.
Yet we must not be distracted from questions of Anglican unity. It is ironic that our meeting to discuss the bonds of affection begins on St Valentine’s Day. We also remember the patron saints of ecumenism: St Cyril, who prayed on his deathbed for Christian unity, and St Methodius — who are also commemorated on 14 February. Each of them reminds us that ties of love are not optional within the body of Christ.
When it comes to unity in diversity, it is hard to match Southern Africa. Beyond differences of culture, race, language, and economic situation, our province encompasses every ecclesial style from high to low, conservative to liberal, European to African. We know emphatically that created and creative diversity is both gift and challenge. We differ widely over questions of sexuality and how to tackle them (although we continue to require all unmarried clergy to be celibate), and yet we can disagree honestly and without rancour.
What I write reflects not just my views, but debates in our provincial synod and synod of bishops. I am deeply concerned that the Anglican commitment to being both episcopally led and synodically governed has been so inadequately reflected in the Communion-wide debate.
God can and does speak through the whole body of believers, not just our leadership: we must find ways to let clergy and laity be better heard. The future of Anglicanism is far too important to be left to bishops and archbishops. More than that: to expect the debate to be settled in either the Primates’ Meeting or the Lambeth Conference is to ride roughshod over the due processes of provinces and the Communion.
Our synod of bishops, reflecting last September on the terrible apartheid years — when we wrestled with vast disagreements, not knowing when or how political change would ever come — affirmed that “We know from experience that unity is a divine given, but requires constant effort to be realised: a journey that requires tolerance and grace.”
We must not lose these innate Anglican characteristics. It is true that some have left, but we who remain feel enhanced by having held together, on the basis of recognising in one another the genuine desire to follow Jesus Christ.
When we turned to a frank discussion of current questions of sexuality, the Bishops decided unanimously to “urge the Anglican Communion to choose to remain united, in accordance with the will of the triune God whom we seek to serve”. We commend this course to the Communion today.
We have no illusions about the seriousness of our difficulties, but we do not believe that this is a Church-dividing issue — just as women’s ordination to the priesthood or the episcopate and marriage after divorce are not.
We speak as those who, after painful debate, initially stood almost alone in supporting programmes to combat racism, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s call for sanctions. Majorities are not necessarily right, and sometimes a stand must be taken. My stand led me to Robben Island. Our Lord’s stand led to the Cross.
This might be unpopular in many quarters, but we believe that attitudes to sexuality are not faith-defining. The debate has distorted, and detracted from, more fundamental questions about interpreting scripture — the touchstone of authentic Christianity — and about enunciating the gospel in this complex, diverse world, where we need appropriate inculturation, but not inappropriate syncretism.
What is faith-defining is our relationship with Jesus, who came not to condemn, but to reconcile and save. He continually included outsiders, subverting scriptural interpretations that divided and excluded.
I recall Jesus’s rebuke when some disciples tried to stop a man acting in his name “because he is not of our group” (Luke 9.49-50). What matters is whether we belong not to this or that group, but to Jesus. As I have written elsewhere, provided that Jesus is the centre of our lives, Anglicanism offers a rich and fertile heartland, in which our common life is enhanced by the breadth of our tradition. We must safeguard this.
The Gospel set for the Sunday of the Primates’ Meeting is Luke 6.27-38, in which Jesus commands us to love our enemies, and eschew judgement and condemnation. So let us embrace one another, be honest in our disagreements, and continue to wrestle together with these difficult issues.
The Most Revd Njongonkulu Ndungane is the Archbishop of Cape Town.