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Leader comment: Disagreeing is what lay people do; so why not bishops?

by
05 August 2022

WE ARE resigned to the fact that not every nugget of advice in this column is taken to heart with the diligence that we would like to see. Seldom is our counsel ignored so immediately and completely, however, as it has been during this past week. The contention that a debate about sexuality at the Lambeth Conference was a distraction and a waste of time might as well not have been made. How many times in the past decades has one party or another been heard to accept that sexuality was taking a disproportionate amount of attention and that the debate could cease “as soon as everyone agrees with our clear and obvious position”? As the Lambeth Conference draws towards its end, it can be confidently predicted that no bishops will have changed their minds as a result of the extra-curricular activity around the 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10.

What has changed for many, however, despite noises off, is the manifestation of respectful disagreement. It is often spoken about in theory as part of the charism of Anglicanism, but perhaps seldom encountered so directly by some church leaders. Bishops from the global South were among those who expressed their appreciation of the opportunity to speak and pray together in Canterbury. The suggestion that “despite our differences, we have been able to talk with one another, and this is the joy of the Anglican Communion” was quoted from the Archbishop of the Indian Ocean, the Most Revd James Wong, one of the leaders of the Global South Fellowship, not one of the more on-message European or American bishops.

Early in the Conference, the Archbishop of York warned bishops of the spiritual dangers of episcopal preferment: “People treat us like we’re very important.” He could have mentioned that bishops’ authority in their dioceses allows them the freedom to hold firm positions without dissent from any peers — made worse if they are of a mind to appoint people who agree with them to positions of influence, and a culture of indulgence and obsequiousness develops. The remedy is for bishops to remain in close contact with lay people, for whom living with difference is such a common experience as to be unremarked. The laity are constantly having to accommodate expressions of theology, ecclesiastical practices, and political enterprises — not to mention music — with which they disagree. The Global South Fellowship is attempting to paint a picture of an Anglican Communion united by a conservative view of sexuality: Bishop A believes X and represents Y number of churchgoers (who, therefore, believe the same). A truer picture of the Communion is that those churchgoers — like the majority of UK Anglicans who wish to see no barriers to same-sex marriage in church — have little contact with their bishop, but remain loyal despite disagreements . . . because they are Anglicans.

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