THE headlines were always likely to be: “Archbishop validates Lambeth 1.10” — but that’s only part of the story, the Bishop of Monmouth, the Rt Revd Cherry Vann, said on Thursday, at the Lambeth Conference.
One of the joys of the Call on Human Dignity on Tuesday, she said, had been the recognition, for the first time, that countries across the world were in very different places over human sexuality. “Justin very clearly said that to bless civil partnerships and gay marriages, in most parts of the Anglican Communion, would mean the end of the Church, because there would be no credence or credibility whatsoever.
“Similarly, if in the West we were not to do that, exactly the same thing would apply. I think that, for the first time, that is being publicly acknowledged by someone of Justin’s standing.
“It means we can all go home feeling that we are bound together with something stronger than our context, our experience, our views and opinions, our reading of scripture. We are held together in the love of Christ, and we have to honour the fact that we are working in massively different contexts.
“Things have shifted. We have been recognised and celebrated and respected for who we are. Celebrations and blessings have been deemed to have been carefully, theologically thought through — which, again, is another big shift, because we have always been tarred with the brush of ignoring scripture.
“But actually, a lot of people have done a lot of theological thought on this, and it has brought us to a different conclusion in the light of our experience. For the first time, an archbishop has said that’s okay: it is a thoroughly diverse work, and it’s all God’s work.”
There had been huge relief in the room at the outcome, Bishop Vann confirmed. “Because I think we recognised that this is not going to split the Anglican Communion — though there may be some who try to do that anyway.
“But even Archbishop Justin Badi [the Archbishop of South Sudan and Global South leader] has said they don’t want to leave. This allows them to stay, but it also allows me to stay. And that’s massive. Over the next ten years, things will change again.”
Bishop Vann is one of six same-sex-partnered bishops at the Conference (pictured above) — “very present, very visible, very open.” I wonder whether they have been able to change any perceptions simply by their presence? Yes, just being present was important, she suggested. “We exist. We are here. We are called by God to be bishops.
“But I think also — not just those of us who are gay, but the allies, the bishops who support us and affirm us — have been able to tell stories as well.” One gay-partnered bishop had said that, as a result of what their table had discussed and how it had been discussed, a Ghanaian bishop had said: “I can now go back home and say it’s OK to protect the gay young people in my diocese.”
“That feels massive,” Bishop Vann said again. “And that’s partly about us being here listening to what Archbishop Justin has said, and what others have said in one-to-one conversations.”
She emphasised that concerns remained about what happened to LGBT+ people in the places where same-sex relationships were criminalised or socially excluded. “The fear still is that dioceses in the global South just make renewed efforts to try and convert gay people into becoming straight.”
The Conference had been an extraordinary experience so far, she reflected — “exhausting [not only] for all the reasons we talk about, like just walking everywhere, but the intensity of it all, the sheer amount of information, biblical input, stories. There’s a lot to take in and not a lot of time to process it.
“Even when you are queuing for lunch or the evening meal, you’re talking to people, and so compounding the stuff there is to process. But just to sit in the cathedral, or in that room every day with the vast array of diversity that represents the Anglican Communion is really mind-blowing.”
It had been humbling, she acknowledged, to listen to her fellow bishops — some living with the impact of climate change; some seeing death from famine and failed harvests; others living in countries where there is high-level corruption, “where the Church want to be there to speak up for the indigenous people, or the poor, and is branded as terrorist or as being against the government.”
One bishop in her group had been living for three years in another country because his life was at risk. Another, from India, was a Dalit, the lowest caste in the country. It was on Tuesday that people started to tell their stories, she observed, since which time “it has gone really, really deep.
“We moved away from the prescriptive Bible study questions we were asked. Once people start telling their stories, that’s what matters. That’s what makes the connections between experience and faith, and helps people like us in the West and Europe to have an understanding of what it is like to be a Christian in other parts of the world.”
And they were not miserable, she said in wonder: “We have been talking today about suffering in Christ, and there is real joy there, real joy in sharing in the suffering of Christ for them.
“One person referred to it as a gift. They see it as a privilege and a joy. They are amazing. I would almost go as far as to say their context and their experience enables them to have a deeper understanding of their faith, in a way, because they live with so much suffering. We ask what we can do and they tell us to pray. Stand in solidarity with them. Pray, even if we can’t be there in person and be alongside.”
She described organisations such as Christian Aid and USPG, who have a presence at the Conference, as on the front line and needing vital support. She was thinking already about how to further develop the diocese of Monmouth’s links with the Highveld in South Africa, whose bishop, Charles May, is due to visit Monmouth after the conference.
Bishops and their wives in many provinces of the world were still very significant in the tribes and the communities in which they live, and carry a lot of influence, Bishop Vann reflected. “They are very senior figures, and do attempt to work with the governments; but many say the government is so corrupt that there’s no real point talking to them.
“What we have to do is stand by those who are suffering the most, and raise our voices on their behalf and hope that the government listens. But it’s very hard in those situations for bishops to do other than be alongside their people.”
She concluded that Archbishop Welby had “reaffirmed that this is about respecting everyone as an honoured, equal member of the body of Christ, equally created by God. All those things were said very, very clearly, as well as being written down. It is just to be hoped that they are heard.”