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General Synod digest: Suffering is a ‘dangerous theological reality’ says Welby

01 March 2024
Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Archbishop of Canterbury delivers his presidential address

The Archbishop of Canterbury delivers his presidential address

SUFFERING and enemies abounded, but the Church of England should resist lapsing into bitterness, the Archbishop of Canterbury said in his presidential address to the General Synod on Friday afternoon.

In September 2023, the UN secretary-general had said that “the world is coming off its hinges.” How could Christians respond, Archbishop Welby asked. Suffering was a “dangerous theological reality” that the Psalms were shot through with, but the Church was “curiously blind” to it. Other Churches recognised the inevitability of suffering, especially for leaders such as bishops, he suggested.

When they looked around the world today, Archbishop Welby continued, “all the lights are flashing red”: suffering was obvious. The war in Ukraine had been frozen in place, while the “havoc and horror” of the conflict in Gaza now dominated the headlines.

Other crises were mostly forgotten, however. Archbishop Welby referred to the civil war in Myanmar (News, 9 February), the millions killed in conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (News, 23 February), and the “unimaginable” refugee crisis in Sudan.

“The world does not watch: it turns its head away,” he said. Tensions in Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines, Mozambique, or on the southern border of the United States — all were ignored, he said.

The Pope had described the interconnected web of conflicts as a “Third World War”, the Archbishop said. “Amidst it all there is intense, terrible, indescribable personal suffering — and it is not confined to abroad.”

Everything from the news, the Psalms, and personal experience taught that suffering was normal, he said. “And yet we naïvely cling to the hope that things will always work out somehow.”

Succumbing to the temptation to put aside the Church’s internal wranglings in the face of such suffering would be a mistake, however, Archbishop Welby argued. Instead, he said — quoting George Bell on the eve of the Second World War — the path forward was to be “even more the Church”.

Bitterness and personal abuse had become normalised in the Church, Archbishop Welby said. His own correspondence secretary was “worn down by the expressions of hatred normally coming from within the Church”. Despite biblical injunctions not to act out of fear, fear pervaded.

People observing the Synod’s deliberations had noted the “angst-ridden tone” and “unfair attacks”. “We need to assume the best rather than the worst,” Archbishop Welby warned members. “Suffering and enemies are faced best in communities with trust across the divide rather than in self-protecting and reinforcing huddles.” This was difficult, but the Church would not be able to minister to the outside world unless it was dealing well with its own internal issues.

God could not be kept out of the Church’s discussions, Archbishop Welby warned. Quoting the Psalms, he said: “We can fail, but God cannot. God is always at work among us, today and everyday.”

Concluding his address, Archbishop Welby presented Tom Joy, chief investment officer of the Church Commissioners (Interview, 23 February), the Canterbury Cross for services to the Church of England. Mr Joy is leaving to take up a new job overseas.

When Mr Joy had arrived in 2009, the Commissioners’ assets had been worth £4 billion; after 14 years’ consecutive positive returns, they had grown to £10 billion. This had enabled a 30-per-cent increase in distributions to the C of E, the Archbishop said.

Mr Joy was also praised for leading the Commissioners’ push into investing in forestry and the public-bond market, and for keeping environmental and social concerns at the forefront.

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