God's pilgrim people

by Savitri Hensman

from Signs of the Times, No. 29 - Apr 2008

While debate among Anglicans on sexuality has made the headlines, other major differences too have become apparent. These include disagreements on authority in the church and who is responsible for mission and ministry.

According to the 1930 Lambeth Conference of bishops, 'every member of the Church, both clerical and lay, is called to be a channel through which the divine life flows for the quickening of all mankind'. The 1968 Lambeth Conference recommended 'that no major issue in the life of the Church should be decided without the full participation of the laity in discussion and in decision' and 'that each province or regional Church be asked to explore the theology of baptism and confirmation in relation to the need to commission the laity for their task in the world'.

It was widely recognised that the 'searching enquiries' of theologians, prayerful reflection by frontline clergy on the pastoral realities they faced and in-depth knowledge held by many laypeople were of vital importance. In The Christian Priest Today, former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey urged priests to

Take your share in the task of Christian people to study together and form right judgements based on knowledge and Christian insight. I am thinking of such issues as industrial relations, and the third world in relation to our world, war and violence, obscenity and censorship, race relations. It may often be for you as priests to rouse the laity to think responsibly about these questions, but when they are aroused you will find that they have knowledge which you have not and you will be learning from them in a partnership of Christian concern. This is how the mind of the Church is to be formed.

In many provinces, and to some extent international Anglican circles, work has continued on how 'ordinary' Christians should live out their calling and what should happen if this brings them into conflict with those in authority. 'As an Anglican communion in mission, led forward by the Holy Spirit, we acknowledge (as sister churches) that we are God's pilgrim people,' stated a report on Communion in Mission to the 13 th Anglican Consultative Council meeting, held in 2005 (emphasis in original):

The heart of the witness of the Church is the day-to-day presence, life and witness of lay Christians in their places of residence, work and the neighbourhoods where they live, or the networks with which they are associated. The Christian faith is a way of life rather than an organisation and Christians live out that way in the wider society. The resources of the organised Church, its worship and teaching, need to focus on strengthening and enabling Christians to witness in their daily lives... The God we proclaim is a God of love and justice. The world in which we live, however, is characterised by injustice, greed, poverty, terrorism, abuse of power and exclusion. It is in this broken world that we are called to joyful participation in God's mission of love and justice for all... Peoples' experiences need to be witnessed, recorded and honoured. Then, those who have borne witness need to name the injustices and speak the truth to those in power. Often this means speaking to international bodies, national bodies, and even to the powers in our own churches.

Yet Anglicans in much of the world (including to some extent England) still tend to defer to those 'above' them in status in church and society, while in wider culture there has been a trend towards emphasising the need for 'strong' leadership. Theological differences on the nature of the church and how it should be led became more prominent. For example, South African primate Njongonkulu Ndungane said in 2007:

One touchstone of Anglicanism has been the involvement of laity in the governing of the Church. We are not ruled from above by a Pope and a Curia of Bishops. Rather, we believe that God's Spirit is at work in all God's people to build up the whole Body of Christ. Paul tells the Corinthian church 'to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good' (1 Cor12:7). For this reason, we describe ourselves as 'both episcopally led and synodically governed'. In our synods, all God's people are represented - Bishops, clergy and laity... Yet it seems that centre stage is increasingly being given to the Primates - and I very much regret this... Even the representative breadth of the Lambeth Conference is questionable. My theology continues to tell me that it is in and through our widest councils that we will most fully discern both what we should do, and how we should go about it.

In contrast, in an Advent letter that year, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams reproached the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church for giving too much weight to their synod, General Convention:

puzzlement has been expressed as to why the House should apparently bind itself to future direction from the Convention... It raises a major ecclesiological issue, not about some sort of autocratic episcopal privilege but about the understanding in The Episcopal Church of the distinctive charism of bishops as an order and their responsibility for sustaining doctrinal standards. Once again, there seems to be a gap between what some in The Episcopal Church understand about the ministry of bishops and what is held elsewhere in the Communion, and this needs to be addressed.

To many Anglicans, this approach would seem problematic for various reasons. The majority of bishops can be wrong, as happened on slavery, so what are the implications of investing them with great ecclesiastical and spiritual authority? Bishops are not representative of the breadth of God's pilgrim people - for instance the vast majority worldwide (in some provinces all) are male, so what would this mean for women? What of the calling of all Christians to be followers of Jesus who, according to the gospels, confronted the religious authorities when they stood in the way of God's loving realm?

These issues do indeed need to be addressed if Anglicans today are to discern what they are called to do in this broken world which God so loves, and to act accordingly.

Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka and works in the voluntary sector in London.