Sunday, 22 June 2008

So do not be afraid

A quilt by Hollis Chatelain showing Arcbishop Desmond Tutu surrounded by children

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 22 June 2008, 5th Sunday after Trinity:

Genesis 21: 8-21; Psalm 86: 1-10, 16-17; Romans 6: 1b-11; Matthew 10: 24-39.

May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


Over the last few weeks, I have been reading some very insightful essays for students on the adult education course that leads to the Archbishop’s Certificate in Theology.

Some Whitechurch parishioners have enrolled for this course, and it’s exciting to know that there are so many thinking people who want to engage with their Christian faith in a challenging, questioning way, seeking to explore and deepen their understanding of how relevant Christianity and the Church are to the world today and its problems.

These people are not raw, naïve students. They display a wide variety of age, experience, and background.

They come with a variety of experiences that challenge our stereotypical image of the Church of Ireland. Yes, there are suburban housewives and businessmen, and young people from rectory families. And they bring amazing and often unconventional questions and insights to the discussions, as we can all imagine in this parish.

But they sit side-by-side – and sit comfortably side-by-side – with the other students: the single mother with teenage sons; the refugee who has seen horrific outrages, only to find herself marginalised by the cold Irish system; the farmer who travels a round trip of hundreds of miles just to learn more, and to be challenged more deeply by the Christian faith.

Well no-one said it was going to be easy, did they?

The Christian faith should be challenging. Our reflections on it should be challenging and should challenge us. And as we integrate that reflection, our discipleship should be challenging to the world … even when that means that there is a price to pay.

How free do you feel you are to express your faith today?

What inhibits you when it comes to talking about your core values and beliefs today?

It may not be fear of persecution and death; it may simply be the prospect of being embarrassed, or of embarrassing others.

How often have you heard people declining to stand up for Christianity in a discussion, saying something like: “Well all religions are the same anyway, aren’t they?”

But if we are unwilling to speak up about our beliefs in time of plenty, how difficult will it be to speak up for Christian values, the Christian point of view, when things are difficult, when things are tough?

Some of the greatest people I have known who have spoken up for Christian values and the Christian faith, knowing the consequences but not fearing them, have been the Church leaders in South Africa during the apartheid era.

As a young adult who had recently come to experience the love of God and started to explore the challenges of Christian discipleship, I was deeply challenged by the witness of the Dean of Johannesburg, who opened the doors of his cathedral and offered sanctuary to black protesters who were being beaten on the cathedral steps by white police using rhino whips.

Dean Gonville ffrench-Beytagh knew the consequences. He was jailed, and eventually exiled from South Africa. To us the words of the German martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he bore the “Cost of Discipleship.”

Some years later, while apartheid was still in force, I was privileged to interview Desmond Tutu. He too had been Dean of Saint Mary’s in Johannesburg, and when I first met him he was secretary general of the South African Council of Churches.

I was worried about the many death threats he was receiving, and I asked him how he lived with those threats? Was he worried about them? Did he ever consider modifying what he had to say because of them?

He gave me an answer similar to one he gave when he was facing tough questioning before the regime’s Eloff Commission. He told that inquiry:

“There is nothing the government can do to me that will stop me from being involved in what I believe God wants me to do. I do not do it because I like doing it. I do it because I am under what I believe to be the influence of God’s hand. I cannot help it. When I see injustice, I cannot keep quiet, for, as Jeremiah says, when I try to keep quiet, God’s Word burns like a fire in my breast. But what is it that they can ultimately do? The most awful thing that they can do is to kill me, and death is not the worst thing that could happen to a Christian.”

Staying quiet when I should speak out will deal a death blow to my morals and my morale. Silence in the face of injustice and suffering is a silent denial of my faith, and of Christ.

I’m sure that while they spoke out against the injustices of apartheid and Nazism, those great Church leaders over the past century, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh and Desmond Tutu, were not without fear. They were not that stupid. They knew there were consequences. But they took up their cross and followed Christ, and are worthy of the name Christian (Matthew 10: 38).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was jailed, tortured and died in a concentration camp; Gonville ffrench-Beytagh was jailed, tortured and exiled, and for years afterwards continued to suffer from bouts of depression; and Desmond Tutu was persecuted, and his home and offices bombed.

But they knew that despite their physical fears were, and the fears they had for the families, who would also suffer socially and physically, that they had little to fear spiritually.

For as the Apostle Paul challenges us in our Epistle reading this morning, we have already gone through death with Christ because of our baptism. We are now called to live a new life with him. We are no longer slaves to the old ways of doing things, we are now citizens of the Kingdom of God. Death no longer has dominion (see Romans 6: 3-11).

Being alive to Christ allows the great Christians of our time to speak up when their voice needs to be heard, to take risks even when there is a price to pay. And do it knowing that there is nothing to fear spiritually, even if the consequences are dreadful and frightening by other people’s standards.

How often do we take the easy option out? How often do we give nice names to the bad things we do? How often do we pretend that we’re doing the wrong thing for the right reasons? Or simply because we are doing what’s expected of us, what were told to do?

How often good labels have been hijacked to disguise the dreadful. The slogan on the gates outside Auschwitz, Dachau and other Nazi death camps was: “Arbeit mach frei” – “Work makes you free.”

The word “apartheid” does not mean racism. It actually means “separate development” which sounds good except there were no hopes of development and opportunity for anyone but the white people in South Africa.

As he was leading the United States further-and-further along in the nuclear arms race, developing new nuclear missiles that would eventually contribute to economic recession, President Ronald Reagan declared in his Second Inaugural address in 1984: “Peace is our highest aspiration. The record is clear, Americans resort to force only when they must. We have never been aggressors.” They even named one new nuclear weapon “Peacemaker” and named a nuclear warship Corpus Christi.

But it was always so throughout history. In an oft-quoteed passage in De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae, the Roman orator and historian Tacitus, at the end of chapter 30, quotes a speech by a British chieftain Calgacus addressing assembled warriors about Rome’s insatiable appetite for conquest and plunder: “ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant” (“where they make a desert, they call it peace,” Oxford Revised Translation).

This British chieftain’s sentiment was meant as an ironic contrast with the slogan, “Peace given to the world,” which was frequently inscribed on Roman medals.

This phrase from Tacitus is often quoted alone. For example, the poet Lord Byron, for instance adapts the phrase in Bride of Abydos (1813):

Mark where his carnage and his conquests cease!
He makes a solitude, and calls it – peace.


The same irony is found when Jesus says to his disciples in this morning’s Gospel reading: “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have come not to bring peace, but the sword” (Matthew 10: 34).

It is not that Jesus was encouraging his disciples to be warmongers – what a gross misreading of his teachings that would be. Nor is he encouraging family rows, encouraging sons to storm out on their fathers, mothers to nag and niggle at their daughters (Matthew 10: 35).

But he is warning his disciples it’s not going to be easy. They’re not going to have a quiet time. Those who want a quiet life as Christians can forget about. And their hopes of a quiet life as passive Christians will vanish quickly.

Are we prepared to stand up for our faith and its values even at the risk of being ridiculed? Even when this upsets the peace of our families, our communities, our society and our land?

Some of those essays I have been reading over the past few weeks from those students on that adult education course encourages me when it comes to worrying whether people prefer peace at any price or taking a costly stand, even when it challenges prevailing values in our society today.

Many of them have looked at the way we treat immigrants, migrants and refugees in our society. Yes, they observed the rising levels of racism in our society. Yes, they noticed the inadequate welfare and support payments they receive.

But they were even more challenging about the way they thought the Church was too comfortable about the problems we are facing in Irish society today. We’re too inward-looking, most of them say in their essays. We’re too much of a club.

They’ve stopped and looked at ordinary, everyday parishes. There’s no fear of fathers being set against their sons, mothers against their daughters, daughters-in-law against mothers-in-law, or of finding foes within the household (Matthew 10: 35-37).

Most of them found our parishes were too like comfortable families or clubs, not open to the worries, concerns and fears of the outsider.

Do we love the clubbish atmosphere in the Church of Ireland more than we love the Church, the Gospel and Christ?

Or are we prepared to speak out, not worrying about the consequences, knowing that “whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10: 39).

And now may all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the glory honour and praise of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Parish Eucharist in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin on Sunday 22 June 2008. Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Fresh call to return Parthenon Marbles to Athens

Part of the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford

The Greek-born British entrepreneur Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou (41) – best known for his easyGroup, including easyJet and easyCruise – has taken out full-page ads in many newspapers this week as his way of publishing an open letter calling on the curators of the British Museum in London and the New Acropolis Museum in Athens to meet and discuss the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles.

In his open letter, Stelios asks the two parties to engage in a constructive dialogue: “I think the time has come for the curators of the two museums to come to have a constructive dialogue about the Parthenon Marbles.

“Away from the politics and name-calling, I feel there is now a win-win situation for both museums in the form of a cultural exchange. Therefore, art lovers worldwide might get the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see these masterpieces reunited.”

As part of his campaign, Stelios is also planning to have an easyCruise ship sail throughout the Greek islands later this summer with the words “Reunite the Parthenon Marbles” emblazoned on it. In October, easyCruise Life plans a seven-day “Classical Greece” itinerary, taking passengers on a cultural tour of Greece.

The marbles adorned the interior of the Parthenon in Athens – the most iconic symbol of Greek civilisation. But about half of this great classical masterpiece was brutally hacked away and stolen by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, in 1801 and shipped to London. They were bought in 1816 by the British Museum, and remain there to this day. Stelios has been actively involved in the Parthenon campaign.

easyGroup sponsored a recent debate at the Cambridge Union on the motion of the return of the Parthenon marbles to the New Acropolis Museum, at the foot of the Acropolis. The debate was won by the supporters of the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles.

Stelios Haji-Ioannou website: http://www.stelios.com/; International Campaign for the Return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens: http://www.parthenoninternational.org/; Marbles Reunited: http://www.marblesreunited.org.uk/; for more information on easyCruise visit http://www.easycruise.com/.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

With the Beautiful Losers at the Favourite Game

Leonard Cohen: a deeply-spiritual poet and song-writer

Patrick Comerford

Last night I joined Marianne, Suzanne and all the Beautiful Losers at the Favourite Game.

I was at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham for the first of Leonard Cohen’s three concerts in Dublin as part of his first tour in 15 years. It was a sell-out concert last night, with 36,000 people there. It was a fresh summer’s evening, and for three hours he treated us to with 23 of his songs and poems until well after 11 p.m.

Like many of his fans and many of my generation, I have been a fan of Leonard Cohen since the late 1960s. Yes, his records, poetry books and novels, were essential parts of the furniture and lifestyle in those “digs” and bedsits in Lichfield, Wexford and Donnybrook. I read his poems at every poetry reading I took part in the the early 1970s. The books and records have continued to be with me in the different houses I have lived in since. We just added the latest albums and books, including the tribute albums, and the vinyl s gave way to CDs.

John McKenna’s play in the Mill Theatre in Dundrum last year, Who By Fire, was a deeply disturbing account of the Holocaust using the songs of Leonard Cohen, and was written with his approval and co-operation. But last night we had Cohen’s first live concert in Dublin in 22 years. And he constantly thanked an appreciative and enthusiastic audience for our hospitality and the welcome he had received in “this city of poets and singers.”

I have always regarded Leonard Cohen as one of our great poets and singers. His works are tempered with a deep but sharp irony. He is frankly honest about his many broken relationships but brings beauty to his talk of love and his descriptions of sexual encounters and relationships. But, for me, he is also deeply religious and spiritual.

Leonard Cohen was born in 1934. Yet last night he was a man of grace, poise, generosity and stamina. I hope that at 73, in 17 years’ time, I am even half as healthy, as active, as good-humoured and even fractionally as creative.

His music is difficult to categorise. Yes, he loves jazz. Yes, they’re the songs of my generation. But there were moments when you knew this is the Bar Mitvah boy who had has always lived with the rhythms and cadences of the synagogue and of European Jewish folk music. And there were moments, sitting there in last night’s cool summer breeze, that I could have been in a taverna in Hydra or another Greek island, where Cohen was immersed in the music of rembetika, the mandolin, the bouzouki and the lyre.

And all of these influences are brought together in his opening number last night: Dance me to the end of love, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ki9xcDs9jRk&feature=related. It is a song with imagery that draws on Messianic hope and full of tender love.

Then we were given The Future: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_drEFOaPaK8&feature=related. It’s an apocalyptic poem asking whether the world is facing a dangerous future despite the fall of the Berlin Wall: “I’ve seen the future brother: it is murder.”

“The blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned / the order of the soul
When they said repent
I wonder what they meant.”

And yet, his Jewish identity comes through as the voice of the victims of the past and the present and the future:

“I’m the little jew
who wrote the bible
I’ve seen the nations rise and fall
I’ve heard their stories
heard them all
but love’s the only engine of survival.”

He followed this with Ain’t no cure for love, during which we could see his dynamic working relationship with his musicians and singers: “Tell them sisters … There ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure for love. Oh-h no.” No, there is no cure for love. It just grows sweet or bitter. “I’m aching for you baby. I can’t pretend I’m not …”

Once again, in this poem in infused with his deep spirituality: “I walked into this empty church – I had no place to go – when the sweetest voice I ever heard came whispering to my soul. I don’t need to be forgiven for loving you so much. It’s written in the scriptures, it’s written here in blood. I even heard the angels declare it from above – There ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure for love.”

His fourth number, Bird on the Wire, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tHvVqeWPF8, was written in Hydra in the 1960s. This was one of the first poems he wrote in Greece, at a time where there were few wires on any Greek island. Even then he was honest about his torn relationships: “I have torn everyone who has reached out to me.” And yet is he suggesting that he knows God’s deep forgiveness?

“But I swear by this song
And by all that I have done wrong
I will make it all up to thee.”

Then we were challenged by Everbody Knows. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h27HRNm_r4U. Co-written with Sharon Robinson in the aftermath of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, this is a strong criticism of neo-conservative policies on war and the social issues of our day, and talks of an impending collapse of political economic and social life. “Everybody knows the deal is rotten. Old Black Joe’s still picking cotton for your ribbons and bows … Everybody knows … from the bloody cross on top of Calvary to the beach at Malibu. Everybody knows it’s coming apart: take one last look at this Sacred Heart before it blows. And everybody knows.”

In my secret life, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meBNeNwiagw, also written with Sharon Robinson, comes from his album Ten New Songs, but is not included in his book Stranger Music. Who knows what goes on in anyone’s heart, even when we know what is wrong, and what is right. Would we die for the truth? “Thank God it’s not that simple, in my secret life.”

This was followed by Who by fire? This was the inspiration for John McKenna’s disturbing and challenging play last year. There is a wonderful version on YouTube with a Jazz interpretation of this song. This is Cohen’s interpretation of a Jewish liturgical song, with the words and melody echoing the Unetaneh Tokef, an 11th century liturgical poem recited on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. But you can also catch the Greek rhythms and influences on this version on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQTRX23EMNk.

Anthem, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2PqbZ_-4p8, includes one of my favourite quotes from Cohen:

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

None of us is perfect, but God still works through each and every one of us.

After the 15-minute interval, we were invited to The Tower of Song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYJf4J7VBaY&feature=related, a favourite of Bono and U2. He laughs as he admits age is catching up on him:

“My friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the place where I used to play.”

And we all laughed as his eyes twinkled at the line: “I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”

Then we heard Suzanne, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFDynsY9_tQ. Despite beginning as a story of love and infatuation, Suzanne turns to a religious theme in the second verse:

“And Jesus was a sailor
when he walked upon the water …”

His “lonely wooden tower” is the cross, and Cohen is so fascinated by him he writes:

“And you want to travel with him
you want to travel blind
and you think maybe you’ll trust him
for he’s touched your perfect body
with his mind.”

According to the biographer and film-maker Harry Rasky, Cohen was once married to the Los Angeles artist Suzanne Elrod. The two had an important relationship in the 1970s, but Cohen says “cowardice” and “fear” prevented him from ever marrying her. They had two children, Adam (born in 1972) and Lorca (born in 1974), a daughter, named after the poet Federico García Lorca. Cohen and Elrod had split by 1979. But contrary to popular belief, Suzanne, which one of his best-known songs, refers not to Suzanne Elrod, but to Suzanne Verdal, the former wife of his friend, the Québécois sculptor Armand Vaillancourt.

Next came The Gypsy Wife, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-hOpyGKfmo. On first listening this is a sad story of betrayal. But once again, we heard Cohen’s apocalyptic theme of impending disaster:

“Too early for the rainbow,
too early for the dove
These are the final days:
this is the darkness, this is the flood.
And there is no man or woman
who can be touched,
but you who come between them, you will be judged.”

Sharon Robinson, who was co-written some tracks on recent Cohen albums, sang the opening of Boogie Street, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ZG2zpKt7Es, from Ten New Songs, with tearful passionate:

“O Crown of Light, O Darkened One,
I never thought we’d meet.
You kiss my lips, and then it’s done
I’m back on Boogie Street.”

Is this Cohen talking about one of his regular returns to depression?

But there were no signs of depression as the crowd rose to the strains of Halleluljah, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rf36v0epfmI, waving arms as if we were at a rally of charismatic evangelicals … well, one other priest messaged me on Facebook this afternoon to say he had spotted me at the concert last night.

We are all broken and sinful, “life is not a victory march, / it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah!” But even then the song tells us that even David, despite lust and vanity, could play a “secret chord” that “pleased the Lord.” Despite that lust, which is the whole story of Hallelujah, eentually it all goes right in the end, for without David, what would have happened to God’s plans? Cohen reminds me that there is always hope despite my sinfullness:

“And even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah!
…and it’s not some pigrim who’s seen the light –
it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”

In Democracy, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5g8CA5ltR8, he criticises America but says he loves it: “I love the country but I can’t stand the scene.” But he also criticises the lack of interest in politics among the American public and their addiction to television:

“I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight
getting lost in that hopeless little screen.”

It was so relevant to America’s foreign policy priorities today:

“From the wells of disappointment
where the women knell to pray
for the grace of G-d in the desert here
and the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the USA.”

But he is damning about the role of the religious right in politics in America, where poor people

“got the spiritual thirst … the heart has got to open
in a fundamental way.”

As for democracy, “It’s coming … from the staggering account
of the Sermon on the Mount
which I don’t pretend to understand at all …”

Next he sang one of his most popular sings, I’m your man (intorduced on this clip by Bono: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDxQsa-xgJI&feature=related).

Did he ever get back with the women about whom he wrote:

“But a man never got a woman back / not by begging on his knees
or I’d crawl to you baby / and I’d fall at your feet …”

Instead of singing it as a song, Leonard Cohen recited his poem, A Thousand Kisses Deep, co-written with Sharon Robinson for Ten New Songs in 2001. You can hear a similar recital here on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXaRT8CXmGE. Everyone present was moved to silence as the poet recited his poem. It was what we had come for. But was he still on Boogie Street? A sung version of it is at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0j14GrB-u8&feature=related.

Cohen named his daughter Lorca after the poet Federico García Lorca, and was inspired by him to write Take This Waltz, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSWgnSE8A-I.

“And I’ll yield to the flood of your beauty,
my cheap violin and my cross.
And you’ll carry me down on your dancing
to the pools that you lift on your wrist, – O my love, my love.”

If we were waiting for a miracle, we certainly got one when we called for an encore. He came back on stage and sang Waiting for a Miracle, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQOok6zO-CI. Then came Cohen’s biting condemnation of the fashion industry and the way it has abused women: First We Take Manhattan, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFBKV0zVXSE.

And he stayed on the stage and gave us more. He thought it was appropriate that an Irish audience should hear That don’t make it junk:

“I fought against the bottle,
But I had to do it drunk – Took my diamond to the pawnshop –
But that don’t make it junk.”

I felt we were praying with him when he went on to sing If it be your will, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-myjV64xfs. The “sublime Webb sisters” played the harp as he sang and prayed:

“If it be your will
that I speak no more,
and my voice be still
as it was before;
I will speak no more, I shall abide until
I am spoken for,
if it be your will. And draw us near
and bind us tight,
all your children here
in their rags of light;
in our rags of light,
all dressed to kill;
and end this night,
if it be your will.”

Once again, I thought the night had come to a perfect end. It seemed a perfect prayer to end the night. But instead he went on to sign, once again with humour, Closing Time, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrPEM2qc-j8.

He just seemed to want to go on, but he had to say good night and go. And he did it with I tried to leave you, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J14XykL0LWs. We all laughed, and felt he didn’t want to leave us. But it was after 11. “Good night my darling, I hope you’re satisfied.”

Throughout the night he had constantly interrupted himself through song and poem to express his so-obvious appreciation for “the incomparable Sharon Robinson,” “the sublime Webb sisters,” and for each and every one of his musicians. But we were the grateful ones. The Beautiful Losers were winners at our Favourite Game last night.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Can the Lambeth Conference maintain Anglican unity and diversity?

The participants in the consultation on teaching Anglicanism at Trinity College Bristol

Patrick Comerford

The Lambeth Conference, which takes place every ten years, is one of the four instruments of unity in Anglican Communion – along with the Primates’ Meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council and the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

However, the plans and preparations for this year’s Lambeth Conference have been overshadowed by deep divisions among Anglican bishops around the world over sexuality and the decisions by some bishops to set up alternative structures within dioceses outside their own territory.

All the bishops of Anglican Communion – including the 12 bishops of the Church of Ireland – have been invited to this year’s Lambeth Conference in July and August. As they prepare to go to Canterbury next month, the world media is watching to see which bishops from around the world will accept the invitation to the Lambeth Conference from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and which bishops will decline.

A full programme

The conference takes place mainly on the Canterbury campus of the University of Kent. Between 10 and 15 July, in a pre-conference hospitality initiative, every bishop and spouse coming to the Lambeth Conference and the parallel Spouses’ Conference is being invited to enjoy the hospitality of an English, Scottish or Welsh diocese, and the bishops who wish to take part are being allocated to a host diocese.

The bishops and their spouses are expected to arrive in Canterbury on 16 July for an official welcome to the conference. Then, on 17 and 18 July in Canterbury Cathedral, and on 19 July on the Canterbury campus of the University of Kent, Archbishop Williams will lead the delegates in a time of retreat.

On the first Sunday of the conference, 20 July, all bishops and spouses will worship together in Canterbury Cathedral. Then, each day of the conference starts and ends in worship. At the start of the day, the same group of eight bishops will gather for Bible study. The Bible study material will be based around the “I AM” sayings of Jesus in Saint John’s Gospel. The groups will be formed on the basis of language and to reflect the rich cultural diversity of the Anglican Communion.

After the Bible studies, the bishops will gather in larger groups of about 40, which are being called “Indaba” groups, to discuss the day’s theme. Afternoon activities include workshops, seminars and discussions, resourced by a variety of groups and individuals from throughout the Anglican Communion.

Conference topics

The conference topics for the expanded group and the self-selecting afternoon sessions during the conference include: biblical interpretation and hermeneutics; ecumenical management; Anglican identity and the role of bishops; issues of Covenant; the listening process within the Anglican Communion; engagement with other faiths; evangelism and mission; gender and sexuality; relationships, including social and family relationships; HIV/Aids; and the Millennium Development Goals.

The first Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, are billed as “Ordinary' Conference Days”, looking at three different themes: Celebrating Common Ground: the bishop and Anglican identity (Monday); Proclaiming the Good News: the bishop and evangelism (Tuesday); and Transforming Society: the bishop and social injustice (Wednesday). On Thursday 24 July, the bishops and their spouses will spend the day in London, where they will be hosted at Lambeth Palace by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Dr Jane Williams, and at Buckingham Palace and by Queen Elizabeth. On Friday 25 July and Saturday 26 July, they will discuss discerning our Shared Calling: the bishop, other churches and God's mission; and Safeguarding Creation: the bishop and the environment.

On Sunday 27 July, bishops, spouses and other guests will enjoy the hospitality of a Canterbury parish or the cathedral. Then, on the final week, the programme includes Christian witness in a multifaith world, the bible in mission, human sexuality, the Covenant and the Windsor Process, and a day shared with the spouses’ conference, looking at the abuse of power.

After the final morning groups on 3 August, the bishops and their spouses will join in the closing session followed by worship at Canterbury Cathedral.

Setting out his hopes for this year’s Lambeth Conference in a video message addressed to bishops and dioceses throughout the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Rowan Williams said he hoped that this year’s conference “is essentially a spiritual encounter. A time when people are encountering God as they encounter one another, a time when people will feel that their life of prayer and witness is being deepened and their resources are being stretched. Not a time when we are being besieged by problems that need to be solved and statements that need to be finalised, but a time when people feel that they are growing in their ministry. And for that to happen once again, we are going to need the prayers and the support of so many people around the world.”

Teaching Anglicanism

But given the deep divisions within the Anglican Communion, what are the chances of the hopes of the Archbishop of Canterbury being realised? This was a major topic for discussion at a recent consultation I took part in at Trinity College Bristol.

The consultation was an opportunity to share our current curricula and approaches to teaching Anglicanism, to explore how Anglicanism is increasingly defined by its Global South identity and the implications of this for Anglicanism in the “north,” and to discuss how we help ordinands to think through the current situation in the Anglican Communion and its implications for their ministry.

The keynote speaker was the Revd Canon Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, London, Visiting Professor of Theology and Public Life at Liverpool Hope University, a member of the Inter Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission and of ARCIC (the Anglican-Roman Catholic international Commission), and author of Christian Tradition and the Practice of Justice. Clare Amos, Director of Theological Studies, Anglican Communion, spoke about the work of Theological Education in the Anglican Communion (TEAC) working group. I was invited to give a presentation on the teaching of Anglicanism at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

The other participants included staff members of Trinity College Bristol, the staff of local and regional ministry training programmes in Cambridge, Lichfield, Manchester, Norwich, Salisbury, and academics who teach Anglican studies at Oak Hill Theological College (London), the Queen’s Foundation (Birmingham), Ripon College, Cuddesdon (Oxford), Westcott House (Cambridge), the College of the Transfiguration, Grahamstown (South Africa) and the University of the South, Sewanee (Tennessee).

‘Careful balancing act’

Canon Sagovsky is the author of many books and articles on theology, ecumenism and social justice, and has contributed vigorously to debates in Britain on key social justice issues such as benefit levels, debt, the community charge, the nature of capitalism and asylum. He spoke in Bristol about how the Anglican Communion holds together the various traditions that might be described as High Church, Low Church, Anglo-Catholic, Evangelical and Liberal in creative tension and he held up Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral as two contrasting images of the Church of England, with Westminster Abbey embodying an intimate relationship with the monarchy since the reign of Saint Edmund the Confessor, while Thomas a Becket at Canterbury presented the clash with the monarchy.

He said the present debates in the Anglican Communion on gender and sexuality were about how we read the Bible, and is “a re-run of a central Reformation debate.” During the reign of Elizabeth I, the Church of England had been barely held together through a “careful balancing act.” He asked whether we have now “reached the point where we have to go our separate ways,” or whether we have to see maintaining unity as “a means towards reaching truth.”

Pointing out the differences between a communion and a federation of churches, he said koinonia involved communion and mutual participation, and he asked whether the Anglican Communion was in danger of “trading down.”

He said the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral was a key document in Anglican self-understanding, with its emphasis on Scripture, the Creeds, the Sacraments, and the historic episcopate. Yet, he said, each one of these four key elements had been the subject of debate within the Anglican Communion without leading to a major breach. The Church has decided what is Scripture when it comes to debates about the ending of Saint Mark’s Gospel and the “Johannine comma”; the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed is often silently and unilaterally dropped while the Athanasian Creed has been quietly abandoned; debates continue over what happens at Baptism and in the Eucharist; and the Church of England and other member churches of the Anglican Communion are still debating whether the historic episcopate can accommodate women.

He said Anglicanism was marked by a practical approach to living with diversity among Christians, displayed by staying with problems rather than walking away from them. He said the Anglican weakness in the area of authority was “a weakness for the whole Church” and a “gift for the whole church.”

On a positive note ahead of the Lambeth Conference, Dr Sagovsky said the discussions about an Anglican Covenant are now “at an exciting stage,” he said, adding that he was more optimistic now about the future of the Anglican Communion. It was important to have these discussions before the Lambeth Conference, he said, but he added: “I’m hopeful.”

Creating and maintaining

In a similar tone, Clare Amos, who has taught theology in the Middle East and at Cambridge, pointed to the need to constantly appreciate Anglicanism as a tradition that maintained unity and diversity in the tensions between how we create and how we maintain.

As a diverse group of theological educators, we enjoyed our unity together, sharing walks across the Downs to look over the Avon Gorge at Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, or visiting Bristol Cathedral, a former abbey that became a cathedral with the formation of the new Diocese of Bristol in 1542. We were drawn from all traditions within Anglicanism, with experiences in many of the member churches and from all continents.

On the final day we were able to share together in the Eucharist in the college chapel. If I thought the bishops at the Lambeth Conference next month could be as open and honest with one another and maintain their unity while respecting their diversity as we were at Trinity College Bristol, I could share Canon Sagovsky’s optimism.

I wonder.

And I pray.

The Lambeth Conference Prayer:

Pour down upon us, O God, the gifts of your Holy Spirit, that those who prepare for the Lambeth Conference may be filled with wisdom and understanding. May they know at work within them that creative energy and vision which belong to our humanity, made in your image and redeemed by your love, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College.

Youtube link to the Archbishop of Canterbury on the Lambeth Conference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCJ1G_3WPjw

This essay was first published in the June editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).