Wednesday, 9 June 2010

American primate is frank and gracious in answering controversial questions

Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori speaking at the Annual Conference of USPG (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The two main speakers at the USPG Conference in Swanwick this week are the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (TEC), the Most Rev Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, and the Primate of the Anglican Church of Southern African, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town.

Bishop Katharine, who has been the Presiding Bishop since 2006, is the first women to have been elected a primate in the Anglican Communion. An oceanographer and pilot, she was ordained in 1994., was consecrated Bishop of Nevada in 2001, and is now based in New York. And she is a colourful person in many other ways. Her Roman Catholic parents became Episcopalians when she was eight, although her mother later joined the Eastern Orthodox Church. In recent weeks she has been at the centre of, if not the focus of ,controversy within the Anglican Communion, following her part in the consecration last month of Bishop Mary Glasspool, a woman in a committed lesbian relationship, as the Assistant Bishop of Los Angeles.

Archbishop Rowan Williams had warned beforehand that the consecration of Bishop Glasspool would raise “very serious questions not just for the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion but for the Communion as a whole.”

Some evangelical groups in the Church of Ireland said: “The elevation to senior church leadership of a person whose lifestyle is contrary to the will of God revealed in Scripture is both wrong and disappointing.” They described it as a “provocative step” and said the consecration showed a “deliberate disregard” for rest of the Anglican Communion and constituted a “clear rejection” of calls for restraint in recent years.

Surprisingly, there was no media attention, and there was certainly no protest when Bishop Katharine arrived in Swanwick this morning, accompanied by Bishop Herbert Donovan, her deputy for Anglican Communion relations. Perhap there may be more interest in her when she travels on tomorrow morning to Scotland for the General Synod of Scottish Episcopal Church. This afternoon, though, the Episcopal News Service provided the only media attention.

Linda Ali, who chairs USPG, promised “a stimulating input into our theme” from both primates, and Bishop Katharine spoke passionately and movingly about transformation as the key to understanding God’s mission in the world.

She said that mission is ultimately God’s mission, and reminded us that we are co-creators in that vision of wholeness. What we offer is a response to the work of the Spirit within us. God’s mission is about healing and about wholeness, tand is a call o restore all people to unity with God and with each other in Christ.

She said healed relationships give evidence of the relationship of the Trinity, and spoke about the links between wholeness and holiness.

Referring to the 19th century as great century of Anglican missionary expansion, she said there was now a need for Anglicans to show increased humility about where and how God might already be at work even before the arrival of the Gospel: “Sometimes Jesus sends ahead.”

She said mission is about service to God’s dream rather than our vision of it, and reminded us that mission is about being sent, sent out, “like the Son of Man who has no place to lay his head.”

We should be delighting in the created goodness which God showers on us, she said adding that the truth that God is already at work in pre-Christian communities had been discovered by the Apsotle Paul in Athens, and by the early Celtic missionaries found.

Colonial structures were responsible for the shape and patterns of the Anglican Communion, she said, and she finds that there is still evidence of colonial patterns in the behaviour of Christians towards each other and towards others.

She believes Anglicans are beginning to disentangle what she described as a painful legacy. The challenge to give evidence of the hope that is within us.

Speaking of the relational and social nature of God, she said the dance needs partners. All that is has its origins in God, and the dance needs us all and the dance invites us all.

Referring to the mission context in which the Episcopal Church lives abd works, she said TEC is not just in the US but now includes dioceses in 16 nations – Haiti is the biggest diocese in TEC, which works across five conteinents, and even has a diocese that works in many European countries.

The origins of the Episcopal Church are in mission, and involved early tensions and struggles. The official and legal name of the church remains the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.

We all have different gifts and different ministries, she said, and she highlighted the advocacy work of TEC in a number of areas, including migration, and labour and trade policies. This is a response to the call to challenge the ancient evils of the world, the flesh and the devil. There is an urgent need for transformation, and for healing the evil and the brokenness around us.

She reminded us that Jesus made common cause with the socially marginalised of his day, and so should we. “But where should we start?”

Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori speaking at the 2010 Conference of USPG in Swanwick, Derbyshire(Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Later she was frank and direct but graceful and listening as she took questions from the floor. She spoke about the work of TEC in Haiti, where she said rebuilding after the earthquake could take at least a decade.

Asked about TEC’s origins in the work of SPG, :the forerunner of USPG, and relations with mission agencies, she replied with humour: “We are the Domestic and Foreign Mission Society. We don’t have a missionary society. We are one.”

Asked by Clare Amos about the difference between mission and development, she said witness had to be in word and deed, but conceded that Episcopalians do a better job of proclaiming in deed rather than word.

Asked about the moratorium and her “current take” on the conflicts within the Anglican Communion, she said that she could hear the pain of all involved, and said we all invited to a more Godly perspective. She said that in math a right angle has two dimensions, but there can be many right angles when there are right relations with God.

She believed the present problems require thinking in another dimension, but said all are trying to do the faithful thing in their own context while understanding those relationships differently. She compared the present debates about sexulaity with the conflict and debates in the early Church about whether Gentiles could become Christians. Eventually they sorted it through, she said, but the process was filled with pain.

Asked about Christian Zionism in the USA, she said she is sorry that it exists,. Some Christian Zionists are Episcopalians, including some bishops, and she added: “It’s a real struggle.” She said that where there is an apocalyptic world view it is not possible to have a push towards peace. Justice and peace are not a popular perspective, and she said she received as much correspondence about what she said about the Middle East as she does on the debate about sexuality.

Returning to more questions about sexuality, she compared the present debate to debates in the past about slavery, when there had been debates about slavery at a time when there were slaveholding by bishops, clergy iand seminaries, and to past debates about women’s rights.

She outlined the ways there had been changes in the attude of successive Lambeth conferences to birth control, and the changes many member churches had taken on remarriage after divorce.

Asked whether she was being deliberately provocative, she said that constantly she looks at the pain of teenagers, the pain of people vilified and facing the death penalty. Referring presumably to the differences within the Anglican Communion, she said our task is to stay in relationship as we are walking towards the kingdom.

A question about caring for God’s creation as one of the five marks of mission led her to talk about the immediate environmental crisis facing TEC dioceses on the Gulf , where the oil spill sees fishers losing their livelihood, oil rig workers being put out of work, and a major impact on tourism, environment, jobs, communities, wildlife, and on the environment.

Asking about the change in attitude towards TEC from the Obama administration, compared with the Bush administration, she said: “It’s really been a surprising shift.”

“The Obama administration has been phenomenally open to the religious communities,” she said, emphasising the plural, and to “faith communities” I

“It’s rally amazing, it’s not been like that for a long time,” she said. “Does the administration agree with us all the time? The answer is no. But they are willing to listen to us.”

Our opening worship this afternoon was introduced by Canon Robert Jones, Director of Development in the Diocese of Worcester. There are 182 people attending the conference, and this afternoon we heard from participants from Zimbabwe, Jamaica and Brazil, as well as from people who attended last wek’s Edinburgh Missionary Conference.

Apart from the four Anglican churches on these islands, other conference participants come from Brazil, Ghana, the Isle of Man, Jamaica, South Africa, Spain, the USA and Venezuela. This evening, there is a panel discussin with Bishop Kataharine, Archbishop Thabo and Canon Mark Oxbrow of the Fath2Share network.

Already, it’s been good to meet some old friends from around the world andfrom closer to home, and to make some new ones. I have a room that overlooks a lake, and I’m looking forward to stimulating and lively conference,

Canon Patrick Comerford is a member of the board of USPG Ireland and the Council of USPG (the united Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) – Anglicans in World Mission

Witnessing to Christ Today

Patrick Comerford

I am in Derbyshire this week for the annual conference of USPG – Anglicans in World Mission. I had an early morning flight to Birmingham this morning, and the conference, which begins at 11.30, is taking the theme “Witnessing to Christ Today.”

USPG – the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel – is one of the oldest mission agencies in the Anglican Communion, dating back to 1701. “Witnessing to Christ Today” has also been the topic for a major conference that ended on Sunday in Edinburgh, marking the 100th anniversary of the World Missionary Conference that took place in 1910.

The keynote speaker this afternoon is the Most Revd Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US, and the panel discussion this evening includes Bishop Schori, the South African Primate, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town, and Canon Mark Oxbrow, the international Director of the Faith2Share network. Mark and I worked together in CMS some years ago and travelled to China as part of a delegation organised by the China Desk of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba is also speaking tomorrow morning on “Mission Realities for Southern African Anglicans – and their Wider Implications.” Later in the day I am leading two interest groups or workshops on the topic of “Spirituality and Mission.”

Our reflections on Friday morning will be introduced by the Revd Rachel Carnegie, International Development Secretary for the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop of Cape Town is presiding at the Closing Eucharist later on Friday, and preacher is the Revd Dr Evie Vernon, Director of the Selly Oak Centre for Mission Studies.

A key aim of the USPG conference this year is unpacking a new strategy for USPG’s engagement with mission. In a move that will massively reduce administration costs in London, USPG is phasing in a sharper focus in mission that will concentrate on two major strands of work: church growth and healthcare – two areas that USPG’s world church partners are describing as their key priorities.

The conference is taking place at the Hayes Conference Centre, which is situated in the Amber Valley in the heart of picturesque Derbyshire, an area that is rich in history and heritage, tranquil villages and bustling market towns.

Signs and relics of the Fitzherbert Wright family abound in the Hayes, the house they built in Swanwick in the 1860s as a wedding present (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Hayes has been a Christian conference centre since 1911, and I first attended a conference here in 1976. The house was built in the 1860s by the industrialist Francis Wright and his wife Selina (Fitzherbert) as a wedding present for their son, Fitzherbert Wright (1841-1910), and named Swanwick Hayes. Fitzherbert Wright was the managing director of the Butterley Company and maternal great-great-grandfather of the Duchess of York, who was back in the news recently for accepting royal backhanders.

In 1910, Henry Fitzherbert Wright (1870-1947) sold the estate to the company that turned the Hayes into a conference centre. During World War II it was used as prisoner-of-war camp for German and Italian prisoners. One Luftwaffe officer, Franz von Werra, escaped from Swanwick but was recaptured at nearby RAF Hucknall while he tried to steal an aircraft. His exploits inspired a movie, The One That Got Way, starring Harry Kruger.

Nearby Swanwick is an old Derbyshire village, lying about midway between Ripley and Alfreton, and with a population of about 5,000. Saint Andrew’s Church, the Church of England parish church in Swanwick, was built at the village crossroads in 1860 to a design by a Derby architect, with most of the funding coming from the Butterley Company. The tower was added in 1903 as a gift from Fitzherbert Wright when he was retiring as managing director of the Butterley Company.

Beyond Swanwick, the local tourist attractions include the Midland-Butterley heritage railway line and Chatsworth House, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, a member of the board of USPG Ireland and a member of the council of USPG – Anglicans in World Mission.