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'To listen and go on listening': A conversation with Archbishop Robin Eames

ENS 052404-2
[Episcopal News Service]  On May 18, 2004 Archbishop Robin Eames of Ireland spoke to the annual dinner of the Church Club of New York. Eames chairs the Lambeth Commission on Communion, appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury following the meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion in Lambeth Palace, London, in October 2003.

Before his address, he met with ENS deputy director Jan Nunley, staff writer Matthew Davies, and Diocese of New York communications director Neva Rae Fox. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation:

NUNLEY: Tell us about the work of the Lambeth Commission so far.

EAMES: We were set up in October; we began work straight away. We had our first full meeting in Windsor in February, we go to Kanuga [in North Carolina] in June and we go back to Windsor in September, and our report is due in October.

FOX: Has a date been set for the issuing of the report?

EAMES: No, there are various discussions going on about who wants it on such and such a date and about how to produce it. I take the view that my first step is to present it to the Archbishop of Canterbury and immediately after that to have it circulated to the primates and to the Anglican Consultative Council and that's purely my view. It could well be slightly altered, but certainly I don't want people to feel that this report has been written and they don't know about it. I want to come out into the open with it as soon as I can.

FOX: Everybody in the US, on all sides of the issues, seems to be writing to you to make sure that you know what their viewpoints are. Are you receiving similar kinds of communication from other parts of the Communion?

EAMES: Yes; I hoped to be able to tell you the number of submissions we've received. It goes into the hundreds but I couldn't give you a specific figure. We have had submissions from provinces, from dioceses, from individual bishops, from priests and from laity. We've had submissions from non- Anglicans, we've had submissions from people who are genuinely interested in the Anglican Communion but wouldn't be Anglicans, and we have received a great deal of work that we asked to be done-I mean paperwork, homework, background, whatever you want to call it.

I am very encouraged by the way the commission is working. I'm very encouraged by its honesty, its openness. I don't want anyone to feel their voice is being unheard. During my last visit to the States, I went to the diocese of Virginia and I spoke at their diocesan convention in Washington, DC. I met several groups on all sides of the issue. I can assure you, I walk a tightrope to ensure that everybody feels that they are not being left out. And so I am conscious of the pain; I'm conscious of the alienation; I'm also conscious of those who feel very, very determined and honest about their position in this whole question.

This is much more about the future of Anglicanism than it is about any single issue. The key question is, what sort of Anglican Communion do we want? Now that's the point I'm coming from as a person. It's the point that I believe the members of the commission know is the road that I think we should go down.

Now within that sort of scenario people have got to work out what is the relationship historically of the Anglican Communion to rules and regulations, because we don't have a curia as our Roman Catholic friends do. We have existed on what that famous report called "bonds of affection." And I always approach these things as though the Anglican Communion was one huge family. And in any family there will be points of disagreement, there will be points of tension, there will be points when people see things differently.

If this commission-the Lambeth Commission-does its job, then what we come up with in terms of pastoral guidance should be the sort of thing that will allow the Anglican Communion in generations to come to face up to any difficulty. In other words, I don't believe that we could say this particular issue is the last problem for Anglicanism.

FOX: Is it just the American church that is being viewed as the problem, or is it the Canadian church as well?

EAMES: There will always be, given the diversity of the Anglican Communion, different approaches. One of the appeals I have made to the Anglican Communion when I became chairman of the commission was: look, don't say things that make it harder for the family to come to understanding; don't take positions, don't say things that will make the task of the commission harder. And by and large we have managed to keep an even ship. I would just hope that, until we publish our report in the autumn, people will respect that.

Certainly the primates have shown it, and if I could give one example of that: recently the CAPA [Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa] primates met in Nairobi and they went out of their way in their final report, while it was certainly critical of those who took a different view, to say they supported the commission. Now that gave me fresh heart, knowing where they were coming from, knowing what their position was.

DAVIES: Tell us a little about your travels around the Communion for this commission.

EAMES: First of all, I've been several times to the States. I have had open communication with most of the main figures. I have met most of those who wanted to speak to me personally, and in the next weeks I'll be meeting some others.

I don't want anyone to feel that they're not being listened to. My ministry at the moment from the Commission's point of view is to listen and go on listening and in that process to ask the searching questions, as I can. And no one has in any way been less than honest with me. I admire the integrity on both sides of this division, more than I can say, and I think my experience working in Northern Ireland over the 30 years of our war has taught me so much about mediation and so on. I suppose I bring that experience with me to this job, but this is the toughest job I've been given.

NUNLEY: Even tougher than the first Eames Commission, on the ordination of women?

EAMES: It was a different situation, insofar as I suppose it was the first major crisis Anglicanism had faced. [With] this one we have the experience of the other one and that does tend to condition people's outlook, condition people's minds to a particular situation. Feelings ran very deep on the question of women priests.

I like to think that the [first] Eames Commission helped Anglicanism to come to a realization of the role of women in ministry. There are still places in the Anglican Communion where those guidelines are not accepted, but the Presiding Bishop at the time assured me that we had helped ECUSA by what we did. Now if people can say to me, come the autumn, you have helped us to see a way forward, I'll go to my grave very happy.

DAVIES: There may be those who are not happy with the outcomes and decisions of the Commission. What kinds of structures are in place to deal with that?

EAMES: At the end of the day, the reception of the report--the way in which it's received--will dictate to a large extent the future. I have no illusions at all that we're going to please everybody. I have kept saying to the commission: don't think you're going to bring the New Jerusalem. What you can do is to convince people that you have honestly faced up to a very deep problem, but I also want the problem itself to be seen in terms of relationships.

That's why I'd like to see the methodology that we come out with enduring for a long time and allowing the Communion to move forward in other matters. I'm not trying to predict what those difficulties would be but I would hope that what we produce would be sufficiently clear and honest-I keep using the word honest because I believe that is the key to a lot of this. I believe that it should be sufficiently clear to allow Anglicanism to face up to other difficulties.

FOX: The members of the commission are quite diverse. How are you getting along? Are you working well together?

EAMES: Can I use an Irish word? Brilliantly.

The first task I had was to get to know them, to win their confidence, to hope that they trusted me, not to ask them to do everything the way I wanted to do it but to say: look, we bring different gifts, different experiences, different qualifications to this one task. Let's focus on that, and that's what we've done. We have a superb team of people. We have theologians, we have lawyers, we have sociologists, we have biblical scholars; we have such a wide spectrum of gifts. My job is to conduct the orchestra and make sure that the orchestra ends up at the end of the night playing the same tune.

We do not minimize the task that the Communion has given us to achieve, but in return for that we are working extremely hard and the submissions we've received have been on the whole extremely helpful.

I am a committed believing Anglican. I believe in the Anglican Communion and I don't want to miss this opportunity of doing something to repay its many kindnesses to me.