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Scripture offers foundation for Lambeth Conference

By James H. Thrall
7/1/1998
[Episcopal News Service]  Through daily Bible study as well as special plenary sessions at the beginning and end of the Lambeth Conference in England this summer, scripture, and especially II Corinthians, is expected to permeate the three-week gathering of Anglican bishops. A third plenary session will emphasize scriptural foundations for addressing moral questions.

Planners were adamant that the Bible should "receive a quite prominent place fairly early in the conference," so that "interpretation of the Bible is integrated with the deliberations of the conference on its key topics," said Dr. David Ford, Regius professor of divinity at Cambridge University and coordinator for the plenaries on scripture.

All three plenaries will present possible approaches to engaging issues rather than offer particular answers or solutions. "The last thing we’re trying to do is tell the bishops what to think," Ford said. In designing the opening plenary for July 21, the planning team asked "what sort of ideas, images, questions might help the conference do its work," he said.

Plenaries on scripture bracket conference

Confronted with the challenge of engaging nearly 1,500 bishops, spouses and other participants gathered in two large halls (the second hall will be connected with a video hookup), the coordinators of the opening plenary turned to the Riding Lights Theatre Company, a professional theater troupe, to present some of the issues before the conference in dramatic form. A speaker or speakers will follow to discuss ways in which some basic questions about the church’s relationship to society and its responsibility for mission can be considered in terms of the Bible.

While there is little opportunity in such large plenaries to engage in discussion, the thoughts raised by the presentations should percolate through the Bible studies and other small group sessions, Ford said.

The closing plenary on scripture, scheduled just before the final Eucharist on August 8, will draw on a video filmed during the course of the three weeks to reflect on the Bible’s influence on the conference. The Rev. Angela Tilby, a deacon and former producer for the BBC, will interview bishops and other key figures at the conference.

"We’ll be looking for people who really do have something to say," with the hope that the video can "recapitulate what’s happened in the conference in some appropriate way and look forward to the next 10 years realistically but hopefully," Ford said.

Bible study sets tone for each day

The experience with daily Bible study at the 1988 Lambeth Conference established the practice as "absolutely central," noted Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward, retired bishop of Coventry in England and coordinator for the studies. Even in the midst of diverging opinions and positions, in the Bible study groups "everybody found a place where they could feel at home and have their say," he said. "It was a place where they could share the deep things that they might not have had a chance to express."

Organizers of the Bible studies had decided to focus on just the one book of II Corinthians before they learned that the worship organizers also planned to read II Corinthians in its entirety over the course of the conference during the daily Morning Prayer services. "We took that as a sign of providence," Barrington-Ward said.

In groups of a dozen or less, the bishops and other conference participants will gather on most days for Morning Prayer and then work through selected passages of the book. Their study guides have been prepared by an international team that included bishops from Africa, South India, New Zealand, Mexico and England. The spouse of a bishop participated in the planning, and bishops’ spouses will work through the same guides, although they will meet in their own groups. The guides reflect the diversity of the planning team and Barrington-Ward said he "deliberately tried not to harmonize the styles." Still, he said, together they create a "unity because we were a unity."

In addition, the Bible study groups will view short videos depicting particular spiritual experiences of leadership of bishops from around the world.

Because II Corinthians is "deeply personal," the planners thought it, along with the videos, might encourage the groups to share personally as well, he said. Paul’s self-revelation of "his own struggles in his leadership" might help the group’s members "tell their own stories, but in light of God’s story and Paul’s story." The sessions should be "an enormously important form of building community in what is a huge and amorphous group," he said.

The picture that emerges from Paul’s description of his ministry offers lessons in "how to be a vulnerable leader," he said, and "how to have power in weakness." The letter presents "almost a critique of the episcopacy," or at least of the model of a bishop as elevated and powerful. Against the backdrop of the paradox of the cross, "Paul is depicting a much more corporate leadership," while asking, "How can we work out a very different kind of leadership from that of the world?" Barrington-Ward said.

Ford, who has written a book on II Corinthians, also noted that the letter is "riven with conflict." To "take seriously the Corinthian situation is to take seriously that conflict happens in the church and to consider ways to deal with conflict," he said, as in his own country of Ireland where conflict is endemic in "some of the most complex ecumenical issues facing the church anywhere."

Plenary on moral decision-making looks to scripture

Scripture also will anchor the July 22 plenary on moral decision-making, which comes one day after the first plenary on scripture, said coordinator Bishop Victoria Matthews, bishop of Edmonton in Canada. While the plenary topic will be the ethical questions facing the Communion, "obviously, because we’re Christian, scripture has everything to do with it," she said.

Scripture could provide a common meeting ground or a "common lens" for those who find themselves in opposition over issues, she suggested, so that "we may be asking different questions but referring to the same authorities." The plenary will emphasize the "authority of revelation as it interfaces with local cultures, whether you’re looking at Los Angeles or a small town somewhere in central Africa." The planners hope to highlight concerns of "people who don’t have a voice on the stage" as well as issues "that really touch a wide range of bishops," she said.

In his address to the plenary, Bishop Rowan Williams of the Diocese of Monmouth in Wales said he hopes to "put a bit of a question mark against making moral decisions," emphasizing instead that "the task is more making moral persons." The more useful approach is to "build up habits rather than just focusing on choices all the time," he suggested.

"We’ve gotten used to discussing ethics in crisis terms as though ethics were a matter of a particular individual deciding whether course A or course B is right," Williams said. "The more we focus on crisis management, the more our ethics gets anxious and conflict oriented. I think we can get hypnotized by the drama of ethical decisions."

Instead, he said, Christians should look at "how does your life gradually take on a consistent tenor or consistent feel" through the accumulation of habitual practices that combine in a way that glorifies God.

The New Testament discussions of morality and ethics also tend to "take the body of Christ seriously," Williams said. The perennial question for Paul in addressing ethical behavior, he said, is "does it build up the body." Images of gift-giving, or "how my life becomes recognized as a gift to someone else," may also suggest helpful ways to recast situations of conflict.

For example, "while some Christian homosexuals believe that they are offering their experience as a gift to the rest of the Anglican Communion," he said, other members of the Communion may respond, "If I were to accept that that gift were of God, it would undermine everything I believe of God."

Williams said he would, of course, have certain of the moral quandaries facing the Communion in mind in his address, but added that "it would be a mistake if I tried to comment on the specifics" or offered "global solutions." The task of the plenaries is "a very modest one," he said, "to offer people common ground to stand on, common language with which to talk."

Video presents some moral issues

A video presentation preceding Williams’ lecture will highlight a number of those dilemmas, taking particular account of places where culture may find itself in apparent conflict with scripture or in conflict with other cultures, Matthews said. The presentation, which may be "a mosaic of stark contrasts" in its use of voice and images, will touch on scripture, tradition, and reason, with "at least the voice of experience," she said.

"Cloning, for example," she said. "It’s easy to hear about it and immediately say, ‘That’s a terrible idea.’ On the other hand, when you start hearing about what they can do in medicine and agriculture, is it as easy a question as we thought?"

Other possible topics include the struggle to overcome cultural barriers to combating AIDS in Africa, the efforts of indigenous tribes to find a place and identity in modern Canada, differing beliefs about the place of homosexuals in the church, and ethical questions surrounding euthanasia and abortion.

The plenary will not attempt to present answers or cast controversial issues in terms of "liberal versus conservative," but to help the bishops consider the questions, she said. Where there is conflict, such as between First World and Third World needs, the session may simply attempt to help the bishops reflect on "what does it mean to live in a place where conflict is happening."