Sermon preached as part of the 'What I want to say now' series (18 May 2014) by the Right Reverend Tom Butler, former Bishop of Southwark

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Sermon preached as part of the 'What I want to say now' series (18 May 2014) by the Right Reverend Tom Butler, former Bishop of Southwark

The Right Reverend Tom Butler (Bishop of Southwark. 1998-2010) describes an alternative to the current Anglican Covenant and concludes 'it might not be the new Jerusalem...but...it might be a decent suburb of it'.

This sermon is part of a series of four, at which retired bishops are asked to preach on the subject 'What I want to say now'.

It’s a privilege to take part in this sermon series given by recently retired bishops, "What I want to say now” and I thank the Dean and Chapter for the invitation.

28 years ago I was consecrated bishop here at St Pauls, and since then have served in the Dioceses of London and Leicester, and I retired four years ago after serving 12 years as Diocesan Bishop of Southwark, just across the river. I am now enjoying an Episcopal Indian Summer as I act as Area Bishop of Bradford, until the new Bishop of Leeds gets his permanent team together.

And "what do I want to say now?” well "thank you Anglican church for giving me such a stimulating and challenging ministry, and now dear Anglican church stop trying to hold the Anglican communion together by pursuing the will of the wisp idea of an Anglican covenant, the cost in human lives and ministries is proving to be too great. Instead explore the creation of a commonwealth or a federation of independent Anglican provinces.”

But lets start farther back. In 1968 my wife and I arrived as USPG missionaries in Zambia in Central Africa and a few months later there was a residential conference of all the priests in the Diocese. The saintly English archbishop Oliver Green Wilkinson and his Zambian assistant bishop Filimon Mataka had just returned from attending the Lambeth Conference here in England.

Apartheid was deeply entrenched in the neighbouring country of South Africa and its effects were felt in the newly independent Zambia. The priests at the conference were roughly 50/50 English and Zambian, black and white. Half way through the first day the archbishop was in full flow when Bishop Mataka stood up, "Yes bishop” said the archbishop, "you want to say something.” "Yes” replied Bishop Mataka, "I have just come back from attending the Lambeth Conference in England.” "Yes”, said the archbishop, "I know and a report is on tomorrow’s agenda, but today we are discussing finance.” Unperturbed Bishop Mataka continued, "I have just returned from attending the Lambeth Conference in England and in England I was treated as a bishop, and I will be treated as a bishop here.”

A gasp went through the assembly and the Zambian priests sat a little taller. In effect, I believe, that was the moment when independence came to the Anglican Church in Zambia and the effect had immediate consequences, because whenthe archbishop was killed in a car crash a couple sof years later, Philemon Mataka had the confidence and authority to succeed him as Bishop of Zambia and lead the diocese into a new era.

Nobody, therefore, has a higher respect for the Anglican communion and its structures than myself, because I saw, first hand what a transforming effect the 1968 Lambeth Conference had upon just one bishop from Africa, giving him a new sense of his Episcopal vocation.

Since then I have attended four Lambeth Conferences those of 78, 88, 98 and 2008 and they have become more and more uncomfortable and fractious. Amongst the myriad of issues and resolutions, three have been potentially divisive, polygamy, women’s ordained ministry and homosexuality.

Let’s start with the easiest, polygamy. That was discussed fully in the 1988 conference and although there were different perspectives as African bishops struggled to relate the traditional understanding of monogamous marriage to the mission to peoples where polygamy was traditionally the norm. Conference decided to trust the local bishop to decide what was pastorally necessary in his back home context.

Four years later I saw this at work. By then I was Bishop of Leicester and we were in partnership with the Diocese of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. During a visit I drove out with the bishop to a village way out in the bush to conduct a service of Confirmation. Something had gone wrong with the arrangements because there were just a handful of women with their babies and an elderly man. "Never mind” said the bishop cheerfully, "We’ll baptise the babies” and we did.

I then asked him, "Where are the husbands of the mothers.” "There he is” he said pointing to the elderly man "they’re all married to him, polygamy is the custom of this tribe.” "Are they allow to be baptised?” I asked, "Oh yes, was the answer, it’s not their fault.” "What about the husband?” "Oh, he can’t be baptised until he is just with one wife when the children have grown. It will happen eventually.”

Now, I don’t know whether the bishop’s attitude was common practice elsewhere in Africa or not, but I rather admired the quite sophisticated marrying of church doctrine with the realities of the pastoral situation, and like other bishops in the Church of England I was prepared to trust this and other African bishops to know what they were doing in a quite different mission context to mine in England.

In effect that attitude of live and let live with respect to polygamy became also, after several skirmishes, the position on women’s ordained ministry. In 1968 Conference ruled that the arguments for or against women being ordained priest were inconclusive.

By the 1978 Conference women priests had been ordained in some provinces of the Anglican Communion and Conference recognized the right of the provinces to do so but pleaded for the preservation of unity.

By the 1988 Conference some provinces were about to consecrate women as bishops and conference passed a resolution saying that each province was to respect the decisions and practices of other provinces.

By 1998 a handful of women bishops were attending the conference, and their numbers had swelled further by the 2008 conference and women bishops was no longer a particularly divisive issue. The Anglican tradition of "live and let live” had done its healing work.

So the potentially divisive issues of polygamy and women’s ministry had been handled pastorally by the Communion but the issue of homosexuality. proved to be more intractable. On this many bishops just weren’t prepared to live and let live and trust bishops in another part of the world to act pastorally in their own mission context.

The subject was on the Lambeth Conference agendas in 1978 and 1988 and was discussed in a relatively calm manner, indeed in 1988 a resolution was passed which recognized the continuing need in the next decade for what it called "deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research and it called upon each province to reassess, in the light of such study and because of our concern for human rights, its care for and attitude towards persons of homosexual orientation.”

Enlightened stuff but attitudes on the subject hardened. Homosexuality for some theological conservatives both in Britain and overseas became a touch stone of a church’s faithfulness to biblical teaching, and once that toxic claim had been made calm discussion and debate had ended.

In the 1998 Lambeth Conference an acrimonious debate more or less swept away the report of its own theologians and passed a thoroughly conservative resolution reaffirming the traditional teaching on marriage and homosexuality. But things were sliding out of hand around the communion. In 2003, one of my own priests Canon Jeffrey John, openly living in a same sex celibate relationship was first appointed Area bishop of Reading in the Diocese of Oxford and then was not allowed to proceed when Archbishop Rowan Williams came under immense pressure from traditionalist bishops particularly from overseas, African bishops being most vocal.

The Episcopal Church in American was less susceptible to pressure and in 2004 Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest was consecrated Bishop of New Hampshire to be later followed by others. The gap between the cultures of the East coast of America or indeed Metropolitan London and let us say rural Nigeria became just too big to be straddled.

Traditionalist bishops around the world formed their own organization GAFCON and most didn’t attend the 2008 Lambeth conference, and the bishops who did, didn’t attempt to pass any resolutions on any subject. I understand that it’s still an open question as to whether and when another Lambeth Conference might be held.

But Archbishop Rowan made a last attempt to hold the communion together through an Anglican covenant. It seems to me that in reality the attempt has by now gone into the sand. I thought that a Scottish bishop summed it up rather well when he described the proposed covenant as 95% saccerine and 5% strychnine and not surprisingly many provinces have not committed themselves to taking that particular medicine.

It’s been said that there’s no alternative to the covenant. That’s not so. Of course most of the Anglican Churches in the Communion were established in countries which were part of the British Empire with bishops initially sent out to serve from England. But that was not universally so, and just as the nations achieved independence with their own constitutions, so we see autonomous local Anglican provinces with their own constitutions and systems of canon law.

And just as many of these nations, with others, have voluntarily become members of the Commonwealth symbolically focussed on the queen, but with no pretence of having authority in one another’s nations, so the Anglican provinces find the focus of their unity in the archbishop of Canterbury, but up until now with there’s been no sense of one province or archbishop trying to veto the pastoral practices of another. But that, in practice is now what’s happening over the issue of homosexuality.

The former dean of Southwark, sadly now deceased, in a newspaper article took the analogy of the commonwealth a little further. He wrote, "We would be astonished if the government of Pakistan, for example, imagined it could dictate policy to the British parliament; similarly the archbishops of Nigeria or Sydney should not be permitted to dictate to the Church of England.” And I would want to add, and vice versa.

In civic life, the Commonwealth has proved to be so attractive that member nations, not originally part of the British Empire have chosen to join it. Of course it has had it’s ups and down but successive prime ministers and the monarch herself have kept their nerve and the Commonwealth might well, in a dangerous world, have an even more significant part to play in years to come.

So "what I want now to say” is that there is an alternative to an Anglican covenant; it is an Anglican commonwealth or federation, a voluntary international family of churches faithful to the Anglican tradition of thoughtful holiness and based on mutual respect, comparable in structure to the Commonwealth of nations. It might not be the new Jerusalem to which our second lesson points, but to misquote Evelyn Underhill, it might be a decent suburb of it.