Picture: Bishop Stephen Cottrell with Bishop Joel Waweru and the Kenyan delegation
The theme of the 16th meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council was Intentional Discipleship in a World of Difference, and what a world of difference it might have made if we had been able to spend a bit more time discussing it. Not that we were pre-occupied with sex and Americans as some in the media and the church imagined, there was just an awful lot of other stuff to look at as the ACC is, after all, the nearest thing the Anglican Communion gets to a Synod, and the only regular opportunity – once every three years – for bishops, clergy and lay people from every province in the Anglican Communion to meet together. Well, nearly every province. A couple of provinces stayed away, but the big news is actually rather dull: virtually everybody came, and we spent ten days discussing issues of mission and discipleship and enjoying what unites us – our worship of God and our following Jesus Christ. Yes, there are differences of opinion on all sorts of subjects, but there is an astonishingly deep foundation of unity which is all about God and his call to us in Christ, and not really very much about us at all. Surprise, surprise, the Anglican Communion really is a family: that is, like all families we quarrel; we disagree; we make up; and our love for each other and our belonging to each other is what really matters and is what keeps us together. In this family water is thicker than blood. Our baptismal identity trumps all other belongings.
So what am I taking home from two weeks in Lusaka? First, the fantastic hospitality of the Zambian church and people and the joyful exuberance of their worship, especially the singing. Zambian Anglicans have concocted a heady brew of Catholic Anglicanism, Charismatic renewal and African song and dance. It is infectious.
Secondly, studying the scriptures each day with a small group of Christians from all over the world has not only taught me how we bring to and take from the Scriptures our own cultural perspectives, but in showing me how the bible speaks to and challenges every culture, I am more convinced than ever that discipleship is not an exam to pass, but a tree to plant. Too often we see discipleship as a programme and unwittingly end up with a two tier church, those who done the programme and the rest of us. Rather, it is something planted and nurtured.
In the diocese of Chelmsford where I serve, I think the most important thing that we can do is give time to God and to each other around the Bible. This would root us in the Word of God and in prayer in such a way that our lives would be fruitful as we grew as disciples of Christ: and it is something everyone can do, though it may mean looking again at how we use our time together on Sundays and even whether that time needs to be extended.
Thirdly, I have been reminded that culture is not linear, in the sense that there is "progress" from so-called less-developed cultures to so-called advanced ones. We are genuinely in different places, and from these different perspectives see things, even the Bible, differently. Therefore, we need to walk together, talk together, listen together and learn together. The fact that we have done this at ACC 16 is a triumph – the triumph of the gospel, and the triumph of love. The Anglican Communion is alive and well. It is strong not in spite of its differences, but because of them. We are a church that at our best does not try to paper over cracks or exclude those who in their own faithful discipleship see some things differently. Of course there will be consequences to this, and we search to find ways of navigating our way through this together. But it does not mean we need an alternative, ‘purged of theological disagreement’ communion, nor that we should permanently exclude those with other views. Our dirty washing hangs in public, but as WH Auden wrote, "Private faces in public places are better and wiser than public faces in private places". He was, of course, an Anglican.
The full time score? Hope triumphs.
Stephen Cottrell - Bishop of Chelmsford