If you were ever in doubt that the Anglican Communion matters – and many do entertain such concerns – come with me to the Cathedral Church of the Holy Cross in Lusaka for the opening service of ACC 16 – that is the 16th meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council, a body of bishops, priests and laypeople representing the 38 provinces of the worldwide Anglican Church.
Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia, is part of the province of Central Africa which also comprises the countries of Botswana, Malawi and Zimbabwe. As we gathered for the Eucharist on Sunday many cars, charabancs and buses disgorged thousands of people, many of whom had been travelling for up to 12 hours from poverty stricken parts of their countries to worship God with brothers and sisters of the Anglican church and to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury address us. It was deeply humbling.
The worship, and the lunch and presentations that followed, lasted most of the day. Infused with exuberance and joy, I found myself clapping and dancing (well, swaying from side to side, I am English after all!) with the choir from Zimbabwe even after the day had formally finished. It is rare in the UK to want to stay in church after the service has ended. But I wanted to stay even though we'd been together for more than eight hours. Worship, and joyful praise of God, even in the midst of challenge, and facing the sort of poverty and oppression I cannot imagine, united us. And I learned again that it is praise and prayer that defines us, and therefore as a Communion it is not only unhelpful to look at each other and define each other in or out of communion because of our views on certain subjects, it is actually impossible.
I may say to my neighbour that I do not like you or do not approve of your way of following Christ, but my censure does not actually stop them following and nor cannot it prevent them. They are still following Christ, whether I like it or not. In other words, I can choose to follow Christ, but I cannot choose who will follow alongside me. That is God's matter, not mine. Therefore, much better to talk to and learn from my neighbour than put on blinkers and pretend they are not there.
And that is what is happening at ACC 16; we are walking and talking together, and even though a few provinces in the Communion have sadly chosen not to send representatives, we are walking with them as well, and they with us – none of us has the power to change this – even if we cannot talk with them at the moment. But Christians from Kenya and Canada, Tanzania and North America, and even just around my table for Bible study each morning, Antigua, Mauritius, South Africa, South India and Brazil, are here. We are choosing to walk and talk; not because we agree on everything, but because we are followers of Jesus.
On the Emmaus Road Jesus walks with Cleopas and his companion even when they are going in the wrong direction. If Jesus could do this with them, listening to their questions, sharing himself, breaking bread, shouldn't we do the same with each other, and especially with those with whom we travel as Anglican Christians?
And the main topic of conversation at this meeting of the ACC is not same-sex marriage, or cross boundary Episcopal incursions or lay presidency at the Eucharist, but discipleship: intentional discipleship in a world of difference. We are discovering that we have so much to learn from each other as we walk and talk together on this vital issue.
In the diocese of Chelmsford where I serve, our companion links with dioceses overseas in Kenya and Trinidad and Tobago have been hugely influential in shaping and challenging our mission agenda. Also, the creative presence of so many Christians from other parts of the Anglican communion in our churches, particularly in the East End of London, has brought renewal to the Church. What we are learning about most is the joy of worship and the importance and impact of missionary discipleship.
We are now into a few days of reports and discussion on issues as varied as gender-based violence and micro finance, but all under the banner of learning together how to be disciples of Jesus Christ; not despite our differences, but because Jesus has called us with our differences.
The halftime score at ACC 16? Kingdom of God 1 Scoffers and Doubters 0.
Stephen Cottrell - Bishop of Chelmsford
Picture: The Episcopal News Service reported that the five-hour Eucharist on April 10 which officially opened the Anglican Consultative Council’s 16th meeting at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Lusaka was "a colourful, rollicking and spirited-filled service". Diocese of Connecticut Bishop Ian Douglas, centre, shared a laugh before the Eucharist with Diocese of Grafton Bishop Sarah MacNeil, the Anglican Church of Australia’s ACC bishop member, and Diocese of Chelmsford Bishop Stephen Cottrell, Church of England ACC bishop member. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service.