By Mark Michael
The First Epistle of Peter, a text that speaks to “immediate pastoral problems” while also “rais[ing] an utterly compelling and inspiring vision of the call of God” will serve as the Biblical focus of the 2022 Lambeth Conference, says Archbishop Justin Welby in a video introduction launched in early February on the conference’s website.
The book, Welby says, helps the Church grapple with “real life” issues like “climate change, conflict, gender, identity, modern slavery, poverty.” He continued, “Many of our sisters and brothers experience these pressures on a daily basis. And when we meet in Canterbury, we must listen to the voices, to the testimonies, to each other.”
“The focus on the Bible and 1 Peter in particular, really will drive much of the Lambeth Conference and has been a huge part of the preparation for it,” said the Rev. Canon Jenn Strawbridge, who is playing a central role in developing Bible study resources for the bishops who will gather in Canterbury in the summer of 2022.
Strawbridge, an Episcopal priest and professor of New Testament studies at Oxford, noted that 1 Peter was the archbishop’s personal choice, one he believed “would speak deeply to the Anglican Communion.” Strawbridge serves as convener of the St. Augustine Seminar, a group of 35 New Testament scholars from 17 countries that gathered at Lambeth Palace in November 2018 to study the text together.
The seminar, which was funded by a charitable body linked to Canterbury Cathedral, produced a commentary on the epistle, which was published in February 2020, and will be given to all conference participants. In a recent review on Covenant, Nick Moore praised the commentary, which aims to reflect the seminar’s work by ensuring that “different approaches to Scripture are brought together in such a way that difference is not hidden, and the conversation continues”
Eight seminar participants also joined Strawbridge in presenting video reflections on each of 1 Peter’s five chapters, as well as some difficult themes it surfaces, part of the “Journey to Lambeth” preparation program announced by Welby in July 2020. In most of the ten-minute videos, speakers summarize the text, consider its relevance for the church today, and share how they find it personally challenging and helpful.
Strawbridge sketches her hopes for the bishops’ shared time of study, saying: “It’s when we draw together a group that is diverse, that has a number of voices that are all engaging scripture together — by reading scripture together, by praying scripture together — [that] we’ll be better able to listen to each other’s stories. We’ll be better able then, by hearing one another… to face the many challenges that this Communion and individuals within it [experience], and to stand in solidarity and walk together. The ultimate hope is that we, as a Communion, will be able to witness together to the transforming hope that we find in Christ and particularly in the text of 1 Peter.”
The video “Reflections on Chapter 1” draws together presentations by the Rt. Rev. Samy Shehata, Bishop Coadjutor of Egypt (and a member of the Living Church Foundation), and the Rev. Canon Maurice Elliott, principal of the Church of Ireland Theological College. After considering the dangers faced by the congregations Peter addresses, Shehata reflects on his own experience as a church leader in Egypt. “There are some difficulties, and yet we receive many blessings. We have challenges on different levels, social challenges as the Christians are a minority… As a Christian, if you want to serve the Lord in any society, you are bound to have problems and conflicts, so Peter speaks directly to us as we are serving the Lord in our communities today.”
The Rev. Katherine Sonderegger, professor of systematic theology at Virginia Theological Seminary, said that the epistle’s third chapter, which exhorts wives to submit to their husbands, included “texts, that to my 21st-century ears, are startling to read.”
But after further reflection, Sonderegger admitted discovering anew that “Scripture is fully realistic about what it is like to live in a world that we don’t control, but it shapes us. That can be as true in our friendships, in our marriage, as it is in our work life, in our existence as citizens of a particular nation. The question that Scripture asks us to consider here, that I have learned to take seriously, is: how is it possible to live under structures and, perhaps, under people we don’t control and shape, and yet under those conditions we return blessing and testify to hope, even in the midst of that? “
The University of Botswana’s Musa Wenkosi Dube reflected passionately on the need for the Communion’s bishops, as shepherds, to confront the “lions” that threaten their flocks. In the video “Reflections on Chapter 5,” she urged bishops to model “non-hierarchical, inclusive leadership,” and to recognize that “Jesus is radical.”
She continued, “We cannot preach the good news where people are still in poverty, women who are still oppressed, people who are disabled and don’t have access to our economy or to any institutions, some members still don’t find a space in our worship and in our communities because of their sexualities. That is not the Gospel. The Gospel must be good news to us, and to all members of our earth community, including to the earth itself.”
In a video entitled “Dealing with Difficult Themes 1”, Christopher Hays of the Biblical Seminary of Columbia focused on 1 Peter 2:17’s exhortation to “honor the emperor,” contrasting what some would see as its “simplistic explanation of relationship with the governing authorities” with texts like Revelation that view imperial power as demonic.
“That diversity in the canon is part of which the Bible functions as a revelatory resource,” Hill said. “God gives us all the books of the canon to help us understand the complexity of moral topics such as the relationship of the Christian to the state. The books of Peter, Romans, and Revelation were written at different times and in different contexts and occasions in which the government may have had different relationships with the Christian community.”
“And so sometimes a posture of being submissive to the government and cultivating good relations to the government might be the most prudent strategy for the Christian trying to relate to the state. And on other occasions, when the government’s relationship with the Church has shifted, it might just be the case that the Church needs to denounce the government and recognize that it has ceased to be an implement of God, that it has become an implement of evil.”
In another video, Canon Esther Mombo of St. Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya and Dr. Kwok Pui Lan, a Chinese feminist theologian who teaches at Candler Theological Seminary, held a dialogue about controversial aspects of 1 Peter’s treatment of marital relationships, immigration, and hospitality.
Mombo said the book’s call to servant leadership points in a helpful direction. “I think if we take the metaphor of shepherding, it will actually enlarge our understanding in regard to patriarchy, in regard to immigration, in regard to hospitality; because that’s the heart of Jesus. I think 1 Peter ends very well and I think we should embrace it because it will bring a society that is accepting, a society that will be inclusive. I like that metaphor. I really like it because it dismantles that hierarchy, power, and patriarchy. And for me, it’s like ‘yes, that’s what we should embrace.’”