Bishops Focus on Church Unity, Interfaith Relations

The Rt. Rev. Joseph Wandera of Mumias, Kenya spoke of Christian-Muslim relations. | Richard Washbrooke photo for the Lambeth Conference

By Mark Michael

Bishops at this year’s gathering paid tribute to the 1920 Lambeth Conference, whose “Appeal to All Christian People” was “a galvanizing and stirring step forward in Anglican involvement in the worldwide ecumenical movement,” in the words of the Lambeth Call on Christian Unity.

August 4 sessions focused on ecumenical and interfaith work, and included a summons to a renewed focus on the visible unity of the Church by Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery on Promoting Christian Unity, as well as stories of cooperative ministry and resilience under persecution from Anglicans around the world.

Bishops discussed the Lambeth Calls on Christian Unity and Interfaith Relations. These encourage all Anglicans “to renew their commitment to an urgent search for the full visible unity of the Church,” to make friends with people of other faiths, and to pray and speak out on behalf of Christians who are persecuted.

They also direct the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith, and Order (IASCUFO) and the Anglican Inter Faith Commission to promote and encourage the development of partnerships and collaborative action across religious traditions, and to monitor progress on ecumenical dialogues, seeking “the visible unity of Christ’s Church.”

“The Anglican Communion is about building deep relationships of faith and trust with other Christians, both within the Anglican Communion and beyond,” said Bishop Gregory Cameron of St. Asaph in Wales, who led the subgroup that drafted the Christian Unity Call.

“These two calls speak of openness, first to other Christians, that we would recognize and receive their gifts and be as open to them as we can. We also want to build relationships with people who practice other traditions. This afternoon, the bishops have affirmed this and turned their focus outward.”

Keep Unity on the Agenda

The Rev. Anthony Currer of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who has represented the Vatican at Anglican Communion gatherings for many years, presented the address written by Cardinal Koch, who was ill and unable to attend the conference.

In his opening remarks, Currer noted that this Lambeth Conference was originally scheduled for 2020, the centenary of the “Appeal to All Christian People,” “a charter for the Anglican Communion’s ecumenical efforts, and a landmark moment for the ecumenical movement.”

Bishops at the 1920 Lambeth Conference | Illustrated London News, Wikipedia

“The bishops of the 1920 Lambeth Conference describe themselves as being inspired ‘by the vision and hope of a visible unity of the whole Church,’ and they describe the goal of ecumenism as that of a church ‘generally catholic, loyal to all truth, and gathering into its fellowship all who profess and call themselves Christians,’” Currer said.

Koch’s address diagnosed the decades-long stalemate in significant ecumenical progress as a failure “to achieve a really stable agreement on the goal of the ecumenical movement.” The Catholic Church, he said, “holds to the originally common goal of visible unity in faith, in the sacraments, and in church ministry.” Protestant churches, shaped by their history of continual division and a postmodern exaltation of pluralist approaches to truth, increasingly limit the ecumenical goal to “mutual recognition of the varied church realities as churches,” what is sometimes known as “reconciled diversity.”

Koch added, “It is characteristic of postmodernism to abandon unitary thinking on principle, which means not only tolerating and accepting pluralism, but fundamentally opting for it. With this postmodern mindset, any quest for unity seems premodern and antiquated.”

Elevating pluralism for its own sake, Koch suggested, sidelines that “unity is and remains a basic category of Christian faith,” and ignores the ways in which division poses an obstacle to Christian mission. Anglican bishops, whose words sparked the ecumenical movement, have a duty, he said, to “gently but firmly keep the question about unity on the agenda.”

The theme of this Lambeth Conference, “God’s Church for God’s World,” can only be true to its meaning if the Church can undertake its global mission in reconciled form, in the way that Jesus prayed for the unity of his disciples, “so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

“[In] this final sentence, ‘so that’ expresses the fact that the unity among the disciples is not an end in itself, but it serves the credibility of the mission of Jesus Christ and his disciples in the world, and represents the indispensable precondition for a credible witness in the world.”

In panel discussions that followed, Bishop Marinez Rosa Dos Santos Bassotto of the Anglican Diocese of the Amazon in Brazil spoke about the ministry of an ecumenical caravan in Western Brazil. It brought food and encouragement to Guarani and Kaiowá Indigenous people who were displaced by agribusiness interests from their ancestral lands.

Archbishop Nikitas, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Thyatira and Great Britain, called for more ecumenical action on human trafficking, while the Rev. David Wells of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada spoke about the constructive role of sharing faith stories in helping Christians in his tradition rediscover the need for deeper church unity.

The Rev. Anna Burghardt, an Estonian pastor who serves as General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, defended the largely Protestant goal of “reconciled diversity” against some of Koch’s criticisms. “Visible unity,” she said, “does not necessarily mean institutional unity, but can be koinonia, a commitment to common purpose.” She added that the church must be committed to “disabling power structures,” adding: “I am not afraid of pluralism and postmodernism.”

“When the churches place Christ at the center of their theological reflections and search for unity, and this center is surrounded by concentric circles, through which churches start to move towards Christ, the center, the churches obviously don’t only get closer to Christ, but they also get closer to one another,” Burghardt said.

The Lambeth Call on Church Unity celebrates Anglicanism’s longstanding “commitment to seek the visible unity of Christ’s Church,” but notes that “in recent years progress in bringing forward unity in matters of faith and order has slowed. Despite considerable convergence in doctrinal issues, agreement on patterns of governance has proved more difficult and different patterns of governance and ecclesiastical custom in the Churches are not easily reconciled.”

Christian disunity, it adds, is “a continuing and damaging wound in the body of Christ.” It also “weakens the Church’s witness to the Gospel of reconciliation at a time when, in many parts of the world, government regulation, persecution, and even terrorism make Christians vulnerable in their life and witness.”

The Call directs the Instruments of Communion, aided by IASCUFO, to assist all provinces in building stronger relationships with other churches, carrying forward existing dialogues and cooperative projects, and speaking out on behalf of persecuted believers.

The Paradox of Interfaith Engagement

In her keynote at the afternoon plenary session on interfaith relations, Bishop Guli Francis-Dehqani of Chelmsford spoke of the paradox of her experience as the daughter of an Iranian bishop who had converted from Islam as a young man. She found her Muslim grandparents to be people of deep faith and generosity, but in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, her father was forced from the country and her brother Bahram was killed by a terrorist attack “simply because he was his father’s son.”

“These formative experiences have shaped my thinking, and they continue to inform my understanding of how we as Christians engage with other faiths, especially when elements within those faiths wish us harm … to hold together apparent contradictions, to navigate the way faithfully over what is often rough terrain.”

“I have known Islam both as a great civilization, which over the centuries has gifted to the world some of the greatest scientific advances, architectural designs, poetic and literary masterpieces and spiritual insights,” she said.

“But I have also known Islam as a force which has done my family and the church in Iran great harm. It is difficult, but necessary somehow, to hold both these threads together, and to remember that the evils which have befallen the Church are not a reflection on the whole Islamic faith.”

The ways that churches engage with neighbors of other faiths, she said, must depend on local circumstances. “For some, the priority will be dialogue which seeks deeper understanding and works towards the common good — people of faith, seeking peace and reconciliation, and looking to make the world a better place. For others, this may be a far cry from their experience.”

“Whilst there is injustice that must be spoken out against, suffering is also taking us closer to Christ, and is part of our calling as people of faith,” Francis-Dehquani said.

“Is it possible to dialogue with those who persecute you? Well, yes and no. If dialogue means conversation between equal partners based on mutual respect and understanding, then no. But if the urge to dialogue is a Christian impetus to be fully present and Christlike, then yes.”

“To have confidence in one’s faith, while trying to understand the other more fully — that is a kind of dialogue. And when the situation arises, by offering the hand of friendship based on generosity and forgiveness — that too is dialogue in action, and it is the kind of dialogue Anglicans in Iran have participated in for much of their history.”

During a panel discussion, Bishop Joseph Wandera of Mumias in Kenya also spoke of this paradox in recounting his church’s long presence and witness in a predominantly Muslim region. “Relations are peaceful,” he said, “albeit with mutual suspicion and occasional violence.”

Wandera said Christian and Muslim clerics had worked together to spread information about preventing the spread of disease during COVID-19. But when an evangelical preacher insulted the prophet Muhammad in a sermon, a mob attacked Christians in the Mumias marketplace, killing one person.

Bishop Lily Samantaroy of Amritsar in the Church of North India said her diocese spans regions with Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh majorities, and there have been many opportunities for dialogue on social and moral issues like violence and climate change.

Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, cited liturgical revisions her church has made to its Good Friday liturgy to reflect the enduring status of the Jews as God’s chosen people. Archbishop Samy Fawzy Shehata of Egypt said his church ministers in a society that has been pluralistic for 15 centuries, and has a long tradition of dialogue and shared ministry to youth and in the arts.

The Lambeth Call on Interfaith Relations acknowledges that churches differ in their capacity for constructive work with people of other faiths. It reaffirms a commitment “to witnessing to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior by faithful, Christlike service and in humble proclamation of this good news among people of different faiths and beliefs,” and urges churches to search for opportunities to partner in promoting the common good and to be agents of peacemaking amid violence.

It calls on bishops to develop friendships with spiritual leaders of other faith traditions, and to build links with fellow Christians who are suffering for the “exchange of information, prayerful support, and solidarity in friendship.” It also asks the Anglican Inter Faith Commission to undertake research projects to assist church leaders in this work.

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