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September 18, 2013

Seeking Reconciliation in the Anglican Communion

by Admin

The Rev. Canon Jonathan Draper, Canon Theologian of York Minster, explores the context for Continuing Indaba in the Anglican Communion and reflects on the process of seeking reconciliation. 

The Anglican Communion

The Anglican Communion is made up of more than 80 million members in 44 autonomous and self-governing regional and national churches, spread through more than 160 countries. Historically, the growth of Anglican churches throughout the world went hand-in-hand with two major movements: the development and expansion of the British Empire from the 17th century onwards, and the great missionary movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. When one quarter of the globe was under British colonial rule, churches were established that began their lives looking a lot like the Church of England of the colonial power. Churches were often established by one of the two great Anglican Mission Societies – CMS and USPG[1] – both of which worked hard with local people to give these growing churches a more indigenous feel, and even, eventually, indigenous leadership. Today, of course, this colonial past can be a difficult and complex set of issues that surface in different ways in any controversial matter, especially when the churches of the north are seen to be differing from the churches of the south.

Because of that colonial and missionary past, the churches of the Anglican Communion today operate in an astonishingly wide range of cultural, political, social and economic contexts, and these different contexts have given rise to churches with significantly different approaches to and understandings of both the shared faith of Anglicans and local mission priorities. It is not surprising that the real life context for mission in, say, West Africa and Canada or the United States provides different emphases and priorities in mission. These differing priorities have led to conflict which has become well-known for its depth and intractability. For the past 30 years or so, the world-wide Anglican Communion has been torn apart by issues to do with the authority and interpretation of Scripture, the place and role of women within ordained ministry, and issues of human sexuality, especially homosexuality and same-sex relationships.

That conflict has taken place in parallel with a growing sense of independence on the part of the churches that were once colonial and which used to be called ‘missionary churches’. Growth in strength and numbers, and a loosening of political and cultural ties to the ‘mother church’ and the ‘mother land’ has led to calls for the end of what has come to be seen as western hegemony and power in the Anglican Communion. While there has always been and remains a genuine respect and affection for the Archbishops of Canterbury and their role in the Communion, an English or even Western agenda is no longer seen as determinative of the Communion’s life and action.

While this change of dynamics has been taking place, every ten years the bishops of the Anglican Communion have been gathering together in Canterbury[2] for a three week conference. The Bishops have been meeting like this, with some interruptions for war, since 1867, and the most recent meeting was in 2008. The first meeting in 1867 was convened, in part, to address controversies surrounding the church Natal in South Africa, and was very exercised by how to ensure that the missionary churches, as they were called, didn’t stray too far from the doctrine and norms of, what was called at the time, the ‘Mother Church’, the Church of England[3].

From 1867 to 1998 the form of the Lambeth Conference was more or less the same: a parliamentary style of meeting where reports and papers were prepared ahead of time, resolutions were proposed and debated, and the results were published to the whole Communion in the form of a Pastoral Letter. In terms of the two main areas of controversy at the moment – women in ministry and homosexuality – the first time these began to appear on the agenda of the Lambeth Conference was really in 1968, albeit briefly. Here, in terms of sexuality, the concern was about polygamy; and in terms of women in ministry, the conference concluded that the arguments for ordaining women were ‘inconclusive’[4].

By the time of the Lambeth Conference of 1978 the pressures for the ordination of women had burst: four provinces were ordaining them with another eight about to do so. This was causing some difficulty. In terms of human sexuality the climate had changed enough that the conference felt moved to pass a motion re-affirming heterosexuality as the Scriptural norm[5], but also agreed that the question of homosexuality needed serious study and that there should be ‘dialogue’ with homosexuals. The cracks were beginning to show, and the Communion made two kinds of response that have become important to this story. On the one hand, with regard to homosexuality, a proper call for study and thought was made in order to help the Communion move forward together. On the other hand, with regard to the ordination of women, while noting that there might be ‘pain and distress’ caused by these ordinations, the Provinces were encouraged to continue in communion with each other, make provision for those who found it difficult and to keep talking. They also acknowledged that while the ‘variety of doctrine and practice’ within the Anglican Communion might disappoint the leaders of other Christian churches, the Conference also made it clear that ‘the holding together of diversity within a unity of faith and worship is a part of the Anglican heritage’[6].

In the ten years to the Lambeth Conference of 1988, things had moved on dramatically and the controversies were becoming deeper and sharper. Resolution 18 of the 1988 Conference spoke of ‘impaired communion’ as the present state of play over the issue of women ordained as bishops[7]. Resolution 64 urged ‘deep and dispassionate’ study of homosexuality and recognises that there are different attitudes towards homosexuality developing in different Provinces, and calls for proper pastoral care for homosexual people[8]. Resolution 22 tried to draw a sharp distinction between the Gospel and all human cultures, while at the same time, and without any acknowledgement of the irony, acknowledging that human culture provides the way in which people have their identity and through which mission and evangelism have their relevance[9]. In Resolution 72 a new problem is acknowledged and addressed – one that will become sharper over the next ten years: the bishops are urged to respect each others’ jurisdiction and asked not to interfere in any other Diocese and its life[10]. The Lambeth Conference of 1988 saw all the major fault lines exposed: some dioceses were acting in ways that were seen to be unscriptural and ahead of the mind of the Communion by some, and as faithfulness to the leading of the Spirit by others; some bishops were acting outside their own jurisdiction in order to meet the needs of those who would not accept the authority of their own bishop; restraint, study, calm, faithfulness to the Gospel were urged on all sides, concluding, in the words of Resolution 7, by saying,

With the number of issues that could threaten our unity it seems fair that we should speak of our mutual respect for one another, and the positions we hold, that serves as a sign of our unity[11].

The fault lines exposed here and which were seen as a threat to Anglican unity, became a chasm by the time and through the workings of the 1998 Conference.

By the time of the 1998 Lambeth Conference the trenches of the opposing sides in the great Anglican conflict were very deep indeed. Separate meetings of bishops and others were taking place; new organisations were being formed to promote one side of the debate or the other. The divisions became deep and were about to become more bitter.

The lasting legacy of the 1998 Lambeth Conference was Resolution 1.10 on human sexuality[12]. Resolution 1.10 called for care and compassion for those who ‘experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation’, and committed the Conference to listen to the experience of homosexual people; at the same time it rejected homosexual practice as ‘incompatible with Scripture’ and could not allow the blessing of same-sex unions[13]. Within five years the Episcopal Church in the United States had ordained an openly gay man in a committed same-sex relationship as Bishop of New Hampshire, Bishops from what had come to be called ‘the Global South’ were consecrating new bishops within the jurisdiction of others, parishes were suing each other over property, Bishops were refusing to talk to each other: the Anglican Communion was tearing itself apart. As the time for the 2008 Lambeth Conference approached many were wondering whether it could take place at all.

The Indaba Process of Lambeth 2008

The parliamentary style of working, which had characterised all of the Lambeth Conferences up to 1998, was a particularly Western way of working and seemed natural to the assembled bishops since they had been, throughout most of the Communion’s history, Western men. By the time preparations for the 2008 Lambeth Conference were being made, it became clear that this parliamentary style of working was not going to help heal the divisions of the Anglican Communion, but only make things worse. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who invites the Bishops of the Communion to the Conference, felt that a different way of working was required: one that would enable what the summary paper issued at the end of the Conference called ‘respectful listening’[14]. The Conference that followed was quite unlike any other before it.

The Conference, which had as its main themes – ‘Equipping Bishops for Mission’ and ‘Strengthening Anglican Identity’ – began with a three day retreat held in Canterbury Cathedral and led by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The addresses were based mainly on the letters of St Paul and, in the words of the Conference reflections,[15]

Invited the bishops to think about what it meant for the bishop to be a person in whom God revealed Jesus.

Following the retreat the bishops met in a context of regular worship and prayer and daily Bible study in small groups. The significant feature of each day, however, was the Indaba groups; groups of about 40 or so meeting in what is essentially a Zulu style and method of conflict resolution. In his brief paper setting out what Indaba is and how it works, The Most Rev Thabo Makgoba, Archbishop of Cape Town and a member of the Lambeth Conference Design Group, described Indaba in the following way[16]:

Indaba is a Zulu word for a gathering for purposeful discussion. It is both a process and a method of engagement as we listen to one another concerning challenges that face our community and by extension the Anglican Communion.

An Indaba first and foremost acknowledges that there are issues that need to be addressed effectively to foster on-going communal living. Originally, in the Zulu context, these might be stock theft [or] poor service delivery, but in the case of the Anglican Communion it might be questions related to the way we handle the Bible, sexuality, post colonialism, autonomy concerns and the many missional challenges. It is these issues that need to be brought to the “table”.

In Indaba, we must be aware of these challenges (issues) without immediately trying to resolve them one way or the other. We meet and converse, ensuring that everybody has a voice, and contributes (in our case, praying that it might be under the guidance of the Holy Spirit) and that the issues at hand are fully defined and understood by all.

The purpose of the discussion is to find out the deeper convergences that might hold people together in difference and come to a deeper understanding of the topic or issue discussed. This will be achieved by seeking to understand exactly the thinking behind positions other than my own.

The report of these Indaba conversations, published at the end of the Conference, indicated that those who participated, the 700 or so bishops from around the world, were changed by the process. They reported a new depth of encounter and understanding, a new and renewed sense of how much they need each other; ‘at a time when many in our global society are seeking just the sort of international community that we already have’, the Conference Report concluded, ‘we would be foolish to let such a gift fall apart’.[17] The bishops left with a renewed sense of purpose, but also a very clear understanding there was still a great deal of work to do, many bridges to be built if the momentum towards division was to be reversed and if the scars of thirty years of increasingly bitter argument were to heal. Speaking of those bishops who refused to come to the Conference, the Report states[18],

We have been diminished by their absence. We shall seek ways in which they may be drawn into our deliberations and held in communion. Our concern now is to rebuild bridges, to look for opportunities to share with them the experience we have had in Canterbury and to find ways of moving forward together in our witness to the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is that sense of unfinished business and the need to keep the conversation going that led to the creation of the Continuing Indaba Project as a tool for reconciliation in the Anglican Communion.

The Continuing Indaba Project

The Continuing Indaba Project aims to try to make the kind of experience the bishops had at the Lambeth Conference available to others. The Project has three strands:

  • ·   Intensifying relationships across the Communion
  • ·   Energising local and global mission
  • ·   Enabling genuine conversation across difference.

The work of the Project falls into three parts as well. Since 2008, and as the first part of the process, there have been a number of consultations around the world in which theologians, pastors and church leaders from across the theological spectrum have been invited to think together about the kinds of theological, pastoral and spiritual resources, from their culture and experience, that might be helpful to further Indaba Conversations. As Canon Phil Groves who leads the Project for the Communion put it[19], the aim of the Resources Hubs, as they have come to be called, is to

Develop theological resources to inform the process of seeking a common mind by the utilisation of theologians around the world reflecting on Scripture and the traditions of the church in the context of diverse cultures, with an emphasis on non-western cultures and to publish them in culturally appropriate forms. [And to] develop and publish training materials for the convening and facilitation of Anglican Indaba processes.

So there have been resource hubs in India, the USA, the West Indies, South Africa, East Africa and Hong Kong. Contributions from those hubs are being collated and published as contributions to future discussion, and they can be viewed on the Anglican Communion web site[20].

The second part of the process is what have come to be called Pilot Conversations. Typically these will be Indaba style conversations where the process can be tested and where the resources can be assessed. The plan is to run

Five pilot conversations of typically three dioceses meeting across diversity. The focus will be upon on the primary mission issues in each context and will not avoid hard questions – not only related to sexuality, but also to the authority of Scripture, faithfulness to tradition and the respect for the dignity of all. The hope will be that the result of the conversations will be a depth of agreement and the clarification of disagreement resulting in positive missional relationships.[21]

It is further hoped that from these conversations a sort of template for Indaba will be developed that will enable others to benefit from this style of work. The first of these conversations have begun.

The third part of this process, when it is refined by experience and reflection, is to make it a standard way of working in the Anglican Communion. To make deep and respectful listening, to make understanding of agreement and disagreement clear, to begin from the position of believing the other person has as deep a commitment to Christ and the Gospel as you do, to enable a process of moving together to confront the great issues of our world in Christ’s name. It is because of this potential that there has also been an ecumenical Observer Group following with close interest how the project develops to see if there are ways in which it can have a wider application among other churches.

Indaba and Reconciliation

In his memoir of his time as Prime Minster of Great Britain, Tony Blair wrote a long chapter about the peace process in Northern Ireland that led to what came to be called the ‘Good Friday Agreement’, and the continuing, if difficult, process of establishing a new set of relationships between Unionists and Nationalists, between Protestants and Catholics. After relating a great deal of detail about the negotiations, about how close they came to failure, and about what eventually they agreed on, Mr Blair writes about ten principles he feels are important generalisations about conflict resolution. In the context of thinking and writing about the continuing Indaba project, I was struck by a bit of what he called his third principle: ‘In conflict resolution, small things can be big things’. He writes,

This is … about putting aside your view of what is important in favour of theirs. …The small things matter because in the minds of the key parties they often loom large with a perspective that we can’t always grasp.[22]

Here he is writing as a broker, the one who stands between divided parties and tries to come up with a solution. You have to think your way into their mind, he argues, in order to know what is important. You have to put aside your own take on it and hear properly what they are saying, what their deepest thoughts are, what really matters, whatever the presenting issue might be.

In the great conflicts that grip the Anglican Communion there is no one who stands in the position of broker. We have no pope to decide, no international legal processes to which we all subscribe, no court to which we can appeal. We are not yet a confessional church: we have no Westminster or Augsburg confession, no founding documents to which we can bring our disputes. Anglicans have always understood themselves to simply be a part of the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’, giving due weight to the early counsels of the church, giving pride of place to Scripture, but valuing human reason as applied to both. No one, not even the Archbishop of Canterbury, stands outside of the Anglican family in a position to adjudicate: how we resolve our disputes is down to us.

Like the mighty divisions in Northern Ireland, the issues that are of most significance in the Anglican Communion are not necessarily the ones over which the most noise is made. The Indaba process, as a process of ‘respectful listening’, is an attempt to get behind the noise and hear what really matters to other people. That includes my noise. I must learn to listen, to put aside my take on what is important and hear what you hold dear and what drives and motivates you. I must stop marshalling my arguments, stop digging up my proof-texts, stop defending my territory long enough to see what territory you think is worth defending and why. Indaba is another way of walking a mile in another person’s shoes.

In June of this year, the Bishop of Gloucester in the Church of England and two other bishops wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury reflecting on the Partnership developed between his Diocese of Gloucester, and the Dioceses of El Camino Real in the USA, and Western Tanganyika in Tanzania. This is a long-standing partnership between these dioceses, but it is also one of the pilot conversations of the Continuing Indaba Project. In the letter[23] the bishops write not so much about Indaba, but about ‘safari’, as it is understood in Tanzania, and not quite in the same ways as a tourist might think of it. In Tanzania a ‘safari’ is not so much about seeing wild animals as it is about a shared journey, ‘even a pilgrimage’ which is characterised by how they have listened to God and to each other on their journey; and by how their journey has been structured around prayer and the Eucharist and their study of Scripture. The Bishops write,

We have celebrated our diversity, but this has not been through a blurring of our differences, by ‘simply accepting that we are different’. Our conversations have been characterised by love and honesty, and we have been careful to hold each other to account to say what we truly mean – and to share what we truly feel. We have been diligent in identifying and facing hard issues on which we disagree. We have recognised in one another a common commitment to scripture, whilst admitting that we profoundly disagree on some areas of interpretation. We have listened, more determined to understand than to change each others’ minds, though ready to change our own. Above all, we have been able to accept one another within the Body of Christ; as our African brother and sister Christians reported when they visited the Diocese of El Camino Real in California, ‘I see Christians’.

This is a powerful testimony to the processes of reconciliation that the Continuing Indaba Project hopes to replicate throughout the Anglican Communion and beyond.

Reflecting on the Process

In reflecting on this process I would like briefly to draw our thinking towards two portions of Scripture: the first is the story found in both Mark and Matthew[24] of Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phonecian woman; and the second is the story found in Acts – and then throughout the letters of Paul – about the admission of the Gentiles into the Church. The story of Jesus and the Syro-Phonecian woman is an example from Jesus’ life and ministry of how listening led to change; the Admission of the Gentiles is about how listening across diversity and conflict can lead to a new openness to the working of God’s Spirit and to new possibilities.

The encounter between Jesus and the Syro-Phonecian woman will be familiar. Jesus has just finished an intense time of teaching, healing and arguing with the Pharisees, and there has been little time for him to simply think and pray. He is in Southern Lebanon looking for a little time on his own with his disciples. Instead Jesus is confronted by a Gentile woman who begs help from him for her daughter. The disciples try to send her away, but she becomes more persistent and the disciples come to Jesus and ask him to get rid of her. Jesus is not inclined to speak to her and says he has come only for the lost sheep of Israel. In fact Jesus calls her a dog, saying that it is not right to give the children’s food to the dogs. She is not deterred by this and says, that may be true, but even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the table.

I think Jesus is surprised by this reply: it’s one of those moments, as we say in England, when the light dawns, or that cartoon light bulb comes on in your head, when you have a moment of understanding and things become clear. Mark is pretty matter of fact about it, but it’s a dramatic moment in Matthew: ‘Woman, great is your faith!’ You can hear the admiration in his voice; his irritation turns to a recognition that he has just experienced something important, that he is seeing God at work in this woman, from whom he was expecting nothing.

In this story Jesus has done what we might call ‘deep listening’. Through all the arguments going through his tired mind, he hears the woman’s faith and her need, and her great love for her child ringing through. This was not about whether she was Gentile or Jewish or of the household of faith or a foreigner; this was not a theological argument in any conventional sense. Here we see Jesus become aware of the deeper story, of the fact that his ministry is for the whole world, as symbolised by this woman. Jesus hears differently in this story and is changed by this encounter; the important issues have surfaced and real understanding has taken place.

The other story is also familiar. As the earliest Christian communities began to move out from Jerusalem and into a more Gentile context, so the question of how to treat and even understand the Gentiles who wanted to follow Jesus became more urgent. In the Jewish context in which the Christian church was born there was nothing more traditional than looking down on and despising everything that came out of a Gentile context, including the Gentiles themselves. Gentiles did not worship the one true God, they did not accept or obey any of the many laws that distinguished God’s people from everyone else; the first Christians, as Jews, continued that tradition. Then, early on, the unthinkable happened: God, it seems, was pleased to accept Gentiles into the household of faith without so much as a dietary law in sight. This was not only a surprise, it was a crisis.

The great story here is St Peter’s vision as told in the Acts of the Apostles[25], in which a great sheet is lowered to him from heaven with a whole host of unclean animals in it; he is commanded by God to kill and eat, and he refuses on the basis that nothing unclean has ever passed his lips. After Peter is told three times by God not to call unclean what God calls clean, Peter understands that this is about the Gentiles and that God is working in the Gentiles in the same new way – through Christ – as he is working in them. In obedience to God, Peter then begins to baptise them and accept them into the Christian fold. (24.48)

When word of this reaches Jerusalem, St Peter is summoned to explain himself to a council of the church. He does this in a moving account of his vision and ends by saying, ‘God gave them no less a gift than he gave us when we came to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. How could I stand in God’s way?’ The account in Acts says that when the Council heard this they were silenced and then praised God.

In this story, three things drive change in the church. The first is that people started to understand that God goes before them in mission: the Spirit of God will not be contained by our traditions, our theology, or our ideas of what is right. The second is that it was the mission imperative that drove Peter to do and believe things that were radically different from his natural inclination. Third, the Council of the Church, divided as it was, was able to hear deeply how God had moved in a new way and were able to react, even if it was a difficult choice which they knew would put a theological and cultural distance between themselves and their Jewish forebears.

The process that led to the acceptance of the Gentiles began as a confrontation. Those who saw their Jewish heritage as a defining element of the newly born Christian faith, criticized Peter, asking why he had gone to uncircumcised men and eaten with them. The Indaba-like act of the Council is that once they had raised the problem, Peter was allowed to say what had happened; as Acts 11.4 puts it, ‘Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step’.

In these two brief stories, really listening to what the other is saying is of crucial importance to hearing and understanding the will and ways of God. This is not just about being intellectually convinced by another person’s argument; it is about properly hearing and internalising their concerns and point of view, which can lead to real change, real understanding. This is something of what the Continuing Indaba project of the Anglican Communion is trying to promote: a sense of listening to God by listening to each other.

It is in this listening, I think, that we come to understand what a commitment to truth and service mean. If we are committed to the truth, to really hearing what is God’s agenda and not just ours, or merely our interpretation of it, then we will be open to other people and to learning from them; if we are really committed to serving people in God’s name, then we will need to be open to God at work in them. The Continuing Indaba Project will not be the last or only word in conflict resolution, but it does offer us a journey, a movement away from self and towards the other: both of which are crucial if we are to be at peace with God and with each other.


[1] CMS: The Church Missionary Society (founded in 1799); USPG The United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (founded in 1701 as SPG).
[2] The Bishops no longer meet at Lambeth Palace, the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury as there is no longer room for them all. Instead they meet in Canterbury – the spiritual home of the Anglican Communion – using both Canterbury Cathedral and the facilities of the University of Kent.
[3] There is a nice irony that the first Lambeth Conference was called, in part, to decide whether or not the Bishop of Natal, John Colenso, had gone too far in accommodating Zulu culture and the fact that the most recent Lambeth Conference met in Indaba groups – a Zulu form of meeting.
[4] 1968 Lambeth Conference (, Resolution 34.
[5] 1978 Lambeth Conference (, Resolution 10.3.
[6] Ibid, Resolution 21.
[7]  1988 Lambeth Conference (, Resolution 18.
[8]  Ibid., Resolution 64.
[9]  Ibid., Resolution 22.
[10]  Ibid., Resolution 72.
[11]  Ibid.
[12] 1998 Lambeth Conference (, Resolution 1.10.
[13]  Ibid..
[14] The Lambeth Conference, A summary of Lambeth Indaba: capturing Conversations and Reflections, 2008, p.1. Available from
[15] Lambeth Indaba (, para.10, p5.
[17] Lambeth Indaba (, para.3, p.4
[18] Ibid., para.4, p.4.
[22] Tony Blair, A Journey, (London: Hutchinson, 2010), pp. 184-5.
[23] The letter can be found at, and is also printed in this volume.
[24] Mark 7. 24-30; Matthew 15. 21-28.
[25] Acts 10 – 11.18.

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