I had rather hoped that our pre-Lambeth Conference retreat would be a “real retreat,” meaning three days of disciplined silence and time for prayer guided by meditations from the Archbishop. This was not to be as we were bussed daily from the University of Kent campus to Canterbury Cathedral and bussed back each evening.
Even the time for silence after Rowan Williams’ addresses was observed mostly in the breach as bishops from all over the world met in informal groups and buzzed about a variety of topics. Not a bad thing, all in all, but it forced those of us who really needed silence to find a stall in the Great Choir or in one of the chapels to be alone with our thoughts, our prayers, and our God.
It was a joy to spend real time, nearly twelve hours over the two days in Canterbury Cathedral itself which is a great and sacred space, light and airy despite its antiquity. And to feel more like a pilgrim than a tourist for a change.
The Archbishop was, of course, in his element as a teacher and retreat leader. He appeared relaxed and confident with clarity of expression a no little humor. In the first address he asked us to give thanks for times of healing we have experienced, to reflect on the faces of people over our lives who have revealed the image of Christ. And to think of times when we have been “convicted” and called to change.
He asked too for us to give thanks for the bishops who confirmed and ordained us and for the gifts of the Holy Spirit we received in those sacramental moments. He spoke of our own role as bishops presiding at the Eucharist and laying-on-of-hands as participating in bringing God’s future into the present and so preparing the way for the Kingdom.
In the second address Dr. Williams described the mission and ministry of a bishop as showing forth the Son of God as “the gathering Christ” in whom all things hold together – for that is the very mission of God. But he said that, because we have been made Christ’s own, bishops can be undependable allies in any “cause” because we have to take the larger view. I understand what he means and have some sympathy with that perspective, yet would want to raise the questions about Christ being made known in some of the “causes.” Bishops are not Jesus’ sole voice. He often speaks from the margins and edges. The question is one of discernment.
A very nice image was that unity is not merely an institutional one or finding consensus. It is a quality of life where each suffers with the other, where each death diminishes me. Surely we are experiencing that cruciform reality in the Anglican Communion today!
We were asked to reflect on when we have felt pressure as bishops to “belong” to something less than Christ. And to think of those whose suffering today diminishes us.
In the third address, the Archbishop pointed out that the apostles were “people on the road” and as such had to learn new languages in order to communicate. To speak God’s word in the language of the people. As apostles and bishops (and, I would say, as Christians!) we must listen with one ear to God and with the other to God’s people.
He singled out Paul as trying on the language of Greek philosophy in Acts. 17 (with limited success!). And in I Corinthians 9:19 and following knowing that who had taken hold of him yet belonging to everybody. Rowan concluded that session by quoting two unlikely sources seen together – American lawyer and social activist William Stringfellow and St. Ignatius of Antioch!
Stringfellow on the distinction between a “religious” person and a “biblical” person. A religious person knows all the rules and seeks to follow them. A biblical person is one caught in the spotlight of God’s attention, fearing God and yet having no fear. Ignatius, on his way to martyrdom, said that sometimes the “silence” of bishops is pleasing to God.
The fourth address began with the citing of Luke 10 and the sending out of the seventy to underscore the fact that a disciple alone is no disciple, a Christian alone is no Christian, and a bishop alone is no bishop. He then moved on to explore perspectives from those who have gone before us – the desert fathers and mothers, the Benedictine way.
The desert fathers and mothers were scrupulous about themselves, not letting themselves get away with anything. But they were slow to condemn others. How do we measure up to that standard as bishops? And the Benedictines show us a community bound together in common prayer as well as common work. Rowan mused about what it might be like for small groups of bishops from around the world to share a common Rule of Life – praying the same prayer and psalms and scripture on the same day. What might that do for our Communion?
He concluded with the observation that fear is at the root of so many of our problems and suggested that the only thing to do with fear is to put it in the presence of God. And he invited us to seek out another bishop who “makes us nervous” and pray with him or her. To see what God might do in such a grace-filled moment. I’m not sure how many bishops actually were bold enough to respond to this challenge!
In the fifth and final address, delivered back under the “Big Top” at the University of Kent, Archbishop Williams said that the only way Christians can lead is by following – following the way of Jesus. Christian community is to remind and encourage one another that there is “a way,” that the final reality is not anxiety but hope. Concluding with Hebrews 2:9-15 and 12:1-2, he asked us to pray that Christ will guide us, by the way of the cross, to the Father…to resurrection and new life.
It is surely our prayer indeed. And these thoughts will provide “grist for the mill” during these next days.