A Summary of the Bishops Conversations from September
On the 7 and 9th September, the third round of Lambeth Conference Bishop’s Conversations took place.
The bishops met online via Zoom in groups of around 20 and will continue with their group for the duration of the six-month programme.
Exploring what it means to be ‘God’s church for God’s World’, the Bishops’ Conversations involve prayer and bible study, and aim to help bishops listen and learn from one another’s ministry settings and experiences.
Last month, the sessions explored being ‘Called to Mutual Love, based on 1 Peter 1:22 to 2:5 and what discipleship looks like in the 21st Century.
This summary draws out some of the stories and reflections from the discussions.
Learning about discipleship from personal objects
Bishops brought a wide variety of objects connected with their discipleship to show others in their group. There was a tattered bible, a holy oil container, a fishing rod, a container of mud and a t-shirt.
In another group there was a pen given by a father-in-law, a honey bottle label, a glass of water, a compilation of family photographs and a painting of a pathway that was a reminder of there being new people along the path to meet and hear from.
The tattered bible came from a bishop in Zimbabwe who described how it shows him that God accepts him for who he is even with his tattered flaws. A bishop from York diocese in England showed his container of mud collected from Uganda, representing a turning point in his walk with God.
The importance of listening
The most prominent theme in the conversations was the importance of listening in discipleship, a form of obedience – ‘we need to listen, especially when people who we meet often think we are there to talk rather than listen.’
Another group reflected on how we only begin to understand what the gospel means for a community when we begin to really listen: ‘Listening is the key to discipleship building’ and ‘We must listen not only with our ears but with our hearts.’
One testimony described how this is even more important in situations of conflict: ‘My country is a divided country and we have had to learn to listen and to mutually live out of deep division and pain – being bishop here is about always seeing people and listening to people on the other side of the divisions – that is showing mutual love.’ For another bishop ‘discipleship may be first and foremost about listening and particularly as bishops our ministry is about listening even though so many people want us to speak. Might we not create places and opportunities to listen—to the others—who are also living stones who are called and consecrated.’
There is need for a humble spirituality of listening: ‘listening is a gift from God empowered by the Holy Spirit’ and ‘Jesus says “listen to my voice” – if you don’t’ listen you don’t learn.’ One group was reminded of Maya Angelou’s saying: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Another said: ‘It cannot be overemphasized that the role of a bishop is to have their ears to the ground where the people are.’
Growing in discipleship through community service
Another prominent theme was the importance of community service for growing in discipleship. One bishop told of how the poorest town in their diocese was regenerated by a church leader hosting community conversations. This leader took over a local council building as manager and hosted other organisations serving the community’s health and well-being, a wonderful example of offering service at the centre of a neighbourhood.
Another bishop reported that in responses to the arrival of Afghan refugees some churches in a deprived area had quickly organised themselves to welcome the refugees. Another told of a village in North India where girls are pushed into prostitution and where the church is seen as a threat.
The church is not daunted by this but runs a school and hostel for the girls – ‘the church in the midst of the Caste system as a sign of the Kingdom’. One daughter of a bishop shared her faith with her friends and went on to start an Alpha course with 27 people and 5 Christians helping to lead it. Also a group was told that WhatsApp is being used effectively to study scripture with 40 others – bringing strength to a community.
On Rhode Island in the US there are both very wealthy people with a church built on the back of the slave trade and very poor people who have never been to its beach. A parishioner was able to arrange a visit to the beach for people from both sides that brought tears of joy, modelling community in church and society.
Other groups reflected on the role of love in building community: ‘Love requires time and patience, there are no quick fixes. We need to act like parents and persevere with acts of love. Love is relational and we need to build and invest in quality relationships.’ And ‘as we reach out to people in discipleship we too are being discipled.’
Many of the groups shared how discipleship is not something you do alone but in community, and opportunities exist to engage with those at cultural crossroads such as in art galleries. ‘The Church cannot wait for people to come to it so that they can become disciples, rather we as the Church need to go out to the people wherever they are, by going out to those communities we usually do not visit, and be with them, learn from them and make them disciples.’
There were encouraging stories about prison visits and prisoners becoming disciples and, from Chile, of an ex-British soldier who had been living on the streets for years and had become an alcoholic so was put into a home. ‘He wanted to die and asked if euthanasia was possible. [The] Bishop prayed with him and he gave his heart to the Lord and they shared communion, also reading Psalm 23 together. After 2 years of wanting to die the Lord took him two days later but in peace and having given his heart to the Lord.’
Growing in discipleship through ecumenical co-operation
A bishop from the DRC emphasised how when he visited a town ecumenical cooperation was much in evidence: ‘All of the churches were there to welcome us, I could see unity and sharing to welcome us. They were Anglican churches, Catholic churches and they all gathered to welcome us. Furthermore, when somebody is ill they all work together to find transport, everybody shares what they have to take the sick person to hospital, so we saw this kind of support and love, brotherly love that they have to help each other.’ And ‘when they want to teach, educate, mobilise people, the churches don’t just work separately – they gather together to teach, there is no division, they just schedule a communal gathering and share everything they have with everyone else.’
Discipleship and the pandemic
For many, the Covid pandemic remains the biggest challenge with a loss of physical contact and heavy reliance on technology. How to deepen relationships within an online community? ‘To disciple we have to be in relationship and come alongside people.’ Another group said: ‘In this time of COVID 19, are we concerned more about the future of our churches, or the new ways God might be calling us to share God’s word? We need to focus on the needs of the world, not the agendas of the church.’
Attitudes to discipleship
There are mistaken ideas about discipleship which need to be corrected: ‘It’s not a simple process and it takes a lot of time; it is not simply filling the pews; it took Jesus three years! We need to do better to see Jesus in the face of others.‘
‘Discipleship is a wonderful word, the essence of what we are called to do as Christians. But sometimes it is easier to say than to do. We all know how important it is to lead the church toward this goal, but at the same time we seem to stress other topics instead.’ Another bishop described how there is a gap between what happens in summer camps, conferences, etc., and what the people (especially the youngsters) experience regularly in their congregations: ‘We need to challenge congregations to address Jesus at a personal level.’
Reaching out to young people
A number of groups discussed how the church needs to strengthen its ministry with young people and families especially during this time when they are missing from church worship. Young people often feel that they have been just ‘used’ by the church and then abandoned. ‘Baptism and confirmation should not be the end goal – we should make time to converse.’ Young people also face the challenge of peer pressure, so the church needs to recognise the importance of peer groups for youth. Activities such as choirs, where young people can meet and nurture each other are a valuable resource in a faith community; indeed ‘people need to meet other, whether old or young, wealthy or poor.’
Some bishops believe they should be focusing more on discipleship and less on church growth as they felt that with discipleship church growth will be an outcome anyway. Meanwhile asylum seekers, homeless people and others are longing for acceptance. What can the church community do? ‘Sometimes we are too busy building monuments rather than digging deep wells and getting dirty and drinking deeply.’
One challenge is when monolithic cultural groups reproduced themselves in church planting rather than engage with the diversity of the wider community. Some reflected that it is indeed hard to reconcile our differences, but it was easy to share in our commonalities and vulnerabilities. Another bishop shared the analogy of dry-stone walls. The stones were not the same, and it was not easy to put them together, but once assembled in a wall they were held together by each other.
Global challenges also exist: ‘We are not a centralised church but a church of many Provinces. That is a gift and strength of the Anglican Communion where each Province can proclaim the gospel in a way that connects with their unique context and culture.’ But what should we think when different provinces make varied or conflicting responses to a challenging issue? The bishop commented that the de-centralised nature of the Communion ‘suggests that we don’t need to be disturbed when there are different approaches to some important matter in different Provinces.’
There was an observation made about how the role of a bishop could pull a person away from grassroots mission and discipleship. Yet if bishops were able to keep this ministry alive in their roles as bishop ‘it would lead to fuller hearts and love’.
But ‘the Church must consider ways in which the notion of obedience has been abused by those in positions of power and authority.’ For ‘sometimes obedience can bring feelings of subordination e.g. in South Africa and Israel/Palestine. Some do not want to be obedient to the system and need to be liberated by the word of God.’
Next year’s Lambeth Conference
Coming out of all this some groups suggested that next year’s conference needs to focus on the use of technology, the environment and ministry to young people. One bishop said ‘we need a Jesus-shaped Lambeth conference – one that releases those on the margins.’ Another said that: ’We need to make sure all voices are heard and respected’. But we have been given a great gift, ‘the God who walks in the midst of humanity. As we journey to the Lambeth Conference we should be confident in the context we find ourselves in and conscious of the plural life we live within.’
The next round of Lambeth Conference Bishops’ Conversations is due to take place on 5 and 7th October.
The session theme is ‘Called out of darkness into light’. Based on 1 Peter 2: 9-12 bishops will explore ‘Co-creating the kingdom: being salt and light in the world.’
You can find out more about the October sessions here.