Pain, hope, shame and joy: life amongst the bishops

From Lambeth Conference, Canterbury, Kent, England.

For the last three weeks I’ve been living among 750 Anglican bishops gathered at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, for the Lambeth Conference, an event that happens only once every ten years. We’ve spent most of our time in bible study, prayer and worship, but we’ve also considered issues that are important in the life of Canada, and of the world.

News reports about the Lambeth Conference have tended to focus on the controversial resolution regarding human sexuality (about which more in a moment). Indeed, if you were to read reports in the English press, they’d have you convinced we spoke of nothing else! Here are few significant points from the rest of the agenda.

Agonizing decisions will increase

Among this newspaper’s readers today are some who are confronting agonizing decisions about medical treatment for loved ones who are no longer capable of making decisions for themselves. At what point, if ever, should the goal of medical treatment shift from prolonging life, to easing the transition from life to death? The number and complexity of these decisions is likely to increase radically in the next ten years, spurred on both by the aging of the population, and by continuing advances in medical technology.

In an area in which we acknowledge there are few easy answers, Lambeth’s contribution has been to offer some ethical guidelines – signposts, if you will, by which people confronting stark choices about life and death may be helped to determine their personal directions and paths.

As Christians, we affirm as a first principle that life is a gift of God and has intrinsic sanctity, significance, and worth. The Lambeth Conference has drawn a distinction between active and passive responses to issues at the end of life. We believe it is not consistent with Christian faith to take any action which is intended to cause the death of another, even one who is suffering in a painful terminal illness. On the other hand, it may be consistent with Christian faith to enable someone to die with dignity by “withholding, withdrawing, declining or terminating excessive medical treatment.” These latter responses are not viewed as euthanasia in our precise definition.

Admittedly, the distinction is a subtle one, but so are the decisions with which many are struggling. I hope Lambeth’s exploration of the issues will help those making such choices to explore their own convictions.

News from home

About the only Canadian news to make it into the English press over the past few weeks was the historic signing of the treaty between the Nisga’a people and the governments of British Columbia and Canada. It came as Lambeth was urging compliance with the United Nations universal declaration of human rights, in part as a way of supporting the claims of indigenous peoples. A portion of the Lambeth report reads:

“In every case indigenous peoples are disproportionately poor, have little access to a good education and health care, suffer from higher death rates, and in Australia and the United States are often prone to alcohol and drug addiction. In every case, the plight of these people is given a very low profile. They are ignored and their needs are given low priority. They are not treated as ‘neighbours,’ let alone ‘brothers or sisters.’

The Anglican Church has been closely involved with the Nisga’a people, giving modest but unwavering support. Both John Hannen, the bishop of Caledonia, and I have been formally invested as Nisga’a chieftains. News of the signing in this context came as a moment of pride and joy. We share the hope of the Nisga’a and political leaders, that this signing signals the beginning of reconciliation.

Lifting an intolerable burden

Over the past 20 years, some of the poorest countries in the world have been hit by a double whammy. Interest rates on their debts have risen sharply and, at the same time, the prices they can get for their products have fallen.

Changing political realities often lend a cruel twist to international debt. In South Africa, for example, debt repayment is the second largest expenditure in the government budget (after education). Ironically, the debt was incurred by the apartheid regime and its proceeds largely went to paying for the racist oppression of the people who are now paying it off! The situation is not unique to South Africa.

Overall, for every dollar we in the developing world send overseas as aid, eight dollars comes back as interest, according to the international development organization, Christian Aid. At the same time, the president of the World Bank, Jim Wolfensohn, told the Lambeth Conference that more than 3 billion people now live on less than $2 a day. The World Bank has conceded the point that this ballooning debt, by any realistic standard, can never be repaid – and that it is one of the most serious barriers to development.

A coalition of Christian and development groups is urging that the debt of the poorest countries by canceled by the year 2000. For Christians, this initiative is bound up with the Biblical concept of “Jubilee,” a time of forgiveness and restoration. For Canadians generally, forgiving the debt of the poorest countries would have a modest economic impact on us, while offering a way of setting off the 21st century on a more even keel, so that the growing disparity between rich and poor at least has a moment when the bottom moves slightly closer to the top.

In Canada, as in most countries of the world, we recognize that a person crushed by debt is unproductive. It is to our advantage that a means be provided to lift that unequal burden, and so our laws provide the option of bankruptcy, allowing the individual to make a fresh start. Similarly, a fresh start is urgently needed on the international scene. Canadians should support the international campaign for debt cancellation.

Upholding virtue or promoting hatred?

Just what did Lambeth say about human sexuality? There are two parts to any message: the actual content, and the way the message is perceived. In its content, the Lambeth resolution on human sexuality:

  • “upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union”;
  • ” commits [the bishops] to listen to the experience of homosexual people. We wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ;”
  • rejects “homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture,” but
  • “calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals, violence within marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex;”
  • “cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same-sex unions, nor the ordination of those involved in such unions.”

The perception of this message varies from those who receive it with joy as a vindication of traditional Christian teaching, and those who find in it a devastating betrayal of the gospel of love.

Canada’s 1995 General Synod acted to “affirm the presence and contributions of gay men and lesbians in the life of the church and condemn bigotry, violence and hatred directed toward any due to their sexual orientation.” This message obviously contains a considerably stronger affirmation of gay and lesbian Christians than the Lambeth text. Even so, much of the content of the Lambeth statement, strictly speaking, is broadly in accord with the current policy of the Anglican Church of Canada. (Canada’s policies remain in force since the Lambeth Conference has only advisory, not legislative authority.)

However, I must disassociate myself from any who perceive this action as a “victory.” Canadians generally will have been scandalized by some of the reported comments, as were Canadian bishops here. The debate was marked at times by outright condemnations of homosexual persons, sometimes phrased in viciously prejudicial language. This is not consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ as I understand it.

I have already joined with many other bishops in writing a pastoral letter to gay and lesbian Anglicans. It reads, in part, “We pledge that we will continue to reflect, pray, and work for your full inclusion in the life of the church…. We call on the entire Communion to continue (and in many places, begin) prayerful, respectful conversation on the issue of homosexuality. We must not stop where this Conference has left off. You, our brothers and sisters in Christ, deserve a more thorough hearing than you received over the past three weeks. We will work to make that so.”

Moment of transformation

The most moving moment came for me yesterday [Thursday] as I attended a worship service led by the church in Japan, on the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

As we entered the service, we received copies of an apology from the Japanese Church for its complicity in wartime aggression. With wonderful generosity and hospitality, the Japanese church had invited an English priest to preach. The Rev. Susan Cole-King told how her father, then bishop of Singapore, was imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese military in 1943. The church’s apology had brought her a deep sense of reconciliation. (She also reminded us Westerners of our own complicity in the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and urged us to continue working for the eradication of nuclear weapons.)

For me, the service evoked two intensely personal memories. The first occurred in my early childhood, in Vancouver, when one of my playmates and his family abruptly disappeared without notice. I later came to understand that he had been interned with his family. Much later, I came to understand why there were always pieces of Japanese decorative arts in my living room; they were among the belongings my father, in the name of the government of Canada, had helped to confiscate. The second memory is more recent. It concerns my experience, five years ago, of apologising on behalf of our church for the abuses suffered by native people in the residential schools we administered. It was a moment of great pain, but it was the beginning of liberation.

In the middle of the Japanese service I wept as I relived those moments. The church is an imperfect reflection of God’s reign, a deeply flawed institution. Far too often, it has brought pain instead of healing. And yet, as the Japanese Church showed, it is also a place where we can be open to transformation. When the gospel reaches into our lives, and challenges us, it can enable us to face very difficult truths and to both seek – and bestow – forgiveness.

Archbishop Michael Peers is the Primate of Canada. The full text of Lambeth Conference reports and resolutions can be found at


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