Canadian, US and African bishops affirm common mission at third Consultation

Last week, the Anglican Church of Canada hosted the third Consultation of Anglican Bishops in Dialogue. Growing out of Lambeth 2008, which uncovered divisions and disagreements between African and other Anglicans on the issue of human sexuality and same-sex relationships, the dialogue held its first meeting in London in 2010 and it second last year in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. The group was originally organized by Archbishop Colin Johnson of the diocese of Toronto, who is also metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario.

Seventeen bishops from Africa, Canada, and the USA met at the Manresa Jesuit Spiritual Retreat Centre in Pickering, Ontario from June 4 to 7.

Discussing the Anglican Communion Covenant, the bishops said they disagreed on the fourth section of the Covenant, which outlines consequences for dissenting provinces. However, they said “differences are held respectfully” and they affirmed the continuing value of face-to-face conversation—the kind they’ve enjoyed together as the consultation.

The bishops’ conversations began in 2008, while the Anglican Communion seemed split over the issue of same-sex unions and larger questions of Scriptural interpretation. A large number of bishops, many from the Global South, chose not to attend the 2008 Lambeth Conference, and some threatened to leave the Communion entirely.

It was in this tense environment that Archbishop Colin Johnson of Toronto and the Rev. Canon Dr. Isaac Kawuki Mukasa, a Ugandan-Canadian, began conversations with African bishops. Interested African dioceses started theological correspondence with Canadian counterparts, first on human sexuality and then mission.

Eventually, the group expanded and bishops resolved to meet in person, first on neutral ground in London in 2010 and then in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 2011. This second meeting produced “A Testimony of Grace” which celebrated their partnership in mission.

After this third meeting, Mr. Mukasa, now General Synod’s coordinator for dialogue, is celebrating “a massive shift” in the relationships between some African and North American bishops. “The group has become an integrated whole,” he said. “They’re friends but they discuss substantive issues in depth. I think this is a model of what can happen when people actually talk and discuss things that are important today.”

Their discussions are similar to many that are happening through the Continuing Indaba project, coordinated by the Anglican Communion.

“These consultations have been one of the highlights of my episcopate,” said Bishop Michael Bird of Niagara, who attended all three meetings. He said these dialogues need to happen between bishops because the recent Anglican Communion tensions have happened on this level—between bishops and primates.

For Bishop Trevor Mwamba of Botswana, the consultation has provided a way for bishops to hear news from the source instead of through sometimes sensational media coverage. He said many African bishops were surprised to learn that some Canadian dioceses bless civil unions of same-gender couples but they do not marry these couples. “We acknowledge that the differences are there, but they are not strong enough and will never be strong enough to break us,” said Bishop Mwamba. “We all belong to God. It’s not up to us to excommunicate each other.”

After the meeting the bishops and their associates attended a Communion service at Church House, the national office of the Anglican Church of Canada in Toronto. Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, presided and Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi, primate of the Church of Burundi, delivered a homily on St. Barnabas. He focused on his early discipleship among Jews in Jerusalem and his role in bringing St. Paul to Antioch to join the broader missionary journey among the Gentiles. Archbishop Ntahoturi reminded congregants, “If you want to go fast, you go alone. But if want to go far, you go with others.”

Attending the dialogue for the second time, the Rt. Rev. Daniel Sarfo, bishop of the diocese of Kumasi in Ghana, was very positive about the meeting. “It was so wonderful,” he said. “We really opened up and discussed issues concerning mission and what will bring the Anglican Communion together.”

Conceding that at the previous meeting in Dar Es Salaam the bishops were not sufficiently open, Sarfo said that “this time we really understood where others were coming from.” The dialogue left him feeling very hopeful about the future of Anglican unity. “The communion is a gift from God. It is a treasure. We cannot divide it. We should treasure it even though we may have our differences.”

Commenting on the dialogue, Archbishop Johnson called it “very exciting—a real opportunity to get to know one another more deeply and to share what we’re doing together in mission in our individual dioceses and across the communion.”

He, too, is hopeful about the future. “I think the communion is going to pull together,” he said. “There’s a real commitment to be part of one another and a deep recognition that we need each other.”

This year’s dialogue was a positive continuation of the last, he added. “People are talking more deeply and with fewer reservations. The issues are more difficult, but the conversations are richer and more exciting. There’s more listening and a lot of learning—an absolute commitment that we need to be together.”

Consultation members will spread news of the dialogue through their official statement and various networks, including the Anglican Consultative Council, chaired by consultation member Bishop James Tengatenga, Diocese of Southern Malawi.

In 2013, the bishops will meet in southern African and focus on the emerging theme of truth and reconciliation, which connects directly with current ministry in Canada, South Sudan, Burundi, and South Africa.

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