"Different but united" - link bishops' Q & A session at Leeds Minster

Over the last week the Diocese of Leeds has hosted bishops from seven countries with which the diocese has a partnership link. (Stories here, here and here.)

At the end of their stay, the bishops took part in a question & answer session at Leeds Minster focusing on what they’d learnt about each other and their different contexts.

They said their honest conversations had enabled them to appreciate more how the Anglican Church in different parts of the world is profoundly affected by local culture, politics, economics - and even the weather.

Bishop George Okoth from Tanzania, said, “Above all our conversations have reminded me that we are the body of Christ, and that despite our differences, we need one another. I’ve also learnt that Bishop Nick can’t sing in Swahili!”

Bishop Mark Bourlakas from the USA, said, “We all love Jesus and the Book of Common Prayer, but we’ve been hearing how some things are much more complicated in other parts of the Anglican Communion, where the rules are different and they simply can’t do what others can do. It has given us much more understanding for when things get difficult".

The understanding of scripture can also be surpirsingly different. Bishop Nick said, "There is no neutral reading of scripture - it's always read through the lens of the culture in which you've grown up".

Bishop Dhiloraj Canagasabey had some challenging observations: “Sri Lanka is a wounded community. We have gone through 30 years of war, as well as natural disasters and poverty. But in a way we thank God for that because it keeps us focused on him; we know God is our only sustenance and comforter.

“You are a blessed nation in the UK; you have so much. But there’s also a sense of complacency here which doesn’t help you depend on God".

Archbishop Ezekiel from Sudan said, “I live in an Islamic majority country. One of my bishops can’t get in to his own diocese and I have colleagues in prison. Perhaps the C of E should learn how to be patient, for the greater good. Here things fall into place easily but in Sudan things don’t work in the same way. But the church in Sudan also has much to learn from you in the way of organization.”

Bishop Mark reflected, “In the USA we have plenty of resources that we could use in more sacrificial ways. Our brothers and sisters proclaim the gospel against great odds, whereas it doesn’t cost us".

Bishop Paul Slater said, “It's been extraordinary to learn from Bishop Dhilo that in his six years as bishop he’s confirmed 6,500 young people and is now embarking on a discipleship programme for them. It’s a lesson that Christian commitment doesn’t just happen; we need to be more intentional and focused with our young people.”

But Bishop Dhilo added, “While we have many young people in church, we’re learning from you that this may not always be so, and how we can take precautions to keep them in their faith.”

Bishop Mark said, “We don’t have a parish system, so we’re learning from the C of E system and trying to get our churches to get out into their neighbourhoods; to make their presence known to local people.”

In answer to a question about the impact of climate change, Archbishop Ezekiel and Bishop George said their countries had been badly affected by the increased incidences of droughts, and that where societies are dependent on subsistence farming, church attendance goes down because people have to move away to find food.

One question asked how truth and love should be balanced - "as the pursuit of unity at all costs can undermine truth, whereas a hard line pursuit of  truth at all costs can seem harsh and unloving".

The bishops agreed the benchmark should be love - ‘speaking the truth in love’ - and that when things get hard the conversations should continue.

Bishop Toby said, “It’s important to hear and understand others’ stories about how they got to a particular position, rather than just focusing on the end point of the position itself.

And Bishop Nick said, “It’s unreasonable to ask ‘why can’t they just change their minds?’ You try doing that over something that matters enormously to you".

They agreed that whatever happens, nothing would get in the way of the fact that they are 'brothers and friends'. This was underlined by part of the communiqué issued at the end of their time at Parcevall Hall which included the following commitments:

  • to check with each other reports about developments in one another's church before passing judgment or comment
  • to face honestly any future strains or challenges that threaten the unity of our church or the bonds of affection to which we are both called and committed

Bishop Nick said, "At the end of our time together we concluded that our links need to be reshaped for the future. We’ll be staying in touch and will meet again before the Lambeth Conference in 2020".

During the service which followed the Q & A session, the bishops were presented with specially-made pectoral crosses (above) - the identical design expressing 'how our unity is grounded in the cross of Christ".

On their final day in the UK, the bishops travelled to Canterbury to visit
the Cathedral and meet with Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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