Did I ever tell you about the time I didn’t get invited to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury?
It happened years ago, when the Archbishop was the Revd Dr George Carey, and I was the full-time Anglican chaplain to the University of East London. In their wisdom UEL invited Dr Carey to award the degrees at the annual degree ceremony, and at the same to time to award him an honorary degree of their own. (I’m sure he has it framed somewhere.) As part of the celebrations, an official reception was arranged to which all the dignitaries of the University were duly invited — but not me.
At the time, this struck me as being not so much odd as typical. The chaplaincy was not very highly regarded by the University management, any more than the Christian faith was deeply respected. I could say more, but it was a long time ago. I only got to know about the invitation and the reception through a friend who worked in the Registry. He very kindly pointed out to the authorities that an invitation to the Anglican chaplain might actually be appropriate, but I was obviously not high enough up the food chain, and none duly arrived.
In the end, I was allowed into the post-ceremony drinks party, where I finally got to meet George, who was an old acquaintance, having in fact interviewed me when I applied for St John’s Nottingham, way back in 1973. So duty was done, but honour was hardly satisfied. You can tell it still rankles, years later!
The reason for mentioning this is that I think I know something of how Bishop Suheil Dawani feels. He, you may be aware, is the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, and that is where the Global Anglican Future Conference is to be held later this year. The trouble is, no one apparently thought to tell him.
That was careless. There is, of course, a natural feeling amongst Christians that the Holy Land belongs to us all (though it is not, it might be noted, a feeling shared by all the adherents of all the world’s faiths). Furthermore, if I were travelling to Jerusalem, I wouldn’t bother to tell the local bishop. Nor, if I were organizing a conference in Jerusalem, would I feel he necessarily had to know about it or be asked to give his opinion.
But a conference on the future of Global Anglicanism is surely different. Someone ought to have thought to mention it, for even if the Bishop objects (as he clearly does) politeness alone dictates that he should have some advance notice and be given at least an opportunity to welcome his fellow bishops and Anglicans onto his ‘turf’.
Peter Jensen, it seems to me, has done the right thing. In the minutes of his meeting with the Bishop, it is recorded that he has “apologized for having rushed into organizing this conference without Bishop Suheil’s approval.” That is appropriate and fair.
Peter Akinola, I believe, could have done a better job. Specifically, it is not possible to turn a GAFCON in to a GAFPIL by insisting that this gathering is really a pilgrimage. It is not. Furthermore, it clearly has the potential to cause embarrassment to the local Anglican community even if, hopefully, it will not.
I must add, in conclusion, I am hesitant about putting these thoughts in the public domain. There are those who delight at every opportunity to exploit any unfortunate action by Anglican Mainstream or the Global South coalition, and they take particular delight in division. There is, however, a time to hold one’s hand up, as I believe Peter Jensen has done, and say, “Sorry, I got it wrong.” We all have to do it from time to time, especially in parish ministry where deep-running hurts are easily caused.
It would therefore, in my view, be worse not to say what I feel this time, than to say it and risk giving ammunition to opponents of GAFCON.
Having said that, there is also a time to move on. Bishop Suheil has received proper acknowledgment (and it would have been no small thing for Peter Jensen to fly from Sydney to Jerusalem for the purpose of this meeting, as I presume it was also for Peter Akinola travelling from Nigeria). The fact is that the Holy Land does have a significance that transcends local issues, and to travel there as pilgrims is no bad attitude in which to arrive for a conference on the church’s future.
A gracious apology is called for, but a gracious acceptance of that apology would also be right.
So, if any former Vice-Chancellors of the University of East London are reading this, do feel free to get in touch.
Revd John P Richardson
22 January 2008