One Bishop's Reflections on Lambeth 1998

ACL Synod Dinner 15 October 1998

Bishop Paul Barnett - Bishop of North Sydney

(An edited version of an address given at the 1998 ACL Synod Dinner.)

Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on Lambeth. These are indeed personal reflections. Others might see it differently.

Homosexuality was the big news and there was a considerable victory for the cause of Biblical Christianity.

However, I am a little wary of triumphalism which is not edifying.

In any case there were things that should have happened at Lambeth but didn't. Probably the media focus on sexuality obscured other matters which should have received greater attention at and since the conference.

One was the Virginia Report which Lambeth had as its doctrinal basis and which was sent to us beforehand. It is a woefully inadequate statement of theology. It appears to affirm the Trinity, but it lacks a substantial view of Christ, his identity, his sacrifice and his resurrection. This means it isn't really trinitarian in the historical sense. It speaks of a three-in-oneness, but this is merely a means of securing unity among Anglicans world-wide. But unity can only exist as people agree about revealed truth, and that found no mention. The Virginia Report should have been subject to serious review but, in my understanding, wasn't.

Another was an issue which should have received media attention, but which the sexuality debate obscured, is the debt crisis in Third World nations. The economic woes in the developing world due to mounting debt is quite unspeakable. But it is doubtful whether Lambeth has had any significant impact in this, though I hope I am wrong. Here there is interest on interest. Here there is less and less money available for already paltry budgets for health, education and road and rail infrastructure. Here are tens of millions of fellow humans living on a dollar a day, well below the poverty level for the poorest countries.

There is widespread anger among these nations that the IMF and the World Bank lent money to politically kosher dictators like Mobutu in Zaire, who funnelled the money into private Zurich accounts, leaving generations to come with the debt and its ever mounting interest. So there is less and less for medicine, books and freight cars. Yet Europe blows enough away in cigarette smoke each year to feed and educate the Third World, with money over. The debt to England alone could be wiped out if the English forewent chocolates for just one year! Statistics are a bit silly, but they make a sad point about gross inequality across the nations, which is increasing as we speak.

And yet... the Third World is now where most of the world's Anglicans are. By a country mile. And it is certainly where most of the Bible-loving, creed-believing Anglicans are. Many of the Europeans did not seem to know what they believed, while quite a few were radical liberals. One eloquent African chided us Europeans at the tension-filled plenary on sexuality: "You sent us missionaries, but you no longer believe yourselves what your missionaries taught us." Compared with the contingent from Britain, the US, Canada and Australia-NZ, how impressive those Africans were. Stricken by poverty, terrorized by persecution and war, they stood high as men of faith compared to us affluent Europeans. Some of these had the gall to speak of the Africans as one step removed from witchcraft. Others have since patronized them as having the naievete of new converts. I want to say, they shone like stars in the night. In point of fact many are multi-lingual and highly qualified from leading universities. But they see the essentials of the faith with a crystal clarity which few in the west have.

It is a great irony that so much of the suffering experienced by believers in the Third World comes from the Muslim quarter. Some of the Muslim polemicists against Christianity are actually trained in liberal theology in liberal seminaries and faculties in the US, which are part of the same establishment as the liberal bishops from the US. Africans and Pakistanis are suffering back home, in part at least, from those who are learning how to attack the faith from friends of the bishops in the US and, indeed, from the writings of some of those bishops.

We need to understand that there is now a "new liberalism." Gone is the old easy-going romantic idealism of the "Old Liberals" which was, to generalise, often tolerant. The old liberalism was weak on christology and soteriology but still held to the fatherhood of God as well as to traditional Christian ethics and values. Not so the "new liberals." According to them God himself or herself must now be radically redefined, if he or she is even there! The "new liberals" are both post-modern, but also modernist in an evolutionary sense. The god "evolution" is leading humankind ever upwards and onwards. The liberation of homosexuals is part of the "progress" that must be fought for, as the liberation of slaves and women had to be fought for against conservatives. This is the battle for freedom of the moment. It is claimed that the Bible itself is against such progress and must be preached against! The "new liberals" are in fact fundamentalist in their single-mindedness and zeal.

The sub-section on sexuality of about 60 was part of a larger section on Full Humanity. I felt that those Australians like Harry Goodhew [Archbishop of Sydney], Peter Chiswell [Bishop of Armidale], Tony Nicholls [Bishop of North West Australia] and me were swimming against the tide from the beginning. The pre-circulated literature, the keynote opening address, the choice of the section head, and the sub-section head, and the theological facilitator attached to the Section were all coming strongly from the one quarter of pro-gay activism. The agenda for the liberation of homosexuals was prosecuted with missionary zeal. It was quite depressing.

In the sexuality sub-section the conservatives were in an outright minority. This was worsened by the withdrawal of a number the Africans from the group after the first session. They were scandalized by the chairman's unauthorised invitation to a group of active homosexuals to speak to our sub-section. Although this proposal was overturned they were so offended they withdrew. Their contribution and numerical support were missed.

The process of the sub-section meetings was also unhelpful. We were asked to divide up into groups of four. The radical liberals planted at least one of their number in each group so that the feedback from these small groups was always muted. John Spong [Bishop of Newark] came and sat next to me. I believe this was a deliberate tactic. Day by day no clear feedback was emerging from any group of four. It became clear that the report and resolution which would come from our sub-section must also be very weak. I felt that the whole thing had been engineered.

At no point was the Bible opened to examine the key passages about homosexuality. Never was any credible information introduced as to the medical consequences of sodomy. The working assumption that homosexualty was involuntary was not allowed to be challenged. After a week of this I protested quite strongly that my conscience was being violated by the process. I tabled a minority report that I had prepared overnight and invited however many there might be to endorse it. Only then did the sub-section begin to take seriously what Harry Goodhew, Wallace Benn [Bishop of Chichester - Lewes], Colin Bazeley [Bishop of Chile], Peter Chiswell, Tony Nicholls and I had been trying to say with no ears listening. Astonishingly, Spong actually said that this man's conscience - Barnett's - must be respected. His unusual intervention was critical. I came home from the meeting to Anita shellshocked. If Spong was speaking for Barnett what is going on? I must be doing something wrong, I thought. Some major tactical blunder. I remain mystified.

Then an equally remarkable thing happened. A Canadian named Ferris [Bishop of Algoma] who hadn't said anything in the sub-section just tabled a brief draft resolution without notice and without talking to anyone which was quite conservative and which the sub-section without demur accepted. I couldn't believe it. It was like the parting of the Red Sea. But then we had rung Australia the previous day and many people were praying.

When we came to the Plenary Session in the last few days, which was brilliantly chaired by Robin Eames [Bishop of Armagh], our resolution was pointedly and cleverly amended by a number of African bishops. Harry Goodhew made an excellent speech, pointing to sinners like Zacchaeus and the woman taken in adultery who were shown mercy by Jesus, but who changed their behaviour. George Carey was on the platform, but not as chairman. He very visibly raised his hand at all the critical amendments, which I believe he had helped draft. Before the final vote was taken on the amended resolution he rose and made a strong speech. The now-amended resolution passed with a 7 to 1 landslide majority. I am glad that the final statement expressed the need for loving and compassionate ministry to those caught in the homosexual web.

The Liberals present were outraged. Richard Holloway primate of Scotland gave a press conference immediately saying that he had been "shafted and gutted" and called Carey "pathetic." This was front page news. Within a few days 150 or so bishops pronounced against the Lambeth decision. Spong said the fight for gay rights would go on and that Lambeth 2008 would be a different story. Since their return a number of Australian bishops have distanced themselves from the Lambeth resolution.

We give glory to God for answered prayer in the Lambeth decision which could not have been predicted during the conference. But what were the human factors?

First, the persistence of the small group of conservatives in the sub-section who did not give up but who worked away in the group and also between meetings. If the battle had not been substantially won there I doubt it could have been won at the Plenary. This is because the resolutions planned by the outraged Africans were so draconian they would have frightened the voters.

Second, access to the RC Franciscan chaplaincy during the Conference, made available through the generosity of a number of people. This is a spacious and central venue with large meeting rooms. Various people were on hand to assist and advise, including Dr Stephen Noll, a New Testament scholar from the US and Dr Christl Vonholdt from Germany, an expert in the rehabilitation of homosexuals. In a spread out campus like the University of Kent it would have been impossible to meet as we did without the foresight of those who made the Franciscan centre available. On the eve of the Plenary a large meeting was held in which the Africans were persuaded to drop their rather extreme resolutions and to amend the resolution of the sub-section. This meeting was critical for the outcome of the Plenary.

Third, George Carey himself. He had gone up to London during Lambeth for the House of Lords meeting where the Lords overturned Tony Blair's proposal to lower the age of consent for homosexuals. He made his own views known in various ways. His intervention from the platform just before the final vote was taken was critical. He and Eileen had really commended themselves throughout the conference beforehand as godly and hospitable people. They had, for example, repeatedly encouraged the real value of Lambeth as residing in the Bible Study Groups. Carey is repeatedly crucified in the media in Britain for this stand on homosexuality and he is literally loathed by the Gay and Lesbian lobby who regularly picket meetings he attends. He is paying a very high price for his stand on this issue.

Let me conclude with four observations.

First, I am very thankful to God for my teachers at Moore College. Through their careful commitment to the Scriptures and their godly scholarship and example I understand that God has acted and God has spoken. Ours is a received faith. The liberals are still looking to find out what God will say. They go to a conference to hear what the Holy Spirit will teach them, but then when they find it is against the spirit of the age, they reject it. They lack consistency and firmness. But those who hold the faith once delivered to the saints know and understand what God's will is in a matter like sexual practices since the teaching is so clear. So I am thankful for Broughton Knox, Donald Robinson and Bruce Smith and others at the College when I was there.

Second, I am thankful for the great harvest of God through missionary work which was so evident in the presence and attitudes of leaders from Africa and Asia. They did indeed shine like lights in the darkness. I see the two bishops of Sabah, who were both converted as schoolboys through our CMS' Walter Newmarch, Jim Power and Tony Nicholls at St Patrick's Tawau. I hope that we won't stop sending missionaries to the developing countries. Their needs are massive, but so is the harvest they are reaping. We need them and they need us.

Third, the need for ministry to the marginalised was highlighted for me, including the self-marginalised who have been caught in the homosexual web. Most moving of all for me at Lambeth was a meeting at the Franciscan Centre one night at which four converted homosexuals gave their testimonies. Two women and two men. They spoke of their struggle in the strength of Christ to extricate themselves from homosexuality. They pleaded with us not to fail them at Lambeth. I hope we Sydney Anglicans will not fail to reach out to those in this and similar need, including people in prison.

Fourth, we do well increasingly to connect with, influence and learn from fellow evangelicals globally, whether in the third world, the UK or North America. I also hope we can build on contacts made at Lambeth from Africa, Asia, the Southern Cone and the First World.

I feel that there are numbers of episcopalians in the US who were by-passed by the Evangelical Revival which has had such an influence in Sydney. These men are strongly orthodox and they may be open to our encouragement. By our standards some of them are a little "high church". I think there is a window of opportunity through Lambeth to encourage courageous North American conservatives who are in dire straits in the US at this time. I hope we will do that.

Globalization is now part of life. Relatively affordable travel, faxes, e-mail illustrate the new reality. We in Sydney who have been so cut off geographically need to move onto the world stage to a greater degree. We would do well to bring others here and make visits to other places. We have plenty to learn, but we have a bit to contribute as well. Lambeth made that very clear to me.

Thank you for the opportunity to share these impressions. I repeat: they are inevitably personal. It could not be otherwise.

Bp Paul Barnett. Image thanks to Anglican Media Sydney

Bishop Paul Barnett is the Bishop of North Sydney in the Diocese of Sydney.

He is also a Vice-President Emeritus of the Anglican Church League.

© Paul Barnett 1998

Document updated 27 October 1998.


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