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Canterbury: "Power ... is Like Fire"

Canterbury: "Power ... is Like Fire"

Forward in Faith News
July 28, 2008

The Bishops and the spouses met together to take up the topic "Equal in God's Sight: When Power is Abused".

Lambeth Spouses

Dr. Jane Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury's wife, said the spouses "have been having a most fantastic time", "resourcing ourselves" by listening to one another's stories from "all around the world".

The respective planning committees for the bishops and the spouses agreed that the issue of how power is used and abused was one they wanted to address together, Dr. Williams reported. The spouses' committee was asked to plan the day; this is "an area", she said, "where bishops need to listen and learn before they can take a lead".

The theological foundation for this conversation, Dr. Williams said, is "deeply countercultural": "the spectacular power of God at work" in Jesus Crucified. The story of the Melanesian martyrs, which the spouses had heard yesterday, was "an immensely powerful witness of what Christians can accomplish against violence".

This subject is not a "distraction" from equipping for mission: rather, it is vital for effective witness. "Unless we use power to free other people", Dr. Williams concluded, "no one will see that Jesus is Lord".

In response to a question, Dr. Williams noted that the importance of this issue to the church was shown by its giving a whole day at the Lambeth Conference to it.

Responding to another question (which she described as a "campaign speech"), about the need for the entire Communion to say that the abuse of power against women must stop, Dr. Williams noted the applause with which the plenary responded to the assertion that such violence "should be right at the top of the church's agenda".

Abuse of Power

Dr. Jenny Te Paa, Principal of St. John's Theological College in Aotearoa (New Zealand) spoke to the methodology of the day's discussion. The issue of the abuse of power, she observed, is complex and multilayered. To make it manageable in the time available, the planners chose to look at the subject through "one specific lens, the lens of physical violence".

The plenary program began with a drama presenting Jesus' attitudes to women in the Gospel. Many, including men, Dr. Te Paa said, were in tears at its end: this was a moment in which they had heard the Scriptures afresh.

Then the story of the rape of Tamar was read from II Samuel 13. That narrative, Dr. Te Paa said, opened up "myriad questions" about the way men behave, and about the way women behave; it is "a story about all of us". The plenary divided into discussion groups, which dealt with scripted questions presented in seven languages. There has been "grizzle in the groups", she noted, when time was called. In response to a question, Dr. Te Paa said that men and women met in separate, facilitated groups, which asked both how the story speaks to us, and who Tamar is in our communities. The goal was to ask how the church experiences the abuse of power, and how it will address it.

Ministry begins with scrutinizing our own household, Dr. Te Paa concluded. Many participants had approached the organizers during breaks to "express their profound gratitude".

Social Transformation

Dr. Maria Akrofi from Accra, Ghana, the wife of the Primate of West Africa, said that the church is "one of the best agents for social transformation": but in order to be effective, those in the church need to be trained for it. People do not necessarily jettison their own baggage when they enter the fold; therefore it is important to engage a subject like domestic violence on both the personal and global levels.

"Power, for me, is like fire", Dr. Akrofi continued: it "can be used destructively, or constructively". Because power can be misused, "it needs to be contained". And when the person who perpetrates it is also her pastor, to whom can the woman look for help?

Domestic violence can be verbal, physical, psychological, or spiritual. It is a global phenomenon. While in the West it most often occurs behind closed doors, in Africa the whole village knows when a couple has argued.

Dr. Akrofi asserted that women were often other women's worst enemies, that often another woman was behind men's problems. It is women who raise both boys and girls, and it is the different ways in which they are raised which often gives rise to abuse. Dr. Akrofi called for change "at the level of parenting".

Women who have been abused experience a downward spiral, Dr. Akrofi observed, even in First World countries: who can help them? In Ghana, the government has initiated programs for intervention, and for the provision of legal representation of women. But women need to be taught about their rights, in ways that help them overcome their hesitation, embarrassment and fear at report someone they love. Asked how men are responding to the government initiative, Dr. Akrofi said "they are toeing the line", but that there is much abuse that remains hidden.

Rape is a major problem in Africa, Dr. Akrofi noted, especially in war-torn areas. "And where are we?", Dr. Akrofi concluded.

Dr. Akrofi said in response to a question that all those who have resources for dealing with domestic violence had been asked to check in, so that a list could be made, and that each Province would be given assignments.

Responding to another question, Dr. Akrofi acknowledged the causative and consequential connections between HIV/AIDS and mental illness: the mentally ill are vulnerable to exploitation and consequent infection, while HIV/AIDS may lead to mental illness. The church, she said, is a little pasture. The sheep must go out from it, to interact with the world, but when they do there is danger that they will be dispersed. There is a need, she said, for training programs to counteract the taboo against talking about sex.

Asked about the impact of the day on the African bishops, Dr. Akrofi observed that "some have not thought deeply about these issues", for it was generally assumed that their wives would deal with women's and children's matters. The day will not easily be forgotten, she commented, and networking links are being formed.

One reporter asked if this lack of awareness might be part of the difficulty of African bishops with regard to gay issues. Dr. Akrofi answered, "possibly", but went on to say that the church has the Bible as the center of its message, and that it is not wrong to tell people to tell people that this is wrong. But "we have to show Christian love and charity", she insisted, " - and that has not come through". A hundred years ago gays were persecuted in the West, she noted, but that has never been the case in Africa.


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