jQuery Slider

You are here



An address given by Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali
June 19, 2018

We have heard already, in song and in speech, so much of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Primate of Nigeria (Archbishop Nicholas Okoh) was telling us yesterday, how by grace through faith we are justified by Christ's Person and his Work. This morning we heard about His atoning work and how we are accounted right before God and reconciled with Him.

That's true, of course. But we are not saved on our own. As we become God's children we are incorporated into the Family of God -- and that is The Church.

So the Gospel of God is not just about our own salvation but also for the forms of belonging ... of fellowship ... of worship ... of Sacrament ... of ministry ... and of oversight. These are not just incidentals that human beings have invented at some time or other for their own convenience. The Gospel has resulted in the forms of our fellowship of the Church. So God's Church follows God's Gospel. And that is how it should be.

But it is not just that the Gospel forms the Church, but also maintains the Church in holiness and in truth in the form of the Apostolic Teaching which is passed on from generation to generation; from culture to culture -- that is partly what mission is about.

This passing on and receiving, of course, has a great deal for us that is common amongst us: in essentials -- unity; in nonessentials -- liberty; in all things -- charity. I wish we could remember that.

So there is a great deal in common but there is also what can be different. How we as different people, different cultures perceive what we are receiving and passing on. There can be unique insights in what Divine Revelation has to say to us.

So there is, I believe, a feminine genius in reading the Bible. How women read the Bible can be different than how men read it, and men can learn from that. I sometimes hope that women can also learn from how men read the Bible. But we'll let that go for the time being.

Those who have experience oppression and enslavement learn, of course, from the great stories of liberation that there are in the Bible. Of course, beginning with the freedom of the enslaved Hebrews in Egypt.

And it is no wonder that oppressed and enslaved people have always found that story so meaningful for them and have celebrated it in song and poetry and in their living. Refugees can learn from the stories of exile and return.

There are so many different ways that we can appreciate what God has revealed in the Good News of Jesus Christ.

And we can learn from one another. We complement one another. It is not just that we appreciate things in our own corner but one of the values of a gathering like this is precisely learning from one another about how we see the Good News of Jesus Christ for ourselves.

This Apostolic Teaching, as it is received and passed on, the question arises, and we cannot evade it, about "new knowledge" or claims to new knowledge. We live in a fast-changing world, where there is new knowledge about many things that our forefathers didn't know anything about.

Sometimes there are claims to "New Knowledge which may not be true. So how are we in a principled way going to engage with this question of "New Knowledge," because all Truth is God's Truth.

What is a principled way? First of all, there has to be a preservation of The Gospel. What the basic outlines of the Good News are: of our creation by God in His Image ... our fallenness from God's original purposes for us ... the Plan of Redemption ... the Atoning Sacrifice that has redeemed us. All of that has got to be preserved as we engage with the world around us and with new knowledge that we may face.

Secondly, there has to be conservation of the past. We cannot throw it all out. For instance, how we think about the unborn child, we have to think of how the Church has constantly -- for 2000 years -- opposed abortion and infanticide in any form.

However attractively this might be presented to us today we have to draw on what the Church has taught and done in the past.

Then there has to be continuity of principle. Whatever we may think about how the world has come into being, and how it is developing and the emergence of life, we cannot deny those twin things in the Bible about freedom and responsibility.

Everything hinges on our failure to exercise our freedom and our responsibility and how we are to be saved from the consequence of it.

Now the question does arise in the Church, and has arisen many times -- this is not the first time that it has arisen -- Is something that is happening in the Church, or in the world, consistent with the Gospel of God and with the Apostolic Teaching?

With us it has arisen in a sharp form on the question of human sexuality. How are we to tell what is the Apostolic Teaching in this context ... in this situation?

First of all, people have said: "Well we can settle the matter by asking 'What is it that has been believed everywhere, in all places, by all people'?" (the Vincentian Canon).

Others like St. Irenaeus of Lyons (circa 120-202 AD) for instance thought that the bishops, if they agreed about something, that would settle the matter. Then St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) thought it was the agreement of the whole Church. If you think it is difficult with bishops, that's impossible. What if the whole Church wakes up to find itself Arian?

These things are good for us if they can happen, but they are not enough. How these matters have to be settled has to do with the "once-for-allness"- the ephapax of Scripture. That is to say authentic Apostolic Teaching in the Church can never contradict Scripture. And Scripture does not contradict such Apostolic Teaching.

The main question we are facing these days is actually about the clarity of Scripture in the situation in which we find ourselves.

Scripture is clear on matters of our salvation and our conduct -- morally ... culturally ... in different ways in which we live the Christian life -- the "clarity of Scripture."

Secondly: the "ability of Scripture to interpret itself." So, we can't just take one or two verses from here or there, but we have to allow the whole of Scripture to speak to us.

There is the "sufficiency of Scripture" in determining what is the Apostolic Teaching today in the form of our Christian living and the life of the Church. We say Scripture is sufficient as a test, as a measure, as a norm. That of course leads to the final, ultimate, immediate "authority of Scripture."

This is why the Anglican Communion has always taken the Bible seriously. First of all to study carefully the text. What is in the text? How can we establish the text faithfully?

This differs, as you know, how Muslims establish the text of the Koran. There all the variants are destroyed. But we have numerous manuscripts which are constantly being discovered and rediscovered, and we compare them and "establish the text" -- the reliable text as originally given of the Bible.

Then we also look "behind the Scripture" -- how the books of the Bible have been put together. What are the historical and literary circumstances that have allowed this to happen?

This is impossible for the Muslims to do with their holy book. They just have to accept it as it is.

Then most importantly, it has to do with what is "in front of Scripture" ... with culture, with how we relate the Bible or the Gospel of God to culture.

Yale Divinity School Professor Lamin Sanneh, who spoke to the 1998 Lambeth Conference and spoke to GAFCON in 2008, speaks in this context of the translatability of the Gospel. That is to say that the Gospel, for him, is inherently translatable. He is speaking in the African context, of course, [he was born in the Republic of The Gambia in West Africa] where he has found the translation of the Bible has actually transformed African cultures.

But the matter can be applied more generally. The Gospel can be translated into the idiom, the thought forms, the language of every culture.

Our own Anglican Formularies give us a warrant for doing this. The Book of Common Prayer, the Preface to the BCP, and the Articles of Religion all show us how the Gospel can be rendered into the vernacular and into forms of worship with which we are familiar and according to our cultural forms. I have seen how this has happened in Africa, for instance, even in the last 30 years or so.

We are committed to the contextualization, to the inculturation of the Gospel according to our own origins, and indeed, to the nature of the Gospel itself.

Then the question arises: "How is this to happen without compromise and capitulation?" The World Council of Churches (WCC) had a programme about inculturation in which it spoke of transmitting the "sense of Scripture" or the "Mind of Christ" into this or that culture. The WCC spoke of how the Scriptures inspired and informed and how they are made intelligible in particular cultures.

Well, that is one way of looking at it. Another, perhaps more negatively, is to think of limits to inculturation. How you live the Gospel ... how you worship ... how you sing in your culture -- and how I do it in mine -- how are we to judge whether this is authentically according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Whatever you do, however you do it, I should be able to see the Gospel in you. And you should be able to see it in me. When that does not happen then the Church is in trouble.

The limits to inculturation have to do with the nature of the Gospel itself and the need for fellowship amongst us. Nothing can be done that retards this fellowship amongst people of different cultures and languages.

Of course, the Church is hugely diverse. This is the greatest Anglican gathering, in terms of numbers (1,966 delegates) in 50 years. It's not just numbers, it is the sheer diversity of who's here (53 countries) which shows us what our Anglican Communion is like. But it cannot be mere diversity ... it can only be legitimate diversity limited by the Gospel itself and the need for fellowship.

(The Rev.) William Reed Huntington (1838-1909) was an Episcopal theologian -- US Episcopal theologian -- I'm glad to say there were some, I wish there were more today.

He distinguished between the Anglican "principle" and the Anglican "system."

What's the "Anglican system" for him -- he was in the 19th century -- it was was surplices and cathedrals, traditional choirs, convocation robes ... That's the system. We can dispense with "the system."

What is the Anglican principle? William Reed Huntington said the Anglican principle is the calling of the local church to be the Catholic church in its place. Of course, if every local church is going to be the Catholic church in its own place, it would have to be that in fellowship with all the other churches. It can't be that on its own, it has to be in relationship. That is what GAFCON is about, isn't it?

How is it going to do that? I believe that groups of churches can also take the name "church," of course, the local church is primary but groups of churches in the New Testament are called "church."

Fellowships of church have something of The Church in them, and then, of course, we all participate in that worldwide and spiritual reality of the Church Universal which reflects Jerusalem, Our Mother -- which is not here -- but where? Jerusalem, Our Mother, which is above! (Gal 4:26). That invisible spiritual reality, we all take part in that, we should be part of that.

Huntington set out some basic forms that are needed for the unity of the Church. He spoke of the Scriptures, of course, first of all; the so-called Catholic creeds -- and Anglicans use the Creeds more than any other denomination -- the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and even the Athanasian Creed. The Sacraments instituted by Christ Himself, (Baptism and Holy Communion); and the providential ordering of a ministry (the historic episcopate) for that Church. This came to be known as the Lambeth Quadrilateral. It's been very influential in an Anglican understanding of themselves and also as a contribution to ecumenical dialogue.

It has not proved to be enough. That's the problem. People can agree with all of that and yet disagree with the most important matters.

So to complement that we had the emergence, in the last 150 years or so, of the so-called Anglican Instruments of Unity: the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council, the Primates' Meeting, and the Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But we find that they, also...have not worked. So, what are we to do?

We have a very precious heritage that we have received by those who have been faithful before us. We have the "Sacred Deposit of Faith" in the Scriptures. We have a providential ordering of ministry. We have the Sacraments, which are not just emblems of our salvation, but a means of grace by which Christ is made present to us and formed in us.

How is that going to be expressed in our life together? That is the challenge that we face.

In our gathering together, whether in our provinces or indeed worldwide in the so-called Instruments of the Anglican Communion, we have mistakenly thought that these gatherings should be ordered by adopting a Western parliamentary-style of gathering.

The Western parliamentary-style works on conflict. It's an adversarial system. In the General Synod of the Church of England when we make important decisions the registrar says at the crucial moment: "Divide!" Divide to vote. But that is not a Christian way of gathering.

We have a wonderful heritage, and how are we going to use that in gathering together? First of all, our gathering has to be a gathering for prayer. I'm so glad that so much of our time is being spent here in prayer. Praying for one another, praying for the work that is being done, praying for the work that is to come. There has to be gathering for praise. Prayer and praise, that is what it means to be Eucharistic. Gatherings of praise.

Gatherings for mutual consultation. That is what we are doing now. Consulting with one another about God's purpose for us.

There also have to be gatherings, from time-to-time, as the need arises, for making decisions. We have to do those things; however painful they may be sometimes. To make hard decisions and not continually to evade.

Then there has to be, sometimes, gatherings for discipline in he Church. The reformers were rightly weary of the cumbersome.... and burdensome system of discipline in the medieval church. Especially with those you could buy your way out of but they never denied the need for discipline in the Church.

Sometimes our gatherings have to be about discipline and that can mean, sometimes, exclusion -- but always for the sake of restoration. Always for the sake of restoration and not for its own sake.

What can we say about what these gatherings might look like? I think GAFCON is beginning to give us a clue. The gatherings have to be about confessing the One Faith -- holding up the Good News of Jesus Christ. So we are a confessing church. GAFCON should be a confessing movement.

Secondly, they have to be conciliar. That is to say, they have to be about the proper coming together of bishops, clergy and lay people for consultation and for decision-making.

We can do no better than go to that very first council of the Church which we find spoken of in Acts 15. What happened there?

The missionaries said that as they had gone to the frontiers of Christian mission they had encountered some problems -- the including of Gentiles into the Church without them becoming Jews.

So how was this problem, that they encountered, how was it settled? The Apostles spoke ... Peter spoke ... James spoke. The Apostles and the presbyters -- that's the word -- together made a decision about what was required of the Gentiles and then the whole church joined with the Apostles and the presbyters, or elders, in sending a message to the largely Gentile church at Antioch. Well, can we do better than that?

So, if we are moving towards a conciliar form of being Christians together, of being Church together, a fellowship of churches together, we have to keep these factors in mind. Not everyone has the same task. Different people, different kinds of people, will have different tasks in the Church of God.

Throughout the history of the Church, bishops have had particular tasks. (The Rev.) Owen Chadwick (1916-2015) a great (Church of England) historian used to say: "Whenever there are bishops they will find a way of meeting."

That is because they have a particular responsibility and they need to meet to discharge those responsibilities. Primates can, of course, together with bishops, declare the Faith of the Church in a particular situation and in a certain emergency.

But then bishops, clergy and lay people need to work together so that there may be a properly balanced vision for the Church's life and the Church's mission. That is a way of being confessing and conciliar.

Then we have to be a church that is decisive; that can make important decisions together. This is what we have failed to do in the last 20 years in the Anglican Communion -- to make decisions and to stick to them.

No living together can work on this basis. So, I am so glad that we are moving toward a situation that we can make decisions together. Sometimes those decisions will have to be about discipline. Unfortunately, I wish it were not so, but in our situation, it is.

Anglicans have never claimed, of course, to be the whole Church. They have never claimed finality for themselves. Successive Lambeth Conferences have declared the provisionality of the Anglican Communion for the cause of, for the sake, of the unity of the whole church.

That's true. We need to maintain a proper humility about who we are. But there is such a thing as Anglican Identity. And we don't want to lose that.

What are the marks of our Anglican Identity? Which we want to keep and enhance and promote.

First of all, it is a love of Scripture -- of studying the Bible in a particular way with attention to its history, the Bible as literature, its background, but also as God's Word that can be applied in our day-to-day living.

Anglican Identity also has to do with our traditions of worship. The liturgy in the vernacular -- in people's own languages. That was revolutionary in the 16th century. But we still need it. How you worship in your mother tongue is different than how you worship in any other tongue.

Anglican Identity has to do with our pastoral approach ... which is not limited to the congregation but has a concern for the community around us.

Anglican Identity has to do with our moral thinking. In the Roman Catholic Church, for example, moral theology has been written largely for the Confessional. But not so with Anglicans, because how we think about what is right and wrong has to do with this wider engagement which is characteristic of Anglicanism.

Anglican Identity has to do with our involvement in public life. It has to do with our contribution to the "unity in Truth" of all Christians.

On the one hand we are humble about Anglicanism and its nature and its claims but on the other hand we do want to commend what we have of value as God-given, not only for ourselves but for other Christians as well.

We should think of the Church not as institutional but as an organism. After all that is the leading metaphor for the Church in the Bible as the Body of Christ. As the Body of Christ of which Christ is the Head. If we think of the Church in that way then we can think of movements of renewal, movements of reform, and for movements of reordering in the Church.

I believe in our own tradition all of these are necessary. How is the Church to be renewed? I am so thankful for those movements of the Holy Spirit in the last 50 years that have transformed and liberated us in our worship, in our music, and in all sorts of ways.

I'm so thankful for the missionary societies still emerging. I have just been given the book celebrating the 25th anniversary of Anglican Frontier Missions.

I was preaching at the 40th anniversary of (Archbishop) Janani Luwum's (1922-1977) martyrdom (by Idi Amin). When I look at the Anglican Church of Uganda I have to ask why is this church not sending missionaries all over the world.

Why not! That can be said of Nigeria; it can be said of Kenya; it can be said of many other churches by God's Grace and in His Providence.

But we can't just talk about renewal. We can't just talk about mission. We have to see how our fellowship is ordered in such a way that the Gospel of God is honored and the Church of God is formed and maintained in holiness and truth by that Gospel by the transmission of the Apostolic Teaching in its wholeness. The Church has to remain faithful to the Gospel of God.



Get the latest news and perspectives in the Anglican world.
comments powered by Disqus
Prayer Book Alliance
Trinity School for Ministry

Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee

Drink Coffee

Do Good

Sustainable Ministry

Coffee, Community, Social Justice


Go To Top