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Listening to colleagues at Lambeth brought more unity that legislating

Episcopal Bishop Jim Waggoner and his spouse, Gloria, appreciated that the Lambeth Conference last summer was a time of listening rather than win-lose legislating.

By listening, they said they gained many helpful insights into the lives of people in different areas and made connections with people from around the globe during their first Lambeth Conference.  It was held from July 16 to Aug. 3 in Canterbury, England.

Jim and Gloria Waggoner
Bishop Jim Waggoner and Gloria Waggoner

The nearly 700 Anglican bishops and more than 500 spouses, representing 38 provinces in 134 countries, dispelled misperceptions and myths, said Jim, who is in his eighth year as Bishop of the Diocese of Spokane.

Most of the 135 U.S. Episcopal bishops attended Lambeth, despite disagreement over ordination of women and gays.  For 120 U.S. bishops, including him, it was their first Lambeth Conference. 

“Many expected few U.S. bishops would come,” he said.  “It was positive that so many came despite disagreements.”

“We have to be responsible to each other.  We do not live in isolation.  What we decide in the church and do in our daily lives affects others,” Jim said.  “We tend to live as though, if we don’t see what’s happening, it does not matter.”

At the Lambeth Conference, he and Gloria met and learned of people who live in communities that are often threatened by invading terrorists who think nothing of maiming or torturing people.

Jim realizes both from Lambeth and from diocesan outreach that small amounts of money can make a difference.

For example, a congregation of 14 in Dayton sent $300 to support an African program for feeding babies. 

Another congregation has a bike ride to raise money for clean water overseas. 

A local group has discovered an invention to clean village water.

Jim believes more people would do more if they knew practical ways to help.

“Young people around the world don’t want to know what we believe,” he said.  “They want to know what we are doing.”

In that spirit, bishops at Lambeth chose not to adopt some common standard across the Anglican communion that would exclude some.  In listening to and respecting their differences, they moved each other to deepened commitment and actions appropriate in their unique settings.

While bishops met for morning Bible studies and worship, their spouses had their own studies and worship.  They attended some events together.

Meeting in a small group with three women from Sudan and three Americans, Gloria learned that some Sudanese lack access to clean water, education and health care.

One spouse said rebels crossed the border, raided her village and mutilated children and adults.  Another has to walk through a minefield to go to the only source of water, which is not even clean.  Women going for water may be raped or maimed. 

Gloria also gave a keynote speech there on the environment, offering tips on changes people can make in their daily lives. 

Her talk considered daily life issues, poverty, insect-borne disease and other challenges in communities around the globe.

“One initiative from the discussion was a call to plant trees to counter carbon emissions,” she said.

In addition, she suggested alternatives appropriate in other countries, such as using vanilla flavoring as a mosquito repellent.

Gloria also expressed concern about use of  pesticides in mosquito nets for children.  She urges eliminating mosquitoes by eliminating their breeding places in standing water or still ponds.

“We need to view the earth as part of an integrated natural system that includes insects, rather than trying to control nature with pesticides and herbicides.”

She encouraged bishops and spouses to urge their governments to change laws to create safer environments.

“Bishops’ spouses can also set an example and can talk to people in their communities about healthier ways to live,” she said.

In the Spokane diocese and other dioceses, Gloria talks with groups about ways to take responsibility.

Jim’s Bible study group included Anglican bishops from Sudan, Tanzania, South India and England, and a Lutheran bishop from South India.

Jim gained appreciation for those connections and other conversations with bishops, “being there in the flesh, communicating face-to-face, from all perspectives to clarify who we are and to correct misconceptions,” he said.

Discussing Jesus’ “I am” sayings—like “I am the bread of life” or “I am the light of the world”—the bishops and spouses “came to conclusions on the biblical truths,” Jim said. 

“We could agree on what Jesus said, but we each interpret the truth in our different cultures based on our values, history and contexts,” he said.

For example, a bishop from South India said what he could say was limited by the government and religion.  He has to interpret concepts so they are not politically or religiously offensive in a predominantly Hindu area.

“What we say relates to sensitivity to our culture, language and symbols, but we agreed that does not change the truth,” Jim said. “I gained appreciation for the freedom and technology we have here to communicate.  Some live with political, religious, geographic and technological constraints.”

A bishop from Sudan has to walk five days to access the internet.

Jim appreciates the need for Anglicanism to take on characteristics of the cultures in its practice.

“It’s the genius of Anglicanism to reflect the local culture.  The challenge is to communicate the teachings and practices in the different cultures and still hold the communion in union, given that we are held together by a bond, not a governing body,” he said.

While the Archbishop of Canterbury is the head of the church and has a global voice, Jim said, he does not have a role of authority over bishops or their communions. 

Lambeth gathers bishops to study Scriptures, share faith and address issues that enhance and impede the church’s mission.  It is a time to ask, “What can we do to carry out the mission?  What questions stand in the way of or threaten our unity?” he said.

The bishops reaffirmed participation in ecumenical mission and interfaith work.  In some areas, there is more emphasis on ecumenism.

“Our mission is to proclaim the gospel—evangelism, stewardship of what we do with what we have, caring for creation, using our gifts and the church’s resources and leadership,” Jim said.

The bishops discussed but did not adopt a proposal for the Anglican covenant to express common beliefs and actions.  Some provisions set restraints that might threaten the unity of the Anglican communion—such as prohibiting a bishop from trespassing in another bishop’s territory or limiting further elections of homosexual bishops.

“It was not adopted,” Jim said, “because we want to hold the communion together rather than setting an agreed-upon standard.

“We were there to confer, study and listen, not to legislate,” he said.  “There’s a difference in the ethos of listening without legislating, focusing on candid conversations that build the communion and faith across the world.

“When we vote, we focus on who is right and who is wrong, who is in and who is out,” he commented. “We decided to respect our substantial differences and work together in mission in unity.”

Many from Asia, Africa and Latin America suggested that doing up-or-down votes on issues is “western.”

With open hearings, Jim found that conversations were deeper and more candid than those set in a win-lose mode.  With the Anglican emphasis on inclusion, the bishops could come to know each other and discover where they could work together despite differences.

“There is tension living that way and being open to the Spirit, rather than having a body of knowledge that defines us.  God always shows us something new, so we gain new understandings. It’s not unique to Anglicanism, but it’s part of who we are as Anglicans.”

In the U.S. church, those tensions relate to all issues, Jim said, not just human sexuality.  They open people to hope and possibilities, as well as to discomfort and tensions.

The greatest struggle for him is learning to be the church in the 21st century in a “globalized” world and using resources for mission to feed the hungry and care for creation.

He realizes that living into a vision of what the world and the church can be means that people will not be of one mind.  Conflict on cultural issues can distract from the church’s broader mission and unity.

“Some will use issues for power, control and advantage, to forward their agendas rather than God’s,” he said.

For a bishop from the Solomon Islands, discussion of human sexuality seemed like an academic luxury while his island nation is being flooded because of global warming.  For bishops in India and Sudan, the lack of drinking water, health care and education are priorities.

Some matters work out over time, Jim observed. 

For example, despite controversy about ordaining women, there were 40 women bishops at Lambeth.

“Some provinces are ordaining women.  Some are not,” he said. “Why force an artificial agreement? It is now routine that there are women bishops, so some of the bishops’ spouses at Lambeth were men.”

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