The Church is “the visible sign of a faithful God”, declared the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was speaking at the Church of England’s General Synod on 9 July 2011, in York. He expressed the view that those present were “entrusted with the strength not to abandon and the joy of knowing ourselves not abandoned.”
Rowan Williams made many valuable points in his presidential address to Synod, the Church of England’s key decision-making body. Yet his lack of acknowledgement of the Church’s mixed record raises some concerns.
He started by focusing on churches in Africa, in particular Southern Sudan, Kenya and the Congo. He described his experience of meeting young people in the Eastern Congo:
who had been forced into service with the militias in the civil wars, forced therefore into atrocities done and suffered that don’t bear thinking about, I discovered all over again why the Church mattered. One after another, they kept saying, ‘The Church didn’t abandon us.’ Members of the Church went into the forests to look for them, risked their lives in making contacts, risked their reputations by bringing them back and working to reintegrate them into local communities.
And I thought, listening to them, ‘If it wasn’t for the Church, no-one, absolutely no-one, would have cared, and they would be lost still.’ It was almost a fierce sense, almost an angry feeling, this knowledge that the Church mattered so intensely. It put into perspective the fashionable sneers that the Church here lives with, the various excuses people make for not taking seriously the idea that God’s incalculable love for every person is the only solid foundation for a human dignity that is beyond question. And it put into a harsh light the self-indulgence of so much of our church life which provides people with just the excuses they need for not taking God seriously.
Churches in these countries, he stated, have little money. “But what they have is, somehow, the strength not to abandon, not to stigmatise, not to reject, but always to seek to rebuild even the most devastated lives.”
What religious leaders and local Christian communities are achieving in difficult circumstances is indeed impressive. But he perhaps fell into the trap of romanticising churches in the South rather than admitting that these – like everyone else – have positive and negative aspects. This is as unbalanced as the view of critics who demonise Christianity as a whole.
For instance, some Anglican leaders in these countries have clearly abandoned lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people, failing to challenge human rights abuses and positively stoking up hostility. They have even denounced churches overseas for being too inclusive.
For instance, in 2004, bishops declared that “the Anglican Province of Congo strongly condemns homosexuality and wishes to disassociate itself from relations with Dioceses and Parishes involved in homosexuality” and warned of “active homosexuality ravaging the western world”. Such hostility was not good news for LGBT people there, already living in fear of ostracism and social penalties.
There has been some progress in attitudes, for instance in Kenya, where some Anglican leaders are speaking out against the extremes of homophobia while still disapproving of same-sex relationships.
But it is disturbing that the Archbishop of Canterbury appears to believe that rejecting LGBT people (unless apologetic about our very existence), along with those of our families and friends who fully accept us, in no way contradicts the message of God’s love for all. It is as if LGBT people (at least in the South) do not really exist.
Likewise the treatment of victims of domestic violence by churches across the world has often been less than impressive. Here, it is a less a matter of open hostility and more a matter of bolstering sexism and playing down the terrible impact such abuse can have on victims’ sense of personhood. But perhaps these too are not important enough to be noticed. The Archbishop is a compassionate person, but sometimes naive about the dynamics of power.
There are numerous community projects in the UK and abroad where, if Williams were to visit, he could meet young people who had felt that no-one cared, and were saved from abandonment through the actions of staff and volunteers. Some are run by Christian organisations, others are not.
Perhaps some humility is needed in recognising that God works through many people in showing compassion to those in need, and that Christians in any continent do not always perfectly embody the love of Christ. We all have something to rejoice in, and something to learn.
© Savi Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and a Christian social and theological commentator.