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Southern Africans star in the global Anglican firmament

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Picture: Denis Doukhan/Pixabay – South Africans watch out. You have the possibility of a black female Archbishop heading your way sometime soon, says the writer.

By Chris Chivers

Bishops from around the Anglican World are departing Canterbury in the UK following the 15th Lambeth Conference.

Global Anglicanism – one of the most influential groupings in worldwide Christianity had not met in this form for 14 years. Bishops representing 85 million Anglicans in 165 countries usually meet every ten years. The last such occasion was in 2008.

2018 should have been the date but was ruled out by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, because he thought the risk of further fracture in the communion was too great. Work needed to be done and, as a gifted reconciler, he sought to do it. 2020 was then set as the date, but Covid-19 intervened then and also in 2021, so 2022 has been the year.

Justin Welby has, in the estimation of most, played a blinder. The bishops have met in retreat, been strengthened in bible study on the First Letter of Peter – a key text for those who lead communities and for all disciples – and crucially in worship together.

‘Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi’ the ancient Latin saying goes. ‘As we worship, so we believe, so we live.’ Many Christians subscribe to this, but Anglicans have taken such an approach to theology to a whole new level. Worship for them is the essence of how they discover who God is, what God’s will might be for the world and how they can learn to live together as a church to serve the world whilst they disagree on the interpretation of some of this.

Welby gets this completely and although Anglicans from some African provinces – Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda – did not come to the conference at all, these are, of course, from some of the most common conservative contexts in relation to one of the issues that must divide Anglicans, namely that of human sexuality – the bishops have studied, prayed and worshipped together.

‘The family that prays together stays together,’ is another maxim that defines life for Anglicans. It’s certainly worked globally. Hats off to the Archbishop of Canterbury for pulling off a feat that few thought possible. He has got Anglicans to continue to live together in generous disagreement with one another. This isn’t reconciliation. He knows that. But it’s a necessary first – and perhaps best – step along the way.

Whether he can keep the Church of England itself together in the same way, at least in its current Established Church form, is another matter. Since the established church in England is now so far from where the people of the nation are on the issue, for example, of gay marriage – which the church refuses to solemnise its blessing but which most simply accept as a welcome reality – that it faces a stark choice.

It must either cease to claim to be the Church of England and simply become a disestablished church in England like any other, or it must somehow respond to the wishes of the nation. This is what established means, being a church by general consent and embrace gay marriage.

So there are dark clouds on Welby’s own horizon. But no one should take away from him the plaudits he deserves for his personal generosity, warmth and wisdom, and the impact his service and hospitality have globally. He’s liked and respected. He’s done extraordinarily well.

Ironically, the reason Anglicans have a Lambeth Conference at all has South African roots. Bishop Colenso of Natal in the 19th century had such modern – we would now say liberal views – that the Archbishop of Canterbury then called bishops together to decide what to do and how they might take a common line.

That was 1867. Incidentally, Colenso was a distant forbear of Welby. Some irony there one feels. But behind him have been two black South Africans who have played critical roles in the last ten days and beyond.

Since the Arch bestrode global Anglicanism as the most significant star in its firmament in the years following World War 2, each of his successors has played leading roles.

Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane was the star of Lambeth 1998 – when the issue of human sexuality first came most dramatically to the fore – for the relentless focus that he ensured for Anglicans on issues of poverty and debt.

The movement to cancel the latter – which was a global reality beyond Anglicanism of course and gained momentum at the millennium – owed much to his creative and intellectual leadership.

His successor, the present Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Magoba, has a different set of gifts again but has been no less significant on the global stage.

Since the last Lambeth Conference in 2008 when, as a young episcopal member of its design group, he became known as the Denzil Washington of the Anglican Communion for his devilish good looks, he has carefully positioned himself as pastor to the South African nation.

This has been critical in times of national mourning – one thinks of the deaths of both Tata Madiba and Tata Tutu – but has been no less critical to his consistent ability to speak into complex issues of corruption and State Capture, governance and integrity, where angels usually fear to tread but where he has shown a reflective quality of leadership never strident but always coming from a place of deep concern, compassion and justice.

He has similarly played a stellar role in global Anglicanism. The chair of the Design Group for this year’s Lambeth gathering, he ensured that its agenda was as globally comprehensive as it needed to be – focusing on the issues that are concerning not just for Anglicans – such as discipleship or ecumenical and interfaith relations – but of all global citizens – like the safeguarding of young people and vulnerable adults and climate justice.

It was an ambitious and comprehensive programme that owed much to his shaping as chair of the group. He was also the face and voice of the conference – topping and tailing its sessions and making wise interventions when these were needed.

His pastoral, instinctive people skills were utilised to the full and were on display once again at the closing service. Anglicanism worldwide respects his leadership and his calm presence.

Tata Thabo was the first of the two South African stars. But, now an Anglican elder, his kindly presence will not be around forever – he has already served 15 years as Archbishop of Cape Town, more than either of his predecessors.

One of his skills has always been to grow new leadership, and in this regard, it was doubtless his suggestion that Vicentia Kgabe, recently consecrated bishop of Lesotho, preach at its opening Service.

She has already earned her spurs – anyone who can run a theological college, as she did the College of the Transfiguration in Grahamstown, and live to tell the tale – deserves the respect of their peers.

But in the charged context of the conference’s opening service – the prophets of doom about Anglicanism’s future all gathered like vultures at what they supposed would be the carcass – to step into such a situation as a black African woman and to preach as she did, sounded an early note of triumph for a global Anglican future that looks secure and engaging.

What she said was wonderful. She refocused the whole Anglican Communion on its fundamental call to give service and hospitality. She reminded all her fellow bishops that they have it in them to heal the world, but that this must also start with the healing of the church, a place of hurt and pain for too many.

She enjoined them to show love to one another, for as 1 Peter, the biblical focus for the conference, wisely states, “love covers a multitude of sins”.

She preached from the heart of African ubuntu that to show hospitality and welcome others – not least those unlike you, strangers as well as friends, to welcome them into your space means being attentive to them not you. And it means the possibility to be changed by the encounter.

It was mesmerising stuff. But the manner in which she said it. Wow! South Africans watch out. You have the possibility of a black female Archbishop heading your way sometime soon.

She has the finest of minds, star leadership qualities, and rock-like integrity to shake the foundations of the nation and also heal it. Choose her when the time comes and the future not just for the Anglican Church but for South Africa’s national and indeed international landscape will be very bright.

Chris Chivers teaches at UCL Academy in London. He was formerly precentor of St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.