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World's bishops return form global relationships

Diocese of Spokane Bishop Gretchen Rehberg, right, meets bishops from around the world. Photo courtesy of Bishop Gretchen Rehberg


The Rt. Rev. Gretchen Rehberg, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane had misgivings about joining Anglican bishops from around the world for the Lambeth Conference July 25 to Aug. 8, in Canterbury, England.

As she prepared to go to this Lambeth Conference—the first one held since her consecration as Bishop of Spokane in 2017—she wondered about the value of gathering bishops from around the world once every 10 years—14 years this time—because of expense, travel and climate concerns.

Gretchen found much value, however, in meeting with the other bishops face-to-face, hearing their stories, learning about their lives and building relationships that now give her direct concern about people who live in areas of conflict, injustice and disasters.

Now she prays for specific people who are experiencing the struggles she reads about in the news.

"I also came back with a sense of the importance and value of the global Anglican Communion itself and the witness it can provide to the world," she said.

While colonialism meant that the communion was spread everywhere British and Americans planted their flags, the Anglican Communion is now in nearly every country, and in each place it has a flavor of the culture and society, she explained.

The Anglican Church is not like Roman Catholic, Orthodox or some Protestant churches. Each region has its own way of being the church. It is not a top-down hierarchy.

"The Archbishop of Canterbury is not our Pope. Our worldwide structure is as a connected church communion, with each region having its own governance, history, ways and languages," Gretchen said. "The branches of Anglicanism are not in full agreement, but in the face of our disagreements, our real differences, we commit to stay together. That commitment is stronger than the need to be right."

As about 700 bishops, plus their spouses, studied, prayed and worshiped together on the theme, "God's Church for God's World," they found that uniting to follow Jesus is more important than being right.

Gretchen's Bible study and prayer group included bishops from North India, South Sudan, Kenya, Canada and England.

In that group, a Maasai bishop from Kenya shared insight into a passage they were reading in I Peter. It says, "Your adversary, the devil, is like a roaring lion." That bishop has experienced the power of a lion roaring and shaking the walls of his house.

"It put that passage in a different light hearing from someone who has experienced a lion's roar," she said.

"In the group, we talked about the role of faith related to issues that face the world—such as climate and technology. We recognized that the way we use science and technology is a moral question. Do technologies benefit all or just the rich and powerful?" she asked.

Gretchen returned to Spokane with stories and the faces of bishops she lifts up in prayer regularly.

While each bishop focuses on his or her own location, and Spokane is her focus, "we also need to be aware of the rest of the world. We can learn from their examples as we continue our relationships.

Given the polarization in the world, it is important that I can work with, pray with and be in relationship with someone, even though we may disagree on some matters." For example, some bishops came even though they did not agree on issues of human sexuality.

"Logically, the communion shouldn't exist given the history of colonialism, multiple languages, cultures and economic systems, but we are united with Christ, and we stand together with one another in caring for creation," she said. "We take that and pray in our local and diocesan levels—working with, praying with and learning from people of different political views. If we do that, we will be changed."

As Gretchen prays every day for the bishops who were at her table, she prays for a bishop whose diocese includes a refugee camp in South Sudan.

"I hear about something on the news, and I pray," she said, adding that, when she heard news of the new president in Kenya being installed, she prayed for the bishop there. With the floods in Pakistan, she wondered how that affected the bishop in North India and prayed.

"Knowing people personalizes events worldwide, putting a face and name on what is happening," she said.

Gretchen shared some examples:

• The bishop from North India told of being arrested on a Sunday morning with others after a tragic crime in the city. Authorities entered the church and took six, including him, to jail, beating them for four days because they blamed Christians for what happened in the town.

"Christians are persecuted, tortured and killed because of the caste system, the rise of Hindu nationalism and the church being illegal," she said, observing that interfaith relationships for Christians in the U.S. are different from what bishops experience in India, Jerusalem or South Sudan, where there is persecution and oppression.

"In the U.S., secularism and consumerism are challenges to Christian faith, but that is not persecution," she clarified. "Here, we grapple with how to share the gospel in a society that is not listening. U.S. Christians, regardless of secularism, have power."

• Two bishops raised climate issues. One from the Pacific Islands told how the islands that are his home will not exist because of the rising sea level. Another in Alaska told of people having to move their towns because the permafrost is thawing.

"How can bishops in wealthier lands help those who suffer from climate change? That's a moral question," Gretchen said.

• Many bishops discussed how to uphold human dignity related to the treatment of women: Are women named? Can they go to school? How are they treated in the workplace?

"We are responsible for human dignity, to let people flourish as God created them to be," she said.

Of the bishops gathered in 2022, 97 were women, a sharp increase from 11 in 1998.

"With women bishops, there is more emphasis on relationships than being right and more importance given to being in community, doing things together," Gretchen said.

"Having women as bishops normalizes women being leaders in authority in places where that is not the norm. That can give an impetus for change," she said.

Some women bishops who attended earlier Lambeth Conferences said some male bishops had told them to go home to their husbands and to have babies.

"At this Lambeth, I never felt questioned for being a woman," Gretchen said.

Before Lambeth, bishops met in small groups on Zoom to study, pray and discuss issues facing the world to decide what the Anglican communion is called to do.

They worked on draft action plans on mission and evangelism, reconciliation and worldwide peace and justice, safe churches, environmental sustainability (climate change, science and technology and sustainable development), Christian unity, interfaith relations, Anglican relations, human dignity and discipleship.

Worshiping every day with bishops from South Sudan, India and Mexico, Gretchen experienced the joyfulness of the Sudanese bishop who sings and dances with refugees in the camps.

"Worshiping at Canterbury Cathedral where people have worshiped for 1500 years and with the singing of bishops and their spouses resonating was stunning," Gretchen said.

The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of focusing on growth and development as bishops, on calling bishops to leadership that is humble yet strong.

He also said that not agreeing did not mean that they are unfaithful.

"We can be faithful and disagree," she repeated. "We can't say, 'I have no need of you."

Gretchen added that videos of the Lambeth Conference are on the Lambeth Conference website and more will be added.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, October 2022