Archbishop of Canterbury addresses Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast

Posted Jun 18, 2014

[Lambeth Palace] Speaking at the National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast, the Archbishop of Canterbury says the global 21st century church must – as Pope Francis has said – be about the three P’s: prayer, peace and poverty.

In this clip the Archbishop describes recent visits to the DRC and South Sudan, praising churches on the ground who even as they bury their own dead – and care for others caught up in brutal conflict – are calling for reconciliation.

“A 21st-century global church loves the poor and the victim, and stands for human dignity, challenges oppressors and supports victims. It speaks for women killed in lynchings called ‘honour killings’, or for those imprisoned under blasphemy laws. It does all that despite its own suffering. Truth and love embrace,” the Archbishop told the 700-strong audience at the National Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast in Westminster this morning.

The Archbishop’s talk was the first time an Archbishop of Canterbury has addressed the prayer breakfast in its 20-year history. Also for the first time, the event was attended by both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

Watch the full address on YouTube

A transcript of the Archbishop’s address as delivered follows:

Global Christianity in the 21st Century

Readings: Isaiah 58: 6 – 12; Acts 2: 43 – 47

“Good morning and thank you very much for the invitation to take part in this National Prayer Breakfast. . . You may have heard of the case of the bishop who went to a parish and found almost no one had turned up to hear him. . . and he said to the vicar: “Didn’t you tell them I was coming?” And the vicar said: “No, my Lord, I can’t understand – I didn’t tell anyone at all you were coming.” [Laughter]

“I’ve been to this event on a few occasions, but I never imagined that I would have the privilege of speaking at it. Stephen Timms said that I know a lot about the global church. Caroline and I are indeed travelling to all 37 provinces of the Anglican Communion, last year and this. We got back from Pakistan and Bangladesh and North and South India about 10 days ago. So really I’m much more qualified to talk about global airports than I am about global church, but there we are.

“Before I begin I also want to pay tribute to Paul Goggins, who was to be the Chair of this year’s Prayer Breakfast, before his tragically early death in January. Although our paths did not cross in parliament, his reputation as a man of great integrity, with a commitment to tackling the injustices he saw around him, inspired by deeply held faith, means that he will be sorely missed, and will be remembered with great warmth and affection for many years to come, as was shown in the parliamentary reaction to his death.

“And I am also very grateful to Stephen Timms for chairing this morning’s proceedings, and to all those who have made it possible.

“The author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, which I was given by my wife shortly after we married – I think because I was travelling a lot and she thought I needed to fill the empty hours, and which indeed I read – it is worth reading, but it does take a while… but very early on in the first volume he says this: “The religions of the Roman Empire were to the people all equally true, the philosophers all equally false, and to the magistrates – which is you lot – all equally useful.”

“Well, he was wrong. He may have been right about what they thought, but he was suggesting that is the role of religion; and whatever else the Church is, I hope and pray and we will never just be useful – what a dreadful condemnation that would be. There have been moments when we’ve fallen into that trap, and the walls of Lambeth Palace are lined with Archbishops looking useful [laughter], a bit like Hogwarts. But it’s always happened when we’ve lost sight of the fact that at the heart of being a Christian is knowing Jesus Christ, so that together as we meet with Him and share in worship, we find ourselves renewed and strengthened for the call of carrying the cross and following Him.

“The Speaker alluded to the state of the world in which we find the global Church; an uncertain world. Uncertain forces – Iraq, we’ve heard of; Nigeria, so often easily forgotten; Syria; the Holy Land; I could go on and on. And the global Church of the 21st century is in some ways always the same as it always has been: a blessing to the world, a call to Christ. We saw that in Isaiah and Acts; the fabulous poetry of Isaiah, describing a country, a place of renewal and human flourishing, of the overflowing of the abundance of God in which all benefit. The Acts, a new society created in which generosity is the watch-word, confidence in Christ the foundation, love for one another the way of living. Human flourishing, growing, suffering, hospitable, a generous church.

“The Church, though, is a suffering church in this century. It is growing and in growing it suffers. It carries a cross. That is as true today as ever, and the last few years have demonstrated the truth and cost of that reality. A couple of weeks ago, Caroline and I were in Lahore in Pakistan. Just incidentally. . . just remember in your prayers our diplomatic service around the world. We’ve seen a lot of them in the last year; they are unbelievably good and they get absolutely no credit, anywhere, for the extraordinary work they do [applause]. . . But in Lahore two weeks ago we met some of the clergy and the Bishop of Peshawar who were involved in the bomb explosion last September at All Saints Church, an Anglican church, in which over 200 people were killed. And you ask them: “How are things recovering? Are people still going to church?” “Oh,” they said. “The congregation has tripled.” It is a suffering church and a church of courage.

“In the routine list of dioceses around the world that we pray for, last week was Damaturu, which almost none of you probably would have heard of, in north-east Nigeria. I know the bishop there; that the people of that diocese have been scattered to the four winds by Boko Haram. Its bishop is in hiding and danger is all around for those few Christians who remain. The girls of Chibok kidnapped and still held were from a part of that region, which is a Christian part. The global Church is a profoundly suffering church.

“It is cross-shaped. It carries a cross of suffering, but also it carries a cross for the salvation of the world. That has always been a scandal since the first few centuries. Early doubters, attackers of the Christian Church said: “How can you worship someone who died on a cross?” But it is a scandal of which we should be proud. We boast in the cross of Christ. It tells us that each of us here – each of us, all of us – need God’s rescue because we cannot rescue ourselves. It calls us, the cross, to prayer and worship, passionate devotion to Jesus, who died for us. The Church of the 21st century clings to Christ in prayer, finds its strength in prayer and prays together. It prays with all those who will pray, and we see new communities of prayer springing up across Europe and around the world. Communities like 24/7, full of young people, serving their community, living in hardship, in order to be a blessing to the poor.

“And so the 21st century Church is very like all other churches in history. It’s unchanged because it serves a faithful God who loves and suffers on the cross, and is with us at every moment in the darkest times as well as the brightest. And it’s a united church; it’s a church that prays and worships and has its ultimate values in the faithfulness of God. It holds together, it belongs to one another, all Christians belong to one another as sister and brother, not as mutual members of a club. Through all our differences of culture… and we belong to one another not because we choose to but because God has made us that way; you can choose your friends, but you’re stuck with your relatives, and I have to tell you that all who follow Christ are relatives, so you’re stuck with me and I’m stuck with you, so we’d better get used to it.

“And that last point is essential to understanding how we act as the Church in the 21st century. We do not have the option, if we love one another, of simply ditching those with whom we disagree. To take a local issue, in the Church of England we have the vote next month on women bishops in the General Synod. It is not a win/lose, zero-sum game. I hope and expect the vote to go through, and I rejoice in that. But I also rejoice that we are promising to seek the flourishing in the Church of those who disagree. You don’t chuck out family; you love them and seek their wellbeing, even when you argue. In the Church of England we are seeking to start a radical new way of being the Church: good and loving disagreement, a potential gift to a world of bitter and divisive conflict. What can be more radical than to disagree well, not by abandoning principle and truth, but affirming it – agreeing what is right, acting on it and yet continuing to love those who have a different view?

“And so in this century we do not abandon truth, found in scripture, applied afresh in each generation. We can’t decide that there are bits of the body of Christ which are excluded. To put those two statements together is hard and always controversial. The Anglican Communion by itself – and it’s only one small part of the global Church – is in 165 countries, one of which, Nigeria, has 407 language groups by itself. We deal in thousands of cultures. The struggle, the achievement, of holding together in good disagreement sets a pattern in which truth is not a club with which to strike others, but a light freely offered for a path of joy and flourishing.

“The poor are not served by a divided church obsessed with inward issues. Pope Francis said last year, and Cardinal Vincent Nichols and I picked up and used together in the weeks before Easter, the slogan “listen to God, hear the poor”. When we listen to God we are looking outwards, not inwards to the life of the Church.

“A 21st-century global Church, with all Christians irrevocably belonging to each other through the action of God, seeking to discern truth in many thousand cultures, is a church with fuzzy edges; because in a world in which cultures overlap constantly, and are communicated instantly – and, judging from what I get, often with some friction – you need space to adapt and to meet with one another, and you have to trust the sovereign grace of God for the consequences. He comments that even 20 years ago took months to reach the far corners of the earth now, as we know, take seconds. Instant reaction has replaced reflective comment. That is a reality that you deal with in politics, and it demands a new reality of ways in which we accept one another, love each other, pray for each other. The best answer to a complex issue on which one has heard a soundbite from a sophisticated argument is not always given in 140 characters.

“The Church of this century must be a generous church, because of that communications revolution, because of technology, because we are face-to-face with everyone, everywhere, always, in a way we never have been in history. The Church is a generous church which loves truth and loves people with the overwhelming love of God in Christ. As Christians we believe that God reaches out to us unconditionally and we are to do the same for others. God has no preferences, except a preference of love for the poor, the weak and the vulnerable; the widow and the orphan, the alien and the stranger. The Church is the most effective church when it demonstrates that love. And with that love comes the obligation of holiness: of being ourselves, but not turned inwards but living in holy lives that draw people to the blessing of which Isaiah spoke.

“The Speaker spoke eloquently of poverty. And the Church around the world today tackles poverty. We are among the biggest educators on earth. In this country alone we educate nearly a million children in the Church of England, another half a million through the Roman Catholic schools. And let me say no recent problems were in one of the church schools. It is the church schools that stand for tolerance, acceptance, reception, generosity, open handedness. Education is something which the Church has done for centuries, which it held in its monasteries when the rest of the world gave up on it in Western Europe, and we do it today.

“International aid. The Church of the 21st century is among the most efficient and the best deliverers of help for the poor that exists on the face of the earth… Isn’t it wonderful, let’s celebrate what’s good – it’s easy to be cynical about politics – but let’s celebrate what’s good: that with cross-party support in this country we have maintained international aid at 0.7 per cent of GDP. [Applause]. That we have introduced – again, across the parties – the Modern Slavery Bill, leading the world and tackling trafficking, which I was talking to the Pope about yesterday. That last week, again across politics, there was support for the greatest conference on sexual violence in conflict that has existed. Those aren’t cynical vote winners, from any politician in this room; but they arise from a spirit of generosity, which is right and proper.

“Love and outward-looking should be the characteristic of the Church. Holiness, radical difference in lifestyle. And truth and love drive action and attitude. The Church in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has loved and aided the victims of conflict-driven sexual violence for many years. We were there in January, in a place of the utmost despair, in which the love that shone was the light of Christ; a tent, I remember, full of handicapped children dying, hungry and alone, apart from the church people who went in to sit with them. It was overwhelming.

“In the South Sudan, again in January, Caroline and I were there, and we were called a couple of days before we got there by the Archbishop, Daniel Deng, one of the great heroes of the faith, and he said: “Would you come up to Bor with me?” A town in the middle of the fighting zone. Well, we did, with a slight objection from some people, but we did. And we went out and we found the town that had been taken and retaken four times. Bodies on the streets, the smell of death in 40 degrees of heat everywhere. Mass graves to consecrate. And what does Daniel do? He goes on national television in the South Sudan and calls for reconciliation. Isn’t that extraordinary? Doesn’t that speak of what the Church should be? And in Sudan, the Church is also speaking heroically for an imprisoned woman and her two children, Meriam, for whom truth matters enough to die. A 21st-century global church loves the poor and the victim, and stands for human dignity, challenges oppressors and supports victims. It speaks for women killed in lynchings called “honour killings”, or for those imprisoned under blasphemy laws. It does all that despite its own suffering. Truth and love embrace.

“And it’s a forgiven church because it’s a failing church. The Church is always full of failure, and I’m sorry to say that’s because it’s always full of people. Without wishing to be controversial, you’re sinners, and so am I. I once said that in a sermon and someone came up afterwards and said: “I’d never have come and listened to you if I knew you were a sinner.” [Laughter]

“The Church is forgiven and knows the forgiveness of God, and if it’s doing its stuff, shares it in the 21st century. It knows failure and recognises the need for renewal. I saw Pope Francis yesterday… and at the end of the meeting he summed it up when he said: “Remember the three Ps: prayer, peace and poverty…”

“At its best such a Church is diversity established and accepted, forgiveness abundant, people listened to with love, prisoners set free, the poor served, Jesus loved and worshiped passionately, and that love for Jesus meaning that we recognise in the stranger the call of Christ to love; the good news of all that shared with confidence; people invited to join with us to become His disciples and feast on His love; and a community that challenges radically all the assumptions of what makes for a success through the reversal of all importance and the holding together of weak and strong… and a million more things besides.

“And lastly we are a hospitable church in the 21st century if we follow Christ – utterly at home in a world of numerous faith traditions. Open about the hope we have while listening to others. In Lent I spent some time with Ibrahim Mogra, the remarkable Muslim leader from Leicester, and we shared together our scriptures: I read bits of John’s Gospel with him, and he read bits of the Qur’an with me. Hospitable.

“That belonging to one another, being different, diverse and yet authentic to oneself and to one’s tradition and the truth, is a gift this world needs. It’s the opposite of all this Trojan Horse process. It is a generosity of spirit and openness to listen. The 21st century Church knows that the good news of Jesus Christ is a gift which is to be shared in witness. Making new disciples now is as important as it was in the 1st century, in the 6th century when Augustine came to Canterbury, in the 8th and 9th centuries during the Dark Ages and learning and civilization were brought back; at the Reformation when the rights of the individual to know God themselves and to be free began to be established through the work of the churches; in the 18th century when knowledge was treasured and developed by clergy; in the 19th century when the campaign against slavery began (and continues). The call to discipleship is always offered without manipulation as hospitality, respecting the freedom of others to say no, without aggression, and always in love. But it is offered.

“The church is not an NGO with lots of old buildings. It is the Church of God, rejoicing in the realities of cultural diversity in a way never known before: global, cross-bearing, confident and welcoming. The Church holds for the world the treasure of reconciliation, and offers it as a gift freely given out of its own experience of struggling with the reality of it, of being reconciled ourselves through the sovereign love of God in Jesus Christ. The global Church is above all God’s church, for all its failings, and in passionate devotion to him will offer the treasure He puts in our hands, unconditionally, always pointing in worship, deed and word to Jesus Christ.