by the Right Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool
In the middle of the city of Nairobi you can find the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage. Here baby elephants, rescued from Kenya’s wildlife parks, are nurtured and fed and re-socialised and returned to the wild in a state to communicate and to flourish without going rogue.
I know this because last week I stood, as part of a group of bishops mostly from North America and Africa, to watch the elephants being fed their milk. I was in Nairobi for the eighth meeting of the Consultation of Anglican Bishops in Dialogue, an informal and unofficial gathering of men and women who have been meeting in one form or another since 2010 for prayer, listening and engagement across some of the divides of the Anglican Communion, geographical and theological. Bishops were present from Canada, Kenya, UK, Ghana, US, South Africa, Tanzania and more. Last year we were in Ghana; next year we hope to be in Canada.
Our trip to the Orphanage came after three days of focused conversations and theological presentations in which we sought to learn from each other and to understand one another’s contexts. This year’s theme was “Harambee” – a word used by Kenya’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta as a way of persuading and aligning people; it means something like “all pull together”, “lift together”, “forward together”.
When bishops of the Anglican Communion meet, there will probably be elephants in the room. These elephants certainly get in when major issues of division or concern are ignored or never grasped or shared; for example, issues of global North/South inequality, or issues of human sexuality, or issues of Communion power politics.
These issues are real, and in Nairobi they were named as real, by people sitting at a table and looking into one another’s eyes; not by organisations or committees firing off press releases or generalised anathemas or blogs from a like-minded cyberspace. In the room, the truth was spoken hesitantly, interruptedly, tentatively, gently, in context and in love. And the more this happened, so the clearer the elephants became, and they were smaller than any of us might have thought to start with, until there were just one or two orphans left.
We did not try to starve our elephants to death by pretending that they were unimportant or non-existent. If we had tried that they would have grown and become rogue, as they so often do. Instead we each described them as we saw them, and we paid attention to them in the context of worship and study and mutual affection, in the belief that if we did this they might help us and not trample us. And as far as I could see, that was what happened.
Churches seeks to reflect the love of Christ and they do so imperfectly. In England, in this week of the clear-sighted and sharply critical report into the deeds of Peter Ball and their aftermath, we’ve seen once again the potential for collusion and deceit and confusion that goes with any spiritual authority.
The Church can be a broken and dangerous mirror for the reflection of love and truth, not just through the sins and crimes of a few, but institutionally also. David Ison wrote in Via Media earlier this month, “…bishops can carry a huge weight of expectation, being given an almost messianic level of responsibility for shaping the life of the Church and leading its mission in individual isolation.” When this happens, and still more when bishops collude with it for the sake of power or prestige, then the structures of the Church can become unreal so quickly. Then those structures need to be shaken, and the elephants will gather in the room to shake them. We can hear their trumpeting in our Church of England as we look back to February’s General Synod, and forward to next month’s Synod and beyond it.
And there is no quick fix by which we can avoid all of this. Conversation, shared conversation, continuing Indaba, mutual listening – structures like these are good, but they can all too easily become attempts to keep the elephants safely muzzled (because of course you can never keep them from the room).
But my experience in Kenya (and not only in Kenya) is different from that. It is that a group of people can resist group-think, and stereotyping, and the temptation to spray righteousness all over one another, and can choose instead to welcome and nurture some forlorn and ignored elephants, in the faith that God will use them to feed us too. The elephant orphanage is a very helpful place, truly.
Famously at the height of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco some people came to the Bishop there to tell him to stop ministering to HIV-positive people on the grounds that they were sinners. His response has stood for me as a compass for ministry ever since: “God took the risk of becoming a human being; why can’t you?” Sitting in Nairobi last week I became aware of that response again, and I saw the risk taken, in the eyes of African and North American sisters and brothers, in the room, with the elephants. And I continue to hope that it is here that the future is to be seen, and heard, and lived, and shared.
For details of the Consultations of Anglican Bishops in Dialogue, see http://www.anglican.ca/gr/bishopsconsultation/
If you want to foster a real elephant, see https://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org