Starting this week bishops from the Scottish Episcopal Church and from all the member churches of the worldwide Anglican Communion will gather in Canterbury at the Lambeth Conference for prayer, reflection, fellowship and dialogue. As part of this the Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney has been delighted to welcome five visiting bishops from the Episcopal Church in the USA who have been spending some time with us on their way to Canterbury.

Yesterday evening a service of evensong, attended by Bishop Anne, the Primus and our visiting bishops, was held at St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral  in preparation for the Lambeth conference. We prayed for the success of the conference, for Bishop Anne and the bishops from Scotland, for our visiting bishops, and for all those attending.

The sermon was preached by Bishop Anne which you can read below.


 

The Bishops sermon from the service of
Evensong in preparation for the
Lambeth Conference

 

Sunday 24 July 2022
St Marys Procathedral, Aberdeen

 

Telling our stories

 

This year has been designated Scotland’s Year of Stories. A year to explore, read, listen to, and tell stories inspired by, created, or written in Scotland.

In gatherings of people, in museums and galleries, in schools and theatres, Scotland’s stories are being showcased and celebrated.

The people of the lands of this diocese have made a significant contribution. There is considerable evidence of the deep and long storytelling in this part of the world. From the Book of Deer Scotland’s oldest manuscript – currently on display in our art gallery), to Treasure Island, whose first chapters Robert Louis Stevenson wrote while living in Braemar, the lyricism of the poetry of George Mackay Brown, through to contemporary Granite noir – all these give testimony to the Scots’ ability to tell a good story.

Stories carry our identity, display our values, frame our hopes for the future. Now, not all of our stories are entirely true, or indeed carry any truth in them at all. Sometimes we realise this, and sometimes we don’t.

In the lands of this diocese the ancient stories have different origins – they are Scots, or Pict, or Norse – stories told through the interpretation of landscape, through carvings on rocks, through stone circles, holy wells, and pilgrim paths. The whisper of these stories remain, but the content has been lost.

We are reminded then, that stories – like people – are always diverse, and that stories have to be kept, shared, passed down, in one form or another, in order to survive. We are also reminded that stories are often controlled – some people are allowed to tell them, and others are not. There are prevailing narratives that establish norms in which some are consistently under represented, and others never find their voice. By telling stories, the powerful can expand their influence and control.

Through our stories, in Scotland, and in this diocese of City, Shire and Islands, runs the story of Christ and the Church. We might hope here for stories of consistent love and compassion, of mercy and faithfulness, of repentance and reconciliation. These stories are there, but they are woven in with our other stories, where the church has been a source of oppression and violence, exclusion and injustice. When it comes to our telling of the story of Jesus Christ and God’s mission to the world, we have not always lived out of a narrative that sets all of God’s children free.

So then, you might be wondering, what does all of this have to say to bishops as they make their way to the Lambeth Conference?

Well, first of all, in our preparations for Lambeth we have been encouraged towards three habits – that we should walk, listen, and witness together.

This week we have welcomed Lambeth visitors, bishops heading to Canterbury via Aberdeen – and it is these things that we have been doing together.

We have done some walking, becoming pilgrims – not allowing either of these to be simply metaphors, but real activities.

On Thursday we stood on the shoreline at Finstown in Orkney, and prayed for the possibility of repentance (our own, and that of others) – before walking together to Orphir, the end place of the pilgrimage of the repentant Earl Harkon of Orkney, as he worked through the spiritual consequences of having murdered his cousin Magnus.

When we walk together we ‘notice’ each other, pay attention to each other in different ways. We adjust our steps to either speed up or slow down, in order to become proper companions. We notice whose bodies are younger and fit, and whose are showing signs of aging. Sometimes we walk in silence – but often (especially with this group of bishops) there is a considerable amount to say and so lots of noise and laughter!! Then we are required to listen.

Now we all know that listening is an art. A skill.

We listen well when we are able to quieten our own story within us, to pay attention to that of another.

We listen well when we notice that sometimes the same story is told many times, but in different ways, as the story-teller turns it, and represents it to the listener. We listen well when we are not anxious about the pauses, when we have no need to speak, or interrupt, or advise the other.

We listen well when we hear another’s story, and say thank you – because we are truly grateful that this has been shared with us.

We listen well when we intentionally listen with the aid of the Holy Spirit. All of these things have been present in the listening of the bishops – one to another – this week.

 

So in our walking, and our listening, we have been practising some of the crucial habits that we will need in the gathering to come at Lambeth. Now I am not naïve – I know that there is a considerable distance between what half a dozen of us might do on the side of hill in Orkney, to what it will feel like to be hundreds of us in a university campus in over-hot Kent. Nevertheless, the wonderful companionship of these days here in Aberdeen – with people who I (mostly) did not know, has helped me to see that so much more is possible than I had anticipated.

Generally, as I have been preparing for the Lambeth Conference I have felt quite positive. The initial promise of Lambeth was that we might as Bishops together affirm something of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that would speak peace and the possibility of reconciliation into our broken and hurting world. There would be no propositions, no votes. The last weeks and days have presented me with some challenges.

First of all I was preparing for a conference that contained space to form new relationships, to walk and listen, to pray and reflect. Then the programme arrived, packed full of content and activities, so much so that even this extravert’s heart sank. As a result I have had to pay attention to my inner resistance, to be determined not to be rail-roaded, but to make sure there is space for me to be surprised by what the Holy Spirit might be doing each day, and be ready to meet those in whom I might encounter Jesus.

Then this week the bishops received details of the content of the material we will be discussing, and discovered that we will be required to take up positions and vote. There is, appropriately, much consternation about this, and as a consequence the College of Bishops issued a statement on Friday.

In response, some are demanding that we stay home, others that we might have to leave, walk out from, the conference at some point.

I have been considering my response to all of this from my present experience of being bishop of this diocese – a diocese in deep and publicly known conflict. We are a diocese that is being encouraged into mediation as a step towards reconciliation and healing.

Those of us who have been working closely with the mediators have come to learn that on each side of a divide are those who have taken up ‘positions’. These positions matter very much, but they can become entrenched and then relationships suffer. Positions assert the outcome we want to achieve.

The mediators have been enabling us to move from ‘positions’ to ‘interests’. Interests reflect not only what is important to us, but why. Interests involve feelings, and they involve story-telling, where one party listens carefully to the lived experience of another.

In mediation it is functioning at the level of ‘interests’ that opens up new possibilities, the way forward to reconciliation.

So in and through our presence at Lambeth I hope for enough personal meetings across differences and divides to enable us to move away from positions towards interests. Taking up a ‘position’ in response to others doing the same really will not help us.

For us to share interests, we do indeed need to walk and listen to each other, to be present to each other and at the same time to God.. Withdrawal is really not an option. We have to be present.

Or to use a line from another story: you have to be ‘in the room where it happens’. Over decades ordained women have been learning this. Disparaged and told regularly that the Holy Spirt could not be calling us, women have endured endless nonsense and poor processes. If we had left the room, so by default refusing to tell our stories, then it is very unlikely that we would have been where we will be next week – with 98 bishops who are women present at Lambeth. And it is this perseverance, through poor processes and the stirring up of divisions, that will enable us together to renew and refresh our apostolic call.

In the end this is what bishops are – apostles. We take up this role to remind the whole people of God of their apostolic call. And the apostolic call is one of storytelling. We are, quite literally, sent out into the world with a story – the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the story that through Jesus, God is reconciling the whole world – all people and the created order – to God’s very self.

So, Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney, pray with us and for us as we go.

Put us on your prayer lists – pray every day.

Pray that we would be true to our calling and confident of it.

Pray that we will be clothed in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.

Pray that we would know ourselves to be holy and dearly beloved, as God’s chosen people – which is what we are, as you are also.

Pray for us as we tell our stories and God’s story.

Rt Revd Anne Dyer

Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney