Monday 24 January 2011

On not being present at the Primate’s meeting

I’m going to be absent from the Primate’s meeting in Dublin. Will my presence be missed? Not in the same way as the absence of about a quarter of the Primates themselves.

I was present in Dar Es Salaam with Davis Ma-Iyalla, Caro Hall and Scott Gunn, a number of international journalists and lobbyists and a significant number of local journalists. I was present in Alexandria with a diminished number of journalists and lobbyists and no one from the local media.

Who is going to be there in Dublin to monitor events, patrol the outer limits of the meeting and influence Primates (as happened at Dromantine), or even attend the final press conference? The Global South Primates will be absent, removing the incentive to be there of those most addictive of lobbyists David Virtue and Chris Sugden.

The absent Primates will not be there to engage with their brothers and sister in plenary and group discussions, dinner table and after dinner conversations, nor in the making of decisions, prayingrotyh together or the breaking of bread. That’s one of the reasons they will not be present, of course. They refused to share communion at Dromantine, and at Alexandria, communion was abandoned.

But it is still not clear whether their absence is another stage of deconstruction of the Anglican Communion and another building block in their movement to form a separate Communion. They might portray such a Communion as a rebirth of the historical, ‘orthodox’ Anglican Communion which TEC has abandoned, or as a new international church network independent of the authority of Canterbury.

An article about the French essayist Montaigne and
research involving macaque monkeys in the Guardian review on Saturday by Saul Frampton suggested that there is indeed something of much greater significance in the absence of a number of Primates and even in my own absence from the Primates’ meeting.

Montaigne was concerned with the power of personal presence in moral life and a fascination with how people act on, influence and affect each other through their physical being. I connect this with Christian ideas of incarnation and real presence. We are more fully ourselves and more truly living the divine nature when we are more fully embodied and really present.

A team of neuroscientists at the University of Parma discovered something surprising about the behaviour of certain neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys. The neurons fired not only when the monkeys grasped food but when they saw the experimenter grasp it. These neurons have come to be known as “mirror neurons” or “empathy neurons”. Similar neurons have been found in humans.

Saul Frampton connects this discovery with the intuition of Montaigne and of David Hume who argued that “No quality of human nature is more remarkable, both in itself and in its consequences, than that propensity we have to sympathise with others”. The research has shown that humans do indeed have an inbuilt imitative, sympathetic capacity.

Frampton asks why, if mirror neurons are such an important factor in our makeup, human history is not a series of pacts, congresses, get-togethers (and successful Lambeth Conferences and Primates’ Meetings) to which all are drawn, rather than a chain of wars and massacres? Hi answer, drawn from Montaigne’s essays, which constitute not only an argument for people’s capacity for sympathy, but also an extended disquisition on how and why it breaks down, is that our ability to feel sympathy with others is directly proportional to our proximity to them.

Montaigne’s language of emotion is couched in a language of spatial intimacy: we feel “close to”, attached to” and “touched” by others. For Montaigne, human proximity is at the heart of morality. Piety is easily faked, says Frampton: “Its essence is abstract and hidden; its forms easy and ceremonial.” But “to hold pleasant and reasonable conversation with oneself and one’s family ... this is rarer and more difficult to achieve”.

This link between moral urgency and proximity is something that seems to be hard-wired within us. The scientific research suggests that mirror neurons can fire in ways that are dependent on spatial proximity. Our moral responses to others seem to be more vivid and more relevant to ourselves the nearer the other person is. Following from this, Montaigne says, is a fragile but significant fact: that the preservation of our moral awareness relies on the nearness between us.

Frampton concludes his article with a story about Montaigne meeting the Pope, showing that even the Pope was not immune from the affective influence of the nearness of others. Nor are Anglican Primates, and the decision of some to boycott the meeting has the effect of keeping themselves at a safe distance from the energies, emotions and ideas of their brother and sister Primates.

I don’t need Montaigne’s essays or macaque monkey research to tell me something I believe and know in the core of my being; that God calls us to relationship and intimacy; that getting close to other people, especially those we find difficult and who hold different views, can be uncomfortable, risky and challenging. This is the essence of the Christian faith, of the parable of the good Samaritan, the sheep and the goats, the story of the woman at the well and the power of the crucifixion itself, of Jesus standing in the same place as Pilate, and nailed between two thieves.

I expect priests, bishops and Primates (above all) to be up to the task of being open to one another, capable of trust, not blame. Archbishop Rowan sets a courageous example, opening himself to the presence of others and making himself vulnerable in the process. So has Nigerian Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon.

This isn’t an argument conservatives can ever win. One day they will have to deal with the presence of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in their Global South Provinces – better sooner than later.

The ability or inability of people be in the same room, get close, and relate to each other, is a far bigger issue than the claim that in ordaining gay priests and bishops, the Church has abandoned the historic teaching of the Church and torn the fabric of our life together at its deepest level. What tears human beings apart at the deepest level is the refusal to acknowledge another person’s humanity and enter their presence with respect and love.

Colin Coward

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  1. Truly superb Colin. Thanks!

  2. Shouldn't that be "Primates' Meeting" rather than "Primate's Meeting" - or is there more boycotting going on than has been reported? :-)

    Laurence C.

  3. "What tears human beings apart at the deepest level is the refusal to acknowledge another person’s humanity and enter their presence with respect and love."


  4. I'd suggest that what hurts even more than others not being present, is when they do turn up, believe their concerns have been raised and listened to, promises are made regarding taking action, and then they are betrayed. That is the story of the last 2 Primates' meetings. Please don't accuse others of hurtful behaviour when they are avoiding a repeat of hurtful behaviour happening to them.

  5. The ABC mingles most with those who would do him harm. He avoids the US Church like a plague (he spent a season here writing a book and met with nobody in TEC) and his mail evidently is screened by Carey regime hold-overs. Your thesis may hold: he seemed nice when he associated with our friends; lately, not so much.