I went to the dentist the other day and came away with a very sore mouth, yet I felt well looked after and at the time I seemed to have had more than satisfactory treatment, and I was happy with the plans for future treatments. Looking back the pain was as much as it would have been if someone had punched be in the mouth (or at least what I imagine that would be like as an adult, since the last time it happened to me I was 8).
The thing is, the dentist (actually that's a misnomer, it was a periodental specialist) was very kind and helpful and efficient and, well just nice to me, even as she stuck a 9mm spike down the gaps between my teeth and my gums - yes, ouch! Then she gave me some inter-dental brushes which are supposed to help the problem but actually make my gums bleed a lot. Yet I still feel that I was well looked after (even after I'd paid the bill).
So I reflected that Rowan Williams and the Anglican hierarchy need to use the same skill, of inflicting pain on people and giving them tough things to do in the future, while at the same time being able to convince them that the actions and decisions of the church are for the best, are right and will be beneficial in the long run, and making them feel part of the process and an important part at that.
Whether it is the issue of gay bishops or women bishops, there are going to be some people at the Lambeth conference who will be in pain, just as there were at General Synod last week. Decisions will apparently not be made at Lambeth but there will be lots of talking. The task of the Archbishop will be to be like these people's dentist - to acknowledge that it hurts but to be so loving and humble and well organised and presentable that those in pain (the patients I suppose we could say) still feel positively about being at Lambeth, and about being Anglican, and so will stay on board.
Bad dentists lose their patients, but Rowan Williams is not a bad Archbishop, so he needn't lose people over all this stuff. I hope that those who have apparently decided to "go private" at GAFCON might also see that the surgery they are thinking of leaving still has a place for them.
Good dentists usually have good receptionists. Perhaps the welcome team at Lambeth might be prevailed upon to ensure that Gene Robinson does let some other people get on the telly occasionally!
Of course the other parallel is that my teeth are in such a state for two reasons; one is genetic and the other is because I haven't looked after them as well as I might have done.
Where we are now in the Anglican communion, with traditionalist theology and bishops coming over from Africa and Asia and what used to be called "the colonies" surely results in part from the theology of the missionaries who went out to the colonies in the 19th century and planted churches. Some of their opinions about (for example) homosexuality arise from their own cultural and historical experience (what one might say is genetic) and some of it arises from the theology and ethics imparted by faithful missions over many decades.
But we didn't look after them very well over time, as now, back in the West liberal theology has come to the fore (not that there is no conservative theology there nor that there is no liberalism in (say) Africa), and so we are behaving like a dentist who says "Well, I told you to do that to look after your teeth then but now I have changed my mind and it doesn't matter any more, let them rot."
There used to be a dental hygiene campaign with the slogan "ignore them and they'll go away." (i.e. your teeth). It seems to me that cannot be said of any of the vocal groups making noises about the Communion, sexual morality or the historic decision of the Church of England to pave the way for Women in the episcopate.