Justin Welby recently became the first Archbishop of Canterbury to address the UN Security Council, speaking on the topic of conflict mediation. Jack Palmer-White writes that the Anglican Communion – and other religious actors – are well-placed at both the global and the local level to assist states and UN agencies in promoting conflict resolution. Such faith-inspired advocacy can have a postive impact in international affairs.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, addressing the UN Security Council. Photo: The UK Mission at the UN.

In late September, leaders from most of the 193 member states of the United Nations gathered in New York for the opening of the 73rd Session of the General Assembly (UNGA). The centrepiece of the UN calendar, full of pageantry and the formality of high-level debates, it is a reminder that the UN is led and directed by states.

Running alongside the high-level events were hundreds of side- and parallel-events, drawing diverse groups and organisations together. The global Anglican Communion – the fellowship of Anglican churches spanning over 165 countries and consisting of 80 million members – has been recognised by the United Nations for over 30 years. It participates in a wide range of conferences, meetings and events held under the auspices of the United Nations, including events around the UN General Assembly.

But this year, the Anglican Communion’s presence at UNGA felt different. Two reasons for this difference stand out – both of which say much about the role of the Anglican Communion in the world today.

This year’s UNGA came just a few weeks after the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, became the first holder of his office to address the UN Security Council. Speaking as an expert briefer during a debate on the role of mediation in the peaceful resolution of conflict, the Archbishop – who in September 2017 was appointed as the sole religious leader on the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation – spoke of how churches and religious leaders are playing an increasingly important role in the resolution of conflicts, particularly intra-state conflicts.

The Archbishop also challenged the assembled member states to look beyond current ways of working, invest in reconciliation as a framework for conflict resolution and make its peacebuilding efforts more joined up, both within the UN structures and with other actors, including faith-based organisations. Because the church is often on the forefront of conflicts – there is a 50% chance that an Anglican will be living in a conflict or post-conflict situation – the voices of church leaders are becoming increasingly credible and respected when it comes to conflict resolution and peacemaking.

The Archbishop’s presence at the United Nations, as a leader representing a diverse global church, was complemented by the presence of a number of senior Anglican leaders, drawn from across the African continent, who used the opportunity of the assembled leaders, ministers, UN staff and other non-governmental organisations to share their experience and their expertise on a range of issues. One – a bishop representing a part of central Africa facing with conflict, corruption, exploitation of resources and serious health crises – was able to share the profound impact that church-led reconciliation initiatives have had on the local community. Using sport to bring the community together, and running workshops on peace and reconciliation, the church can be a convenor in communities where government, NGOs and the UN have limited influence.

Another group of bishops, working collaboratively on a project to prevent cross-border malaria infections, were able to demonstrate the very active ways in which churches meet the immediate needs of local communities, share information and develop long-term strategies to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Working at an inter-faith level, these testimonies of how to work with faith actors for common objectives are a powerful example of why partnership with faith actors is absolutely crucial if states and international organisations are to achieve their aims.

These two examples – the Archbishop of Canterbury’s briefing and the presence of local Anglican bishops at a range of events – demonstrate how religious institutions like the Anglican Communion can have an impact on the work of the United Nations. This presence at the global and the local level is not unique to faith actors, but the reach that they have at the local level often goes beyond that of other actors, including states themselves. Across all of the policy areas that the Anglican Communion Office at the UN engages, there is both a role for senior and prophetic leadership to speak on the major international issues of the day, and a vital voice that expresses local expertise and experience of these issues on the micro level. When churches operate in this way – walking the walk at the local level whilst also recognising and responding to the geopolitical forces at work in a forum like the Security Council – their impact can be profound.

Of course, no organisation or community works in isolation. The Anglican Communion works closely with ecumenical and interfaith partners to extend the reach and broaden the understanding of how different faith actors approach issues. Often, there will be significant overlap – take the example of the Welcoming the Stranger initiative, which began from a point of recognising that across many religious traditions and sacred texts the injunction to welcome the stranger could not be clearer. This can translate into more specific policy positions and initiatives, but recognises the strength that a theological underpinning can play in engaging faith actors.

Greater collaboration between faith and non-faith actors is vital. Part of the remit of the Anglican Communion Office at the UN is to foster religious literacy with UN partners and to produce educational materials for the churches of the Anglican Communion to better understand how the UN works. Mutual suspicion and sometimes plain ignorance can be a significant barrier to partnership between faith and non-faith actors, including UN teams and agencies. Initiatives like the International Partnership for Religion and Sustainable Development, the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Religion and Sustainable Development and the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities are playing an important role in breaking down these barriers, but there is a way to go until the potential of these partnerships is reached.

The re-emergence and growth of scholarship in the relationship between religion and international relations over the past twenty years has played an important role in putting religious actors back on the map at the global level. Religious actors such as the Holy See and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) regularly appear as case studies in textbooks and articles on religion and the United Nations. But there is more that can be done to understand the intra-religious dimensions of this relationship. Linking the global and local activity of churches and religious actors like the Anglican Communion will allow for a more vibrant and multi-dimensional understanding of the positive role that is and could be played by faith actors in the international sphere.

About the author

Jack Palmer-White is the Anglican Communion’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, leading the church’s engagement with the UN system, including the Secretariat and agencies of the UN and member states. Prior to his appointment, he spent five years as an adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is a graduate of LSE, completing his MSc in Religion in the Contemporary World in 2015. His research interests include the role of religious actors in peace and conflict, the relationship between religion and public policy making, and the use of religious language in conflict situations.

Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.