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Dispatch from Singapore: What is at Stake

Dispatch from Singapore: What is at Stake

By Christopher Wells
The Living Church
April 22, 2010

North American Anglicans, like most everyone else, will know that "the global south" is on the rise within the Anglican family, as in other families of Christians. But I wonder how many of us have thought sympathetically into the implications of this, which would require theological, historical, and "cultural" (incorporating politics, economics, race, language, and society more generally) reflection, as well as travel, in order to begin really to know, and count as colleagues and friends, our sisters and brothers, most of whom live halfway around the world, God having placed us into one another's lives in the space of the body of his Son. Who are these people, our siblings in Christ? And what has the ordinary round of "our" day-to-day lives to do with "them"?

These sorts of questions have confronted all of the participants in the fourth Global South to South Encounter in Singapore, a meeting of about 130 primates, bishops, and other participants, lay and ordained, from 20 global south provinces of the Anglican Communion, joined by 13 other "western associates" from Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, both ACNA and TEC. (Representatives from the Church of England weren't able to make it due to the cloud of volcanic ash hanging over Europe for most of the week.) For we are, in many ways, just beginning to learn how to be a communion of Christians: working together as equal partners, mutually correcting, sustaining, and accountable, within a wider ecclesial ambit of a single Body. This kind of work is by definition painful and exhilarating, frightening and encouraging all at once. We are striving to hear the Lord's voice in what often seems like a desolate land. And yet we believe, and know, that he will not abandon us to the grave, nor let his holy one see corruption (Ps. 16:10; cf. Acts 2:27).

I write now before the end of the encounter; we await, among other things, the final communiqué, which will likely contain some indicators of what to expect in the near term with respect to the Anglican Covenant, as well as the shape of mission partnerships and theological education between "south" and "west." Above all, however, I expect that it will attempt to set forth constructively an intra-southern agenda for church growth and maturation more or less in a non-reactive mode to the present crisis of the Communion, which is largely taken as western induced. Thus Archbishop Henry Orombi of Uganda (via his representative, the archbishop himself having been stranded in London) invited on Wednesday the global south to commit itself anew to mission over the next ten years, with a goal of doubling the size of each province. To accomplish this he proposed reinvigorated evangelism and church planting, along with increased "regional collaboration" among and between global south Anglican provinces as well as ecumenically.

In this light, it has been fascinating to watch the shifting emphases of various speakers with respect to "western" Anglicanism, reflecting a more or less formal alienation that unfortunately is much in evidence here, not least through the apparently close ties between several southern provinces and ACNA leaders, led by Archbishop Robert Duncan and several others. The Nigerian Archbishops Peter Akinola and Nicholas Okoh kicked off the encounter in a fairly confrontational mode. "To deny [the fundamentals of the faith] is to abandon the way; it is apostasy; it is 'another gospel,' which is condemned in Scripture," thundered Okoh in the abrupt final sentence of his opening thematic address on "The Gospel of Jesus Christ." And similarly Akinola, via the searching questions of his homily at the opening celebration of Holy Communion: "If the churches in the global south sign up [to the Covenant], would they then become a new Communion? Wouldn't that further polarize the church? On the other hand, the churches in the global south cannot forever continue to merely react to the actions of the western churches. If TEC for political reasons chooses to sign - and we can't stop them - but continues to disregard the mind of the Communion on [matters of sexuality] that have caused us so much grief, it will make nonsense of the whole exercise."

The next day, however, quite different strains began to emerge from the southeast Asian bishops Rennis Ponniah and John Chew of Singapore, the former in the first of a series of morning Bible studies and the latter in a lecture, both given to contemporary appropriations of Isaiah in a devotional and ecclesiological mode, jumping off from Isaiah 42:6 for which this encounter is named: "I will make you to be a covenant for the people; and a light to the gentiles." Isaiah's exilic lament, recurring throughout the book, is placed alongside God's response in the form of his suffering servant, whose passion prefigures our Lord's, as the New Testament insists. And this passion becomes the means for our own sanctification in turn - as a "beautiful strength" that does not crush or snuff out, is not triumphalistic or coercive, but rather powerless, born of weakness. This is a power that "wins over" rather than "taking over," said Bishop Ponniah; and it is compassionate in its "indefatigable constancy." Accordingly, the first and recurring, most basic point in Isaiah would have us discipline human assertiveness at the feet of divine majesty. "The center of power is not Washington or Beijing, or for that matter us at this conference," noted Ponniah. "It is the Lord on the throne" (see Isa. 6:1).

What to make of these contrasting emphases? Time will tell; and, again, the encounter is not yet completed. Still, several points may be made.

I believe that most Episcopalians and Anglicans in the United States and Canada would be shocked by the extent to which many, if not most, Anglicans of the global south presume that their formal, ecclesial relations with TEC and the Church of Canada are over. Declarations of broken or impaired communion of course tumbled quickly from the mouths of southern church leaders following Gene Robinson's confirmation and consecration in 2003, and those divisions have not been overcome; on the contrary, they have hardened, as we have all made excuses and our love has grown cold. Now, seven years on, after great labor - study, conversation, debate - and expense, as well as apologies for lack of consultation (if not so much for consecration) and other assurances, that TEC would charge once more into the same breach confirms to most of the world's Anglicans that we do not care about them, that we are unaccountable; and moreover, and more seriously, that we are embarrassed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and therefore effectively are post-Christian. How else to understand our self-indulgence and moral decay, amidst a larger lack of missionary or evangelistic zeal, materialism, and so on, they ask?

For these voices, a major question is: What form should Anglicanism take in the future? And bubbling under the surface (for the most part) is another, more uncomfortable question: can Canterbury/Lambeth, as well as the Church of England, be trusted going forward, or not? If not, then "global south Anglicanism," presumably in the mold of Gafcon and the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, becomes something non-western because post-western, whatever that may mean. And here begins a reaching for new language as the old no longer serves, even in the teeth of paradox - as in our having sung at Holy Communion yesterday that missionary classic, "In Christ there is no East or West, in him no South or North."

The western gesture is, however, meaningful for most of our southern brethren. Certainly profound cultural and historical differences between us remain, right alongside increasingly awkward and unresolved similarities. As I write, the hauntingly beautiful voice of the muezzin calls out from the mosque one block over from my hotel, piercing the dusk of this humid night, in a bustling city of nearly 5 million, just 15 percent of whom are Christians (for the record: Muslims also are just 15 percent, while Buddhists make up the majority at 45 percent): a reminder of where I am, to be sure; although this city might, for all its wealth and commercialism, be taken for a kind of tropical, more brown-skinned, cleaner London: a strange place for the Anglican "south" to reiterate its formal alienation from "western" consumer capitalism, but never mind. The one world presses in on us, and from one perspective it is hard to know anymore where any of us are from, or even who "we" are. East and west, south and north, have indeed joined hands in many ways, not all of them edifying. And yet there is, in our shrunken modern world, a glimmer of the old call - as old as Abraham, to whom God revealed his plan for "the nations": a covenant, fulfilled precisely "in Christ," as the old hymn avers, who even erases the distinction between Jew and Gentile (see Gal. 3:28). "In his flesh" Christ himself "has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us ... thus making peace" (Eph. 2:14-15).

A strange thing, this teaching, as we know it to be true, by faith and sometimes by experience, and also know it not yet to be true, or not fully true. Just so, the Church lives (and dies) in contradiction with its own identity, until it has finished "completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his Body" (Col. 1:24).

This, it seems, must be the key for the Anglican Communion, as for the Body, going forward: that we rejoice in our sufferings for one another's sake, as Paul says, beginning from a place of utter dependence on the Lord. Accordingly, the first task for all must be repentance. "We in the Global South and the Anglican Communion have sinned. We are deeply estranged one from the other," observed Archbishop Okoh. What to do? "Everyone thinks it is the other person who needs to repent; but it is all of us." We must, therefore, "pray for a new Exodus," he said, in a moment of convergence with Archbishop Chew, who suggested that it can't first of all be a question of "who is right or wrong" but rather allowing ourselves to be drawn into and formed by the depth of Isaiah's sacrificial plea: "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence" (Isa. 64:1).

If the leaders of our Communion, ordained and lay, would turn away from this vocation, perhaps because it seems abstract or not especially important for our Christian lives, then we have no business with an Anglican Communion of any shape or size, and already have betrayed her, and our Lord as well. "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand" (Matt. 26:45). And for our ignorance, we will have merited its mirror reply: "I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers" (Matt. 7:23).

It is not too late, however, to turn again to the Lord, individually and all together-to "set" him before us; "because he is at my right hand I shall not fall. My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also shall rest in hope" (Ps. 16:8-9; cf. Acts 2:25-26).


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