What do these churches have in common?

One of my reasons for coming to study in Cambridge, England was to learn more about the Church of England. I got to work this past Sunday.

I went first to Holy Trinity Church solely because it is the church where Max Warren was once the vicar. As a result, I expected it to be a good representation of the evangelical wing of the C of E. It was. There was no liturgy to speak of. The music was from a band, not an organ. There was lots of hand- and arm-raising during the worship. The church was quite full and I was close to the average age or a little older. The sermon was a close exposition and teaching of a Biblical text. No one wore vestments. The dress among the congregants was quite casual.

Following the service, I walked 500 feet (or less) down the cobblestone streets to Great St. Mary’s and into the end of the matins service. The priest was giving a sermon about the faith and public life. He wore vestments, as did the choir. The music came from an organ and the hymns were easily recognizable “classics” to me. The church was practically empty. (I wondered how my Sudanese friends would react to the situation of showing up to church so late and having one’s pick of pews to have to oneself.) I skewed the average age much younger.

I’m not going to draw any conclusions on the basis of a single Sunday morning in Cambridge. The school term hasn’t begun yet and things will likely change when students return. But I was left wondering about what the common nub of Anglicanism was in each church that united them in the Church of England. And, if there is such great difference between two churches in such close physical proximity, what unites these churches with churches in Sudan or Nigeria or Japan or New Zealand?

Thoughts on a CMS Church

On Sunday, I went to church with some of the Zande-speaking students. I had thought that the service would be in Zande but it turns out that the congregation is from all over Western Equatoria province and their common language is Arabic. Worship in Arabic is one of many new experiences for me in Sudan. It’s jarring that Christian worship can happen in a language that is so closely associated with one faith.

By the standards of this trip, it was a small service. There were maybe 150 people in attendance. The building was mud brick with a tin roof and dirt floor. The pews were little mounds of a mud/cement mixture.

(At the very end, everyone gets in a receiving line and shakes hands with everyone else. I felt like a politician.)

Since the Episcopal Church of Sudan doesn’t have a common prayer book, different churches use different liturgies. Some borrow from Kenya, others from the Church of England’s Alternate Service Book, and others from places I’m not familiar with. This church had a translated liturgy and did Morning Prayer. Once they got to the pronouncement of the grace, I figured we were getting close to the end.

Ha! It turns out the liturgy was just the warm-up act for the main event: singing and dancing numbers from the Sunday school, introduction of visitors, announcements, the offering(s), singing and dancing numbers from “the youth” (anyone under age 45, it seemed), a sermon, and more. It turned into a knock-down, drag-’em-out three-hour affair of the kind I well remember from my time in Mthatha, South Africa.

The difference is that in Mthatha, the prayer book liturgy pervaded the entire service. The service was long because we had an expansive liturgy. Here, the liturgy seemed to be something to be gotten through so they could move on to more interesting things.

Sudan was evangelized by the low-church Church Missionary Society, South Africa by the high-church Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. That goes a long way to explaining these differences. (And the many other differences. I haven’t smelled even the tiniest whiff of incense or heard a single bell my entire time in Sudan whereas in Mthatha I couldn’t go five minutes in the service without being knocked out by the smoke or deafened by the bells.)

Still, it’s interesting. In South Africa, the prayer book so closely associated with the Church of England and Anglicanism in general has been enculturated and made a part of their worship in a really deep way. Here, the enculturation seems to be different – use the liturgy and then tack on the additional stuff. Both are legitimate. But one of the things that is supposed to unite Anglicans is a common style of worship. Things have felt very different to me in Sudan than they did in Mthatha and yet they are both ostensibly Anglican services.

Whatever the case, my time in Sudan has dealt a death-blow to the best idea I ever had to promote Anglican unity: synchronized acolyting competitions. In Mthatha, when I watched the 20-odd acolytes go through their paces, I was really impressed. In Sudan, I’ve hardly seen a single acolyte at all. Even a Rite-II, middle-American, suburban Episcopal church could beat these guys!

“You carry the Gospel and I’m carrying the Gospel. Let us reach people with it together.”

I was working in the library the other day and a student wandered in. He was vociferous in his opposition to homosexuality during my class on the Episcopal Church the other day. We chatted for a while and it was clear he wanted to talk about the Episcopal Church and gay bishops. But he worked around the subject for a little while.

I happened to have my little tape recorder running so I caught our conversation. I’ve corrected some of his grammar.

Him: “If there is some certain point that the two of us reach that makes us disagree, we have to come to agreement. Let us not reach it so that we will not be apart.”

Me: “But we already do disagree.”

Him: “OK, OK, you say you are fine for the gay bishops and I say no so let us agree don’t practice it, don’t practice it.”

Me: “I don’t think so [I thought about making the point about how there’s no different between a “practicing” gay person and a gay person but I couldn’t figure out how]. I think we can say that there are important things that we agree on: that Jesus Christ wants the world to be at peace, that Jesus Christ wants people to be reconciled to one another, that Jesus Christ wants poor people to be included. We can agree on all of that and say, ‘Oh well, we disagree about some things but we stay together on big things.’”

Him: “So we agree that let us live as the people of God faithfully.”

Me: “Yes! Amen!”

Him: “This is correct.”

Me: “We agree.”

Him: “And then we agree that if it is a matter of the Gospel, you carry the Gospel and I’m carrying the Gospel. Let us reach people with it together.”

Me: “Yes!”

Him: “There is not any difference between us. We agree.”

Me: “We agree. We have not reached the point where we go separate paths.”

Him: “Let us not reach that point.”

Me: “Let us pray that that day never comes.”

Him: “Yes! this is what I say.”

We then proceeded to get in an argument about what the Gospel means. But it was more in what we emphasized in the Gospel than a schism-causing matter of interpretation. And at least we were arguing about something different than gay bishops!

In the grand scheme of the Anglican Communion, this student and I are nothing special or significant. We are just two theological students with different views, committed to the same God and the same church. But I’m convinced there’s a lesson to be learned in these kinds of conversations.


I am falling behind in my effort to share stories about what is happening here.

One student came to me recently and said that he is the youth coordinator in his diocese. (“Youth” here means anyone under the age of 45, which is most of the country, it seems. I haven’t met a lot of old Sudanese.) He wanted some tips and advice on how ministry with youth worked in the United States. At some of the services I’ve been to here, I’ve seen more youth in a single Sunday than I have in a year of services in the U.S. I told this student that really we should be taking advice from him about how to minister to youth because they are clearly doing a better job of it. He didn’t believe me when I told him that when I was in college, I was essentially the only person in my 20s who went to my church every Sunday.

It’s the rainy season in Sudan and it poured on Tuesday. The courtyard turned into a pond. I suggested we add goldfish. The unpaved roads become slip-n-slides and people have trouble making it to work.

One student brought up without prompting the controversy that came about earlier this year when Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori wasn’t allowed to wear her mitre in England. He had read about it on the Internet in his diocesan office and said that everyone there was really upset that a bishop wasn’t being allowed to wear a mitre. “She’s a bishop! She should be able to wear it!” I was touched by the thought of a priest who lives on less than a dollar a day and works in a diocese that is under attack by the Lord’s Resistance Army reading about a manufactured controversy on a solar-powered Internet connection in the jungle of central Africa. He then proceeded to tell me about – and show me the bullet wounds from – the time he had been kidnapped, escaped from, and shot at by the LRA.

As much as I tire of sorghum, it’s hard to be ungrateful when I see how thankful the students are for what is really quite a lot of food.
a recent dinner

It is amazing how much the students here are hungry to be in relationship with other Christians from around the world. There are a few American dioceses that have companion relationships with Sudanese dioceses but many dioceses here are alone. There are great opportunities here.

Let’s talk about it

Although I have mostly been a student these last few weeks, I stepped into the role of teacher on Thursday morning. The subject? The Episcopal Church. I prepared by gathering data to compare the U.S.-based church and the Episcopal Church of Sudan – 110 dioceses vs. 31; ~2.7 million members vs. ~4 to 5 million – but I wasn’t kidding myself. I knew one topic would dominate the time.

I began by asking the students what they knew about my church. Immediately, that topic came out – “you have homosexual bishops.”

What followed was a really wonderful conversation over two hours about what unites the two churches and what divides us. We talked about scripture, tradition, and reason; the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral; how bishops are elected in the U.S. and in Sudan; and our experience of being students together over the past few weeks. We talked about the Archbishop of Canterbury and the extent of the Anglican Communion.

One thing that the students highlighted is that the consecration of a gay bishop in one part of the Anglican Communion has a negative impact on them. They told me stories of times when they had been mocked for belonging to “the gay church” and talked about the impact it has on ecumenical and inter-faith relations. This has also been mentioned by Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul in his pastoral letters. And yet in my experience we almost never talk about it in the U.S.-based church.

I won’t re-hash our entire conversation here because it was long and involved. I will say, however, that it was a very high-level conversation. We were disagreeing on a wide range of questions and talking about a huge number of issues – whether you can follow reason too far at the expense of scripture; what the proper relationship is between culture and scripture; what love is; what God intends for our relationships; the difference between unity and unanimity; and on and on. I stressed that I wasn’t out to change anyone’s mind but to explain how the U.S.-based church had reached these decisions.

Questions were asked and points were made in a way that showed me the students still liked me and respected me. But they were also very pointed and direct. It was also a conversation that was entirely free of polemic and posturing, which I can’t say about similar conversations I’ve been engaged in elsewhere.

I repeated the session with another group of students on Friday afternoon. At one point, one student asked, “So what’s the solution?” I definitely didn’t know the answer to that one. But I did say that the current crop of Anglican leaders won’t be around forever and that some of the future leaders of the Anglican Communion are at this college and it will be up to them/us to figure out what that solution is.

Here I am listening to a question from Samuel

On Thursday night, after compline, one of the students said he was going to the local store to get a (non-alcoholic) drink and offered to get me one. When he came back, we sat around in his room and he had more questions for me about the Episcopal Church. It felt like such a stereotypical college experience – staying up late, drinking, and talking about “deep” and “important” issues. In keeping with that stereotype, the evening came to an abrupt end when he realized he had a presentation the next day and hadn’t read the book yet.

As I reflect on these conversations, I consider them to be successful in that Anglicans were able to honestly exchange opinions and disagree but still pray together and be in relationship together. I don’t think these classes have damaged my relationships with anyone. In fact, I sense that they have strengthened relationships.

And I don’t think I would have had this kind of success had I showed up and started talking about gay bishops on day one. Instead, I had to spend time over a few weeks becoming a known quantity by eating, living, and praying with them. Then they were able to trust me and truly listen to what I had to stay, even if they then disagreed with it. It all left me confirmed in my belief about the importance of relationships and incarnational ministry, about which I have written plenty in the past and will not repeat here.

As if in confirmation of my thoughts, one student offered up this prayer at a recent compline service.

We give thanks for our brother Jesse who has come all the way from the U.S. We know that we don’t agree on everything but we see him sharing our burdens and hardships of this uncomfortable place and we know he is one of us. We pray that when he goes back he will remember this time in a different place as a blessing.

Couldn’t have said it better myself. And you can be sure I will remember it as a blessing.

Your UTO Dollars at Work

Episcopalians out there will be familiar with the United Thank Offering, a collection that funds projects around the world.

The other weekend I stayed at the Episcopal Church of Sudan guesthouse in Yei. Virtually every diocese operates a guesthouse both to generate revenue and because there are often few acceptable places for visitors to stay.

The Yei guesthouse was the recipient of a UTO grant a few years back. They used the money to refurbish their main buildings and enlarge the dining room.

People in Yei are very proud of their guesthouse. It is universally agreed to be one of the nicest ECS guesthouses in the country.

The importance of the revenue generated by the guesthouse cannot be overstated. Churches here really don’t have a lot (or any) money. All the clergy are, of necessity, bi-vocational since they don’t get paid. But the church has schools and clinics to run and buildings and vehicles to maintain. The guesthouse helps provide some of that revenue.

The PB speaks

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has released a letter about the church’s role in Sudan.

As a fellow member of the Anglican Communion, Sudan’s fragile state is a matter for our own concern…. I want to challenge us as a Church to pray for the people of Sudan, to learn more about the forces driving the violence, and to advocate for a peaceful referendum, and whatever the outcome, a peaceful future.

More resources are also online.