I am reading Rowan William’s address to the Church of England General Synod in Wau, Sudan – connected to the Internet on the solar-powered satellite connection in the church yard, in the heart of a region that was devastated during the civil war, surrounded by hundreds of school children at the diocesan school who have no other place to attend, and not far from the contested border region of Abyei, where the church is ministering to refugees from recent violence.
His words rang true for me.
Two weeks ago in Eastern Congo, listening to the experiences of young men and women who had been forced into service with the militias in the civil wars, forced therefore into atrocities done and suffered that don’t bear thinking about, I discovered all over again why the Church mattered. One after another, they kept saying, ‘The Church didn’t abandon us.’ Members of the Church went into the forests to look for them, risked their lives in making contacts, risked their reputations by bringing them back and working to reintegrate them into local communities.
And I thought, listening to them, ‘If it wasn’t for the Church, no-one, absolutely no-one, would have cared, and they would be lost still.’ It was almost a fierce sense, almost an angry feeling, this knowledge that the Church mattered so intensely. It put into perspective the fashionable sneers that the Church here lives with, the various excuses people make for not taking seriously the idea that God’s incalculable love for every person is the only solid foundation for a human dignity that is beyond question. And it put into a harsh light the self-indulgence of so much of our church life which provides people with just the excuses they need for not taking God seriously. It left me wanting to be a Christian. It left me thinking that there is nothing on earth so transforming as a Church in love.
Congo isn’t unique. I’d just had a week in Kenya, where I saw ample evidence of how the Church stays at the forefront both of national reconciliation and of practical regeneration, and how its teaching programmes blend seamlessly together the new and grateful confidence that the gospel brings with the prosaic business of releasing skills and assets in a community so that food security is improved, soil replenished by better, simpler and more responsible farming techniques, co-operative schemes established and so on – always with the Scripture-reading congregation at the centre, learning what the new humanity means in practice, always with an unquestioning hospitality to the entire community. No, Congo isn’t unique. And today especially we will have particularly in our hearts another of our sister churches that has once again been the carrier of hope and endurance for a whole people in times of terrible suffering, as the new republic of Southern Sudan begins its independent life. But what is special in places like Congo and Sudan is a Church with negligible administrative structures and no historic resources working with such prolific energy. ‘Silver and gold have I none…’ But what they have is, somehow, the strength not to abandon, not to stigmatise, not to reject, but always to seek to rebuild even the most devastated lives. What they have is the strength not to abandon.
It’s possible to see this as a “romanticized” view of the church. People are people after all, whether in Congo or the United States. Try as we might, no branch of the church is free from stigma, abandonment, and rejection. But there’s essential truth in his words that is all too often overlooked in our insatiable desire to cut down and de-legitimize our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.
What Williams is getting at is something we often miss in the West because our media are incapable of reporting on the church. While there are NGOs – religious and not – that do important work that is similar to the church, in my experience, it is only the church that can marshal the authority that comes from its size and the fact that it is led by locals, not expatriates.
I also read the latest update from the American Anglican Council, where I learned that “two stories are ‘burning up the wires’ at the moment in Anglican Church circles.” You can read for yourself what the stories are but I can assure you that neither of those stories is on the radar screen of any Anglican I’ve met in either Nigeria or Sudan – two of the largest provinces of the Anglican Communion, which surely deserve to be counted as part of “Anglican Church circles.” No, people in Nigeria were talking about the faltering security situation in that country when I was leaving. In South Sudan, people are talking about their new country, specifically, what the roll-out of a new currency will mean.
The AAC e-mail struck me as a prime example of what the Archbishop of Canterbury calls “the self-indulgence of so much of our church life which provides people with just the excuses they need for not taking God seriously.”
I wish more people had the opportunity to have the experiences that I have and to learn that the body of Christ is not a metaphor but an actual reality. So I do my best to put into words what I experience, though it is here that Rowan’s words ring most true:
I wish I had the words to express more clearly to you what that strength looks and feels like, but I can only give thanks for seeing it.
On a trip like this, gratitude is the only possible response.