Justin Welby is on a flight to Juba, South Sudan.
At Heathrow on way to Juba. Looking forward to taking greetings from the churches here. Praying 4 wisdom 2 encourage them in search 4 peace.
— Justin Welby (@JustinWelby) January 29, 2014
(Well not directly. I yearn for the days when you can fly from Heathrow to Juba direct.)
It is easy to underestimate the power of archiepiscopal visits. At least in England, people are used to seeing the archbishop pop up all over the place—preaching at this college, visiting that church, giving an interview to this reporter—that we can get inured to the significance of his presence. Moreover, some people—especially in the media—want action they can report. Think of the headline: “Archbishop brings peace to South Sudan.” But that’s not what the archbishop is going for. In his pre-trip interview with the BBC, he says that the purpose of the trip is, essentially, to be with people.
There is ample precedent for archiepiscopal visitation to what is now South Sudan. George Carey, archbishop in the 1990s, made two visits to Sudan during his tenure. These are vividly remembered by Christians, even today, twenty years later. On one visit, he spent time in Dhiaukuei, a remote community that had become a safe haven for Christians and a centre of learning and evangelism for them. One woman there, remembering his visit, told me that when he came, “We thought, ‘OK, if part of our body from a different part of the world came to visit us, then the message of Jesus Christ which said, “We are all parts of the same body,” is true.’”
Carey’s successor, Rowan Williams, visited South Sudan in 2006. He spent time in Malakal, a town that has been the news recently because it has been one focus of the recent violence. When I was in Malakal in September, people unpromptedly told me about his visit and how everyone—Anglicans and non-Anglicans alike—turned out for his events.
Given all that South Sudan has been through in the last six weeks, I imagine that Archbishop Welby will have a similar welcome—if he allows himself public events—and his visit will have similar significance.
Later in this visit, Archbishop Welby plans to visit the church in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The DRC has its own complex problems of violence and societal fracture. I recently read this from a bishop of the church in the DRC:
The poor infrastructure and lack of communication systems ensure that the church is internally disconnected and lacks sustained contact with the Anglican Communion… [The church] has felt proud to be part of the Anglican Communion but feels unable to fully contribute to the communion or to understand entirely its debates. Many of the problems of poverty, war, hunger, and sickness that are so pressing for the Congolese nation do not appear to be prominent in inter-communion discussions.
(That’s from the chapter by Bishop Titre Ande and Emma Wild-Wood in the new Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the Anglican Communion.)
For many Anglicans, the archbishop of Canterbury is important for what he embodies—connection to and concern from the outside world. This is what many people in conflict zones are yearning for, the assurance that someone, somewhere out there is thinking about them. By simply showing up and listening to the real concerns of real people, the archbishop of Canterbury performs a hugely important ministry.
That’s hard for reporters (and others) to grasp. But the lesson of history is that is hugely significant for the people on the ground. And in the end, that’s probably what matters.