Rarely is the question asked: is our priests learning? Part II

In the last post, we thought about one set of objections to the current system of seminary education: why do priests need to learn all that stuff anyway? But there are other criticisms you hear as well, and they are of a more practical nature. They go something like this: it is unreasonable to expect people to uproot themselves to go to seminary; seminaries are too expensive and leave priests saddled with debt; no one goes to seminary anymore.

What we’ve learned in our work on the Berkeley Board of Trustees is that many of these views are, well, simply wrong. The seminary deans commissioned a study from the Church Pension Group to see how many priests currently active in the church went to seminary. The answer? Well over half. A significant percentage of the rest went to a non-Episcopal seminary. Locally (i.e. non-seminary) -trained clergy were a small minority. More significantly, of those priests who were in full-time parish ministry more than five years after graduation almost eighty percent went to an Episcopal seminary. Seminary-trained clergy are at the heart of the church’s presbyterate. The idea that “most priests don’t go to seminary any more” is a canard. (You’re going to have to trust me on this figures, as the presentation is not online.)

True, many seminaries have experienced periods of financial difficulty in recent years, leading to mergers and the possibility of closure. Such things have happened in the past, of course. Seabury-Western, one of the seminaries that merged, used to be two schools. (No prizes for guessing what the names of the two schools were.) Moreover, the idea that General Convention can somehow reduce the number of seminaries (as has been proposed) is silly. Virtually all Episcopal seminaries (unlike those of other denominations) have no formal link with the churchwide structure. We have a system in which seminaries will rise and fall on their own (financial) merits, as they have in the past. This has led to major changes in recent years but as Joe Britton, dean of Berkeley and convener of the Episcopal Council of Deans, said in an article in Episcopal Journal (which doesn’t post individual articles so I can’t link to it) a year ago, “Reports of the death of the seminaries are greatly exaggerated. We have good news from the Episcopal seminaries.”

One issue that recurs in conversations about seminary is that of debt. The line of thinking is that it doesn’t make sense to send priests off for formal professional training that costs so much they’ll be paying off loans for the rest of their career. This is a really important issue, particularly the less-talked about issue of older students who liquidate assets to finance their education and then don’t have money for retirement. To an extent, this conversation is based on a misconception that seminary is expensive. It is, but there’s often financial aid to help out. (Berkeley, for instance, off-sets on average 86% of the cost of tuition per student.)

More importantly, the seminarian debt “crisis” is a result of the Church’s abysmal failure to invest in its future clergy. Our sister denominations give lots of money to their seminarians (as I enviously learned at my ecumenical seminary). The Church of England pays tuition for their ordinands and gives them a living stipend. You only have to read information from the Society for the Increase of Ministry to know that the debt “crisis” could be solved with an increase in small donations from a small number of Episcopalians. Those who point the finger at a debt “crisis” should be asking themselves what role they may have had in creating it.

Between this post and the last post, the image of seminary critics I’m gathering is something like the anti-government wing of the Republican party: anti-intellectual, critical of institutions they claim no one uses (contrary to fact), and determined not to fund something and then claiming it’s too expensive when the expense was created by the lack of funding.

Although I’m convinced seminaries are important, I’m not convinced that they’re perfect. In the final post in this series, we’ll look at some of the ways they might need to change.

South Sudan, one year on

One year ago today, I was in Juba, South Sudan for the independence celebrations of the world’s newest country. It was a huge event, and I shall not soon forget it, even if my friend here was holding his flag in the wrong spot.

It’s been a hard first year for South Sudan. Not only are there serious unresolved issues in its relationship with what remains of Sudan, it has been beset by inter-tribal violence, plagued by corruption, and unable to address the many pressing social needs of its people.

But when people ask me, as they often do, what I think about South Sudan, my reply always includes the lines, “I have a lot of hope for the future.” And I do. My visits to Sudan have convinced me that the potential in that country is huge.

I am particularly convinced of this because of the continued and powerful witness of the church in Sudan for peace and reconciliation. When Jonglei state was plagued by inter-tribal violence earlier this year, the government turned to Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul of the Episcopal Church of Sudan. He negotiated a peace deal that has held and has created the space necessary for long-term peace-building to get underway. Archbishop Daniel and his Catholic counterpart Paulino Lukudu Loro have issued a statement on their continued hopes for the future of South Sudan.

So when you read the truly horrific news that the continued violence along the border is producing another “Lost Boys”-type situation or the awful conditions in some new refugee camps, I hope that a gasp of horror won’t be your only response. On this July 9—and every other day—I hope you’ll join in prayers for this new nation, read the letter from the archbishops, and think about ways in which you and your church can support our sisters and brothers in Christ in South Sudan.

Together, perhaps, the enthusiasm displayed by this young man can soon become a reality shared by all.

What we talk about when we talk about mission in the church

I’ve written before about how the church is in need of a conversation about what we mean when we use the word “mission” in the church.

And how, there’s more, this time on the Episcopal News Service, partly adapted from my new book, Grace at the Garbage Dump:

Those first few weeks, I stayed close to our clinic and let the residents of Itipini come to me if they needed help. It was safe. “They” came to “me.” But it was an untenable and unsatisfactory situation. I hadn’t moved to South Africa to sit in a clinic all day. Gradually, I began to venture forth. I met people like Fumanekile who made it feel safe to wander farther afield. I began to think in terms of “we,” not just “they” and “me.”

I came to think of the Incarnation in a new light. By being born in a manger, God in Christ crossed the hitherto impassable barrier between human and divine and showed up in a place no one expected. Jesus took time — thirty years, in fact — to build relationships with those around him. If I was going to model my life on Christ’s — be a Christian, in other words — something of the same had to happen in my life. I needed God’s grace to overcome my fear and share an existence with people who seemed different than me and lived in a different place. Gradually, imperfectly, incompletely, that happened.

God’s mission calls us to engage the multiple forms of difference in this world — down the street or around the world — and doing so in a vulnerable, Christ-like way. It’s great that we’re talking so much about mission in the church. But if we don’t talk about it without also talking about our individual, personal need to change — the forgiveness, renewal, and transformation that comes in baptism and is reaffirmed each time we celebrate the Eucharist — and the difficulty and joy of modeling our lives on Christ’s, then it’s hard to see how the conversation is going to help us proclaim the good news of God in Christ.

Read the whole thing. And then read the first two chapters for free on Amazon to read even more about the Fumanekile, the man whose story I tell in this piece.

McCarthyism in Church Politics

Last summer, when I was visiting the Church in Nigeria, some of my blog posts got picked up by the American Anglican Council. I was accused of preaching “deviant theology” (especially for this post about a diocese trying to educate girls). I didn’t think much about the comment but I did start keeping an eye on some of the more polemical Anglican web sites out there, both conservative and not.

At the same time, you might remember, Congress was consumed by a conversation (a generous word, perhaps) about raising the federal debt ceiling. As I listened to that debate and read Anglican commentary, I was struck by the similarity in the rhetoric: scorched-earth, difference-equals-wrong, the-apocalypse-is-around-the-corner-if-the-other-side-gets-their-way, etc., etc. You know how it is.

I still keep an occasional eye on the American Anglican Council and was recently perusing their quarterly newsletter. There’s coverage in there of a recent meeting in South Africa that was—gasp!—not polemically opposed to same-gender marriage. On the face of it, this article is not awful. In fact, it’s more coverage than many other Anglican news organizations mustered about the event.

What’s chilling about it, however, is the inclusion of a list of participants—sometimes quite vague; someone “who spoke about oppression of women,” for instance—with the clear indication that participating in such a conversation was somehow an indictable offense. Forget, indictment, actually. The tone of it is that they are already guilty. It seems a clear case of judging people by whom they chose to meet and interact with.

You know who else was judged for exactly that? A Galilean carpenter. That same Galilean carpenter who once stopped at a well in Samaria of all places for a drink, a place where no one expected him to be, and talked with a woman, someone he wasn’t supposed to be talking to. And the result? Transformation, for the woman and her town, as she became the gospel’s first evangelist.

My travels in the world church have repeatedly prompted one question in me: what would happen if Anglicans, modeling themselves on Jesus, started showing up in places where no one expects us to be and listening to people who are different to us?

I don’t know for sure but I do know we’ll never get there if we keep terrorizing people who try to do exactly that.

World AIDS Day at Yale Divinity School

I spoke at our service commemorating World AIDS Day today in Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School.

Here’s what I said:

My friend Pakama lives in a place called Itipini, a shantytown community built on the landfill of small city in South Africa, the country with more HIV-positive people than any other in the world. I worked in a clinic in Itipini and when Pakama first came there three years ago, she was weak, gaunt, and emaciated. Her collar bones poked through her shirt. She had AIDS and tuberculosis.

 

I helped her navigate the complex health system, looking for the right combination of drugs to treat her diseases. I knew anti-retroviral therapy for AIDS was incredibly effective but I wasn’t sure Pakama was healthy enough to make it through the system in time. She lost the energy to walk and I had to lift her in and out of the car and carry her to appointments. She lay in bed in her shack the rest of the day. Each morning, as I drove to Itipini, I mentally prepared myself to hear the news that she had died the night before. In those weeks of traveling through the health care system with Pakama, her brother and aunt, both of whom were HIV-positive, died of the disease. I didn’t have much hope Pakama would be different.

 

It took a long time and a lot of work but she got started on ARVs. There was no sudden shift, however. She was still weak and thin – but alive. There were other patients to look after and  I saw less of Pakama. Then, I was away for a few weeks. When I returned, the first thing I did was seek her out. 

 

I found her in front of her shack washing clothes. She smiled broadly to see me again and asked how I was.

 

“I’m fine,” I said. “But I want to know how you are. Can you walk?”

 

“Yes,” she replied. She was supporting herself just fine while washing the clothes but I needed to see for myself. 

 

“Show me,” I said. 

 

She gave me a look that said, “What does he think? Of course I can walk by myself.” But she humoured me. Without struggle or undue effort, she casually walked down one side of the shack and back to the door and then turned to look to see if I was satisfied. I was. She was like a whole new person.

 

When I worked in South Africa, friends at home often asked me if there was hope in the face of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. On that glorious day when I saw Pakama stroll back and forth in front of her shack, I knew the answer is definitively yes. I saw Pakama again this past summer when I went to visit Itipini. Her weight has nearly doubled and she has a small fruit stand in town that enables her to pay school fees for her children.

 

But as I read the news last week about the craven decision by the international community to effectively kill the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis, I wonder about Pakama’s supply and whether next year on this day I’ll still be able to point to her as a story of hope.

It’s worth noting that the clinic I worked at in South Africa was church-related and church-funded. Across Africa, churches are on the front lines of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The funding cuts to the Global Fund seem to be an excellent opportunity for the church – in Africa, in the United States, in Europe, working together – to seize its prophetic role and work to overturn the decision.

What you should really read, though, is former UN Envoy Stephen Lewis’ statement on the gutting of the Global Fund, which I heard him deliver on Monday of this week in New Haven. I’d post an excerpt except the whole thing is incredible.

Shoulder-to-shoulder

Here’s the kind of story that rarely gets told in conversations about Anglican unity, though I suspect it’s more common than we might think.

This is a picture of two priests – Len (right) and Rob – in my diocese, Western Massachusetts, at our diocesan convention last weekend. Both are rectors of good-sized churches and well-known around the diocese.

I didn’t know either particularly well but before last weekend. But I knew enough to know they’d probably be on opposite sides of any conversation about sexuality-related issues. Len is the more conservative, Rob the more liberal.

There were two resolutions up for debate at convention, both related to encouraging the blessing of same-gender marriages in the diocese. Several people got up to speak on the resolution, some in favour, others against, all with varying degrees of articulateness and emotion. It was a fine display of the kind of church democracy that is foundational to the governance of the Episcopal Church: a bunch of people, in a hotel ballroom, on a Saturday afternoon, trying to discern what God is calling the church to do.

I noticed Len and Rob standing by the same microphone waiting their turn to speak. It struck me as odd that they would wait together when there was another microphone with a much shorter line.

Len spoke first. He recalled how he had testified at General Convention 2003 against Gene Robinson’s election as bishop of New Hampshire. He mentioned that because the one thing he remembered most of all was how there seemed to develop a de facto split in those waiting to testify. Those in favour at one microphone, those against at another. At our convention, Len said, he wanted to stand shoulder-to-shoulder (almost literally) with his friend and brother in Christ Rob to show that although they disagreed on the issues in the resolution, it was not going to be an issue that would impede their sharing of Christian unity.

Len went on to explain why he disagreed with the resolution and would vote against it. Then he stepped aside and Rob stepped up. He explained how much he respected, admired, and cared for Len and how they disagreed on the issues under consideration. But nothing, he said, would take away from his respect for Len and his belief that they were equally members of the body of Christ. (I’m paraphrasing from memory here as I wasn’t taking notes.) Then Rob explained why he supported the resolution and would vote for it. Then they both sat down.

I have a whole stock of stories about the church in Nigeria, Sudan, South Africa, Uganda, Ecuador, China, and numerous other places that I tell to Americans about how committed and eager Anglicans in other parts of the world are to share in God’s gift of unity to the worldwide body of Christ. Len and Rob have given me a story I will take with me when I travel again.

Both resolutions, it should be noted, passed. But delegates, mindful of the global reality of the church, also passed a third resolution, that read as follows:

RESOLVED that the 110th Convention of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts affirm its commitment to Christ’s missional prayer “that all may be one…so that the world may believe” (John 17:21); and be it further

RESOLVED that the 110th Convention of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts declare its belief that the church can be an instrument of unity and reconciliation in a fracturing world; and affirm its earnest commitment to deepen our relationships across the Anglican Communion both by seeking to explain to our sister and brother Anglicans around the world our response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our context and by committing to listen and learn from them, all in a spirit of Christ-like humility, vulnerability, and gentleness.

Yes, there are disagreements and we should talk about them, explore them, and question them. But they need not divide.

And yet we persist in thinking otherwise.

My, how they grow!

Two years ago, when I left South Africa and moved back to the U.S., I sorted through my 10,000+ digital photos from Itipini and labelled many of them with the names of the people. I’m glad I did. After my time back in Itipini earlier this month, I went back and compared my current crop of photos with the old ones. It was a real treat.

Here’s a child named Ayabulela more than three years ago.

Here he is earlier this month.

You might remember Ayabulela and his family from some earlier posts. Victoria, sadly, has not had as much success as someone like Khayakazi but everyone in the family is still alive. Even the smallest and most basic of steps count for something.

Orthodoxy or orthopathos?

Spend a little time in the church and you’ll hear the word “orthodox” thrown around a lot. I explained to one bishop’s wife in Nigeria this summer how I thought the unity of Christians was a deeply Biblical concern. “Unity of orthodox Christians,” she tartly replied.

At the end of a summer traveling in the world church, I find myself wondering about the usefulness of a concept like orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy means “right thinking.” But Christian unity really isn’t about what we think. It’s about what we feel. There will never be a day when all the Christians in the world will be able to write down what we believe and have everyone sign on to it. (We should praise God for that.) Even the councils of the early church that produced our statements of orthodoxy like the Nicene Creed were incredibly divisive events. The Council of Nicaea did not settle the questions raised by Arius once and for all. Instead, it splintered and further divided Christians and led to more councils some decades later.

Christian unity is, rather, about the feeling that exists between Christians, a feeling of, for lack of a better word, agape. These are the kind of feelings I had when I encountered sisters and brothers in Christ who think differently to me on some issues but who love me (and I them). This is true of people like Paul, Chuks, and Chike in Owerri, “ashamed” Anglicans in Uzuakoli, refugees in Abyei, or Lisu on a mountain in Yunnan, or, or, or…. The list goes on and on.

Perhaps what we need to start thinking about is what I am now calling orthopathos, or “right feeling.” (There are Google results for this word but I’ve never heard it used before. Has anyone else?) Christian unity might best be served by concentrating on developing this feeling of love between fellow believers rather than spending so much energy on getting all our thinking ducks in a row. Indeed, the latter effort often, it seems, serves to undermine the former.

The body of Christ is not a metaphor. Paul knew that. I know that now, too. How do I know that? Not because I’ve thought it. It’s because I’ve felt it – in real, concrete relationships of Christian charity across deep cultural divides that I pray will only deepen with the passage of time.

Small Steps

I’ve spent the last week in Mthatha, South Africa, my former home, visiting the people I used to work with at the Itipini Community Project. There were far too many people to catch up with in far too short of a time. Two years is a long time and people have changed – as I have, presumably.

For me, it was a lesson in small steps and little victories. Many people I once knew are now dead, most from AIDS. There were several stories of tragic deaths too young. Nomantombi was a delightful young woman who died in June this year. Sipho and Pamela were a married couple who died with six months of each other, leaving behind several children, including two daughters whom I helped into high school. Those two daughters are still going to school, even as they planned funerals for their parents. Though these deaths were tragic, they were not exactly surprising. It was clear when I left two years ago that some people were not long for this world.

More surprising were the people who lived. A handful of the HIV-positive people I knew well and worked closely with to help get them on anti-retrovirals are now thriving. Pakama, one woman I invested lots of energy in, even as her family was dying of AIDS around her, is still alive. Whereas I could once carry her around the hospital in my arms, she is now – there’s no other way to put this – fat. Three years ago when I was visiting her every day, she bottomed out at 47kg. She now weighs 82.5kg. I had a great time sitting with her on this visit and listening to her talk about these last three years. For every Pakama, there are three or four Siphos or Pamelas. But that one Pakama matters a lot.

The same is true for the high school students I used to know. Many have done one or more of the following things: dropped out, had a(nother) child, or tested positive for HIV. (Two hit the trifecta and did all three.) One dropped out because her mother got quite sick and she had to take care of her. Others struggled with the English-language education and the lack of resources.

But there are a few who have stuck with it and two passed the high-stakes graduation exam and got a high-school diploma. This puts them in rarefied company in Itipini. I can’t imagine more than a half-dozen people in the entire community have diplomas, if that. Those two are now in college. Looking at the students still in school, there are probably three more who have a really good shot at passing the test. Of those three, one, Khayakazi, a daughter of Pamela and Sipho, will be a trend-setter if she passes. (You can read more of her story from two years ago here.)

Five years ago she had a child. She took two years off then came to me and asked for help going back to school. She has stuck with it – even as her son has started first grade and her parents have died. If she passes, she will be the first young woman to our knowledge to have a child, stop school, and go back and finish. Buoyed by her progress, I was walking around Itipini this last week talking to all the young woman I know who’ve dropped out of high school and making sure they know it’s possible to go back.

So a few steps forward, many more steps back. That seems to be how things work.

See “Cities” and Exciting Bishops

The penultimate diocese on my summer tour is Nzara, one of seven Anglican dioceses in South Sudan’s Western Equatoria State. This is the bishop, Samuel Peni. (I like a bishop who can untuck his shirt on a hot afternoon.)

The diocese here is coming up to its second anniversary and has made huge strides in that time. It’s built diocesan offices and a great conference center. It has a house for its bishop. And just yesterday, it opened a really impressive clinic and medical center – well-stocked, well-trained staff, good facilities. Nzara is a little bit older than Aweil and points the direction for a place like Aweil. If Nzara can make this much progress in such a short while, Aweil can surely find a new house for its bishop.

Nzara is an interesting case in South Sudan. For much of the civil war, this part of Western Equatoria was in SPLA control so Nzara didn’t suffer as grievously as other places – like Aweil – did. However, in the last few years this part of Western Equatoria has been devastated by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel army that began in northern Uganda but is now migrating around central Africa, leaving chaos in its wake. Thousands of people in Western Equatoria have been displaced from rural areas to the cities and towns, where they have been for a few years now. That has resulted in the closure of a huge number of churches in rural areas of the dioceses. Ezo, the diocese to the west of Nzara, has been particularly hard-hit by the LRA.

My time in Nzara has given me a chance to reflect on two developments in the church in Sudan. The first is the rapid growth of dioceses in the Sudanese Episcopal church. There are now 31 dioceses I think, with more on the way. (The province doesn’t create them at random, though. Many of the senior clergy in Nzara have told me about the lengthy process they had to go through so Nzara could split from Yambio and become its own diocese.) Traditionally, a diocese is centred on one city, the see city. Practically speaking, the see city gives the diocese an economic base so it has parishioners who have enough money to give to the church to help the church function. But there aren’t that many true cities in South Sudan. (The country only has a population of eight or nine million after all.)

Nzara is a county capital but to call it a city – or even a town – is a bit of stretch. It has no bank, no gas station, no Internet access, and a market that only meets three days a week. For the diocese to do any of its business – like paying the people building the clinic – someone has to drive to Yambio, the state capital, 25 minutes away. (Twenty-five minutes isn’t that bad. Ezo is even farther.) Gas costs $2/liter. Things are beginning to change – there’s a rumour Nzara will be getting a bank – but there’s no doubt the location puts a huge crimp in the diocese’s activities.

But this is how it must be. There are so many Episcopalians in Sudan, the church needs to create dioceses so bishops are reasonably close to their people. As the church continues to grow – and more dioceses are in the offing – there are going to be more see “cities” like Nzara. I myself come from a relatively rural diocese and we make things work so it’s not impossible. But it’s worth noting this is a challenge of church growth in South Sudan.

The other development to note in the Sudanese church is the bishops. He has a lot of help but the man leading the charge in Nzara is Bishop Samuel. He’s part of a cohort of new, young, energetic, and educated bishops in the church, who work incredibly hard. Their formative years came during the war and they are now determined to lead their people into a full and just peace. It is impossible to meet people like Bishop Samuel – or any of these other bishops – and not be hopeful and excited about what the future holds for the church in South Sudan.