iPhones, Backpacks, and the Best Travel Agency in the World: Mission and Unity in the Anglican Communion

The Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut has kindly posted a video of my keynote address to the diocese’s annual mission conference in early March. It’s adapted from my book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion.

Some excerpts:

[iPhones are] an honest description of the world we live in. On the one hand, we have globalization, those forces that are drawing us ever more closely together so that distance and time cease to matter in the way they once did. On the other hand, we have the frank recognition that globalization benefits some people more than it does others, that it imposes costs on some people more than others, and that we are a long way from the Biblical model of relationships marked by mutuality, love, and mercy. The very fact that I don’t know where this device came from, that I can only hazard a guess as to who had a role in producing it, is an indication of just how broken these relationships are. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians that they cannot say to one another, “I have no need of you,” but we seem intent of saying something like, “I may have a need of you, but I’m going to do my best to ensure I don’t have to acknowledge that.”…

The way the Christian community shows its distinctiveness and difference is in the quality of relationships within it. Christians are different because we relate to other Christians in a way that is unique in the world….

There’s one more thing to say about the way in which the community of followers of Jesus is different from other communities in the world: we don’t get to choose who else is in the community. God’s love is open to all people and those who respond in baptism become members of this community. Whether we want them or not is, quite frankly, of no concern to God. The community in mission is a community that holds together a lot of difference. People from all different kinds of backgrounds and beliefs are brought together by the gracious love of God. And that’s a good thing, even though it is sometimes painful and difficult, and may make us want to scream at the top of our lungs, “I have no need of you!” Belonging to the church means believing that all other baptized Christians have something to offer us and we to them, no matter how different they may be. This is a truly counter-cultural idea….

Sometimes we hear it said that the church can find unity in mission. But the more accurate thing to say is that unity is mission. Our life together as Christians in a divided world is part of our witness to the world. Does the church model another way of living to a fractured world? Or does it simply mimic the world in its patterns of broken, global relationships?…

At its best and at its strongest, the Anglican Communion is a network of people who share these mutual, life-giving, counter-cultural relationships, people who want to make known the reconciling love of God in Christ. It is our role to seek these people out—to let them seek us out as well—and come to acknowledge the unity in which we are called to live. The unity of the Anglican Communion could be good news to a divided world. 

“I’m not dead yet.” -The Anglican Communion

I have been staying up late several nights this week finishing the proofs of my new book about the Anglican Communion. It is a book that argues that not only is unity in a world communion possible, it is a vital part of that communion’s witness to the world.

Then I woke up this morning to read that Andrew Brown (“England’s most sanctimonious atheist,” in the words of one Church Times letter to the editor) thinks the Anglican Communion is dead.

Wow. Poor timing on my behalf.

But then I started reading the article and wondered just what grounds Brown had for making his case.

We might notice that his article commits more or less all the errors I outlined in a previous post about writing about the Anglican Communion—he doesn’t travel anywhere, he relies mostly on bishops and men as sources, etc., etc.

He writes, for instance of the Church of Nigeria, that it doesn’t matter how “many Anglicans there are there and however sincerely they seem to hate gay people.” I read that and I think, “Has he ever actually been to Nigeria? Are we talking about the same church?” Were people who write about the Anglican Communion to start moving from behind their computers and instead spend their time and money visiting with Anglicans, I think the story they would find is different. Instead, everyone sits comfortably in their prejudices and certainties and shows little desire to change that situation.

On the other hand, perhaps the Anglican Communion is dead. Perhaps the days when our understanding of the Communion was constituted almost solely by what bishops and other men had to say are coming to an end. Perhaps we can now start listening to the voices of the young, the female, the non-ordained and see that they are hardly in lockstep agreement with what their bishops have to say.

The core of my faith is the belief that death is not the end. Maybe we can pray that the death of our current forms of relationship will lead to a resurrection in newness and fullness of life.


But it’s going to take a willingness to move beyond the same old ways of doing business.

The end is (not) nigh…

There’s been a spate of articles in the secular press recently, keyed to a conference at Wycliffe College in Toronto marking the 50th anniversary of “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ.” (They’re a month late, but who wants to go to a conference in August anyway?)

If the only thing you knew about the Anglican Communion was what you read in these articles, you could be forgiven for thinking the end of the Communion is nigh.

It’s not.

That’s the message I have heard time and time again as I travel around the world church. (I’m writing this post in South Sudan, as a matter of fact, where I have been spending the last month with the church here.) But articles such as these propagate a narrative of disunity that has largely gone unchallenged.

Let’s look at what these articles have in common:

  • They quote mostly bishops. Fair enough, I suppose, since bishops are leaders in the church. In my experience, however, bishops are far from the most interesting (or representative) people in the church.
  • Relatedly, they quote mostly men. Most bishops are men. Of the Anglicans who speak English (and thus can be interviewed by reporters who speak only English), a larger percentage are men. But this neglects the viewpoints of the majority of Anglicans who happen to be women.
  • They quote people who can travel. Articles like these are written by reporters who don’t leave the comfort of their home. They let the subjects come to them: attend a conference, interview a few people on the sidelines, go back to the office, and write it all up. What about people who can’t afford plane tickets, whose visa applications are rejected, or who are too busy in ministry to travel? When I was a reporter, I wrote several stories like this. I rarely found that they did more than scratch the surface.
  • They call reporting “analysis”. (Like this one) If we’re going to analyze a topic, it seems that something more than merely quoting other people is necessary. For instance, the conference at Wycliffe featured a line-up of speakers of a decidedly conservative tilt. That fact is barely mentioned in the news coverage.

My new book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion: A Search for Unity is born of precisely these frustrations. As I have traveled around the world, working and visiting and listening and praying with my fellow Anglicans, I have found stories that fundamentally challenge the narrative of disunity that is propounded in articles such as these. I have found these stories precisely by going past the bishops, men, and English-speakers who dominate stories such as these.

This is not to say that what these male bishops have to say is necessarily wrong. There’s truth in their comments, of course, but it is, at best, partial truth. Nor is it to say the Anglican Communion is in a perfectly unified body. Like other parts of the body of Christ, it has its own dysfunctions, idiosyncrasies, and broken bits that create a unique set of challenges.

But if we’re serious about being a worldwide family of churches, we need to start with an honest appraisal of the situation. Articles like these do nothing to help with that.

Backpacking through the Anglican Communion will be published in January 2014.

Backpacking Through the Anglican Communion: A Search for Unity

Exciting news! It’s time to raise the curtain on Book #2!

IMG_1594My next book, Backpacking Through the Anglican Communion: A Search for Unity, draws on the tens of thousands of miles I’ve travelled in recent years to show what Anglican life is like at the grassroots level around the world—in places as diverse as Nigeria, Ecuador, England, and China. Some of those travels first appeared in partial form on this blog; many of them did not.

More than a simple travelogue, the book also challenges the dominant narrative of disunity that so colours debates about the future of global Anglicanism. I show how the loudest voices in the Anglican Communion are rarely as representative as they think. In fact, when conversations about divisive issues—sexuality, Biblical interpretation, authority—are undertaken in a spirit of mutuality and vulnerability, they deepen—and not fracture—relationship.

IMG_3661IMG_2946Finally, the book is an argument that unity actually matters and that in our globalizing and fracturing world, Anglicans have an incredible opportunity to witness to the world—an opportunity we are singularly failing to grasp at this moment in time.

Backpacking Through the Anglican Communion: look for it in early 2014 from the Church Publishing family. And if you live outside the U.S. and want it published where you live, let me know so we can start talking about it now. Contact details are here.

Is the ground shifting under ACNA?

Change is afoot in the Anglican world—and already its effects are beginning to be felt.

There’s a new archbishop of Canterbury, of course, who will be formally seated in his new cathedral on Thursday. Rowan Williams was a convenient whipping boy for breakaway American Anglicans. (This is the group that has left the Episcopal Church and affiliated with various overseas provinces. Many are now grouped under the Anglican Church in North America [ACNA].) They bemoaned his alleged liberalism and chastised him for not going after “apostate” liberals more forcefully and chucking them out of the Communion.

But Justin Welby is not so easy to pigeonhole. For one thing, he’s no liberal. His public statements on sexuality-related issues, for instance, have been entirely in keeping with what ACNA Anglicans say they’ve wanted to hear from Lambeth. He comes from the centre of contemporary Anglican evangelicalism, Holy Trinity Brompton.

Yet already he’s causing ACNA Anglicans to have fits. Welby’s early statements have been all about reconciliation, a profoundly Biblical concept—and ACNA Anglicans have busily set about redefining reconciliation and downplaying its significance. A less Biblical move I cannot think of. Welby gave a major stage to the deeply holy relationship between Tory Baucum and Shannon Johnston—and GAFCON Anglicans apparently put tremendous pressure on Baucum that he had to contort his own rhetoric to end the relationship. No matter the surface justifications, this is not the move of a strong organization.

But the potentially more significant change is taking place in Rome. Anglicans don’t always like to admit it but Rome has always had huge influence on Anglicanism—things we adopt usually start there first. The stature of the pope is such that we can’t avoid the effects of what he does. ACNA Anglicans relied on Pope Benedict as a handy backstop. In his opposition to same-sex marriage, say, and his theological acumen, these Anglicans could—and did—say, “See, there’s the kind of leader we need to have—bold and orthodox.” They trumpeted their meetings with him.

Francis has only been pope for a few days but already things seem different. He talks about the poor, for one thing—a lot. There’s a hint that he was once open to blessing same sex relationships. Most significantly—and the thing I have found most appealing about him—he takes himself with a kind of holy lightness, one thing that has been in short supply in the church (of any communion) in recent years. He looks like he’s having fun.

It is way too early to say anything with any certainty but two of the verities that ACNA Anglicans have relied on in recent years—a “weak”, “liberal” leader at Lambeth and a backstop in Rome—are quickly changing. These breakaway Anglican groups have lots of money and lots of time to come up with new ways to make their case and I have no doubt they will. But the fact that they are scrambling is significant.

I don’t wish ACNA ill and I make these comments with no value judgment. But I do wish for a new narrative in Anglican relations, one that is a little more accurate, interesting, and fruitful. Change is coming. Let us hope it move us closer to reality.

History repeats itself, first as tragedy then as…


Ten years ago, when Rowan Williams was new to Canterbury, there was a huge fuss over the new bishop of Reading. His name was Jeffrey John and while he was eminently qualified for the post, he was a gay man in a public, partnered relationship. (This is a commendable openness: it is widely known there are several gay bishops in the Church of England who chose not to be public about it.) Although he said it was a celibate relationship, the furore over his appointment was intense and led Rowan to lean on John to resign before he was consecrated, which he did. He’s now the dean of St. Alban’s. But the incident damaged Rowan’s standing with liberals and gave greater credence to conservatives who thought they couldn’t trust him because he’d let the appointment go forward in the first place. It’s probably safe to say it was not the tone Rowan wanted to set at the beginning of his archiepiscopacy.

Now, a decade on, the Church of England’s House of Bishops has decided that gay men in civil partnerships (this includes Jeffrey John) can be bishop, so long as they remain celibate. Leaving aside how nonsensical a policy this is, it raises the prospect that in the first months of a new archbishop of Canterbury’s term, Jeffrey John could again be appointed bishop. Indeed, there’s talk that John could be appointed Bishop of Durham, which will be vacant when Justin Welby is translated to Canterbury.

Bishops from some other Anglican provinces are already indicating their displeasure with the new policy. If John is appointed, it seems likely there will again be a furore in the Anglican Communion. It also seems that Justin Welby will have less ground than Rowan did to reverse the decision (if he wanted to): the public nature of the recent change means it would be humiliating for the church to reverse itself. (Not that the C of E is above regularly humiliating itself.)

But I’d like to think the impending John appointment is an opportunity. I’ve already written how I think it will take someone like Justin Welby to begin to heal the wounds of the Anglican Communion. This, surely, would be the moment to do so. He could embrace this move, which the House of Bishops has authorised and which, it is clear, a majority of English Anglicans are little fussed about, but at the same time draw on his relationships in the Anglican Communion to patiently explain the move. It would be a double acknowledgment: first, that this is where the Church of England is at this point in its history, and, second, that not everyone is at the point and that someone like Justin Welby has the position with which to address those concerns. I’m not saying it will result in magical healing overnight, but it could be a genuinely honest step forward. Surely, that’s better than all the games we’ve been playing?

Anglican Communion awareness increasing?

The Episcopal News Service has a lengthy article today that follows up a lot of the questions raised at General Convention about the Church’s huge cuts to funding for the Anglican Communion Office. It also makes some grand claims about the nature of the Anglican Communion nine years after the election of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire.

Here’s the article’s lede:

The world’s 80 million Anglicans are much more aware today than they were 10 years ago that they belong to a global communion, a realization that has led to a flourishing of international relationships between the Episcopal Church and other provinces, dioceses and individuals.

Although the article claims to be concerned with Anglicans all over the world, the only evidence it musters is in the Episcopal Church. This is a hallmark of one of the most depressing of all American characteristics, namely the willingness to generalize from quite particular experience. To write an article like this merely reinforces what many people around the world already think: Americans are self-centred, solipsistic, and parochial.

The thing is, our brother and sister Anglicans around the world have known and cared about the Anglican Communion for a lot longer than many Americans have. When I traveled in the church in Nigeria (where 1 in 4 of those 80 million Anglicans live) last summer, one of the aspects of the church that was most noticeable to me was the way Nigerian Anglicans cared about being part of the Communion. The official name of the church is Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion). When you leaf through a diocesan newsletter, there’s plenty of material about other Anglicans around the world. In a remote diocese in South Sudan a few years back, I was asked what I thought about Rowan Williams’ decision to deny Katharine Jefferts Schori her mitre on a visit to England. In a remote Bible college in a China, I was once asked about the Anglican Communion. It’s the Americans who have woken up and smelled the Anglican Communion coffee in the last decade. The rest of the world, at least, was already aware.

My sense of the last decade is that the American church, particularly its liberal wing, has been rushing to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of understanding itself as part of a global Communion. For a variety of reasons—including prioritizing domestic concerns, feeling unsure about how to relate to newly-independent churches, and so forth—the Episcopal Church began a fairly large retreat from its global commitments in the late 1960s all the way through the 1990s. This, in many ways, set the stage for the “crisis” of the last decade.

In 1963, Anglican lay people, priests, and bishops from around the world got together for an Anglican Congress in Toronto. One of the speakers was a man named Howard Johnson, who, a few years prior, had completed a two-year tour of every province in the Anglican Communion. At the Congress, he had this to say:

We Anglicans stumbled into universality – prodded, I believe, by Providence. But our consciousness of ourselves has not yet caught up with the reality of ourselves. In actuality we are a multiracial, multilingual, multicultural body, but in awareness we are still parochial and provincial.

My sense is that Johnson’s observation is still largely correct. It is true, however, that the election and ordination of Gene Robinson means that Episcopalians now know more than they used to about the Anglican Communion whether they like it or not. But has that had the positive impacts the article claims? On that question, I think, the jury is still out.

The body of Christ on July 9

There are a lot of things that happen at a General Convention beyond the business of passing legislation: movie screenings, talks, networking, and, oh yeah, worship.

In celebration of the first anniversary of the independence of South Sudan, there was a Eucharist on Monday evening for those connected to the work of the Episcopal Church of Sudan. It was a terrific service: lots of great singing led by the Sudanese there, support from some of the many bishops in the Episcopal Church who have Sudanese congregations in their diocese, an honest acknowledgement of the pain and suffering that has happened and remains ongoing, and much else.

There is lots packed into a General Convention so the service didn’t begin until 9:30pm. As wonderful as it was, I have to say I was a bit weary during the first part of the service. That changed during the passing of the peace when the three bishops in the service took a liturgical liberty to tell the congregation about their relationship.

From left to right, that’s Ruben Akurdit, of Bor, Sudan; Cate Waynick of Indianapolis, Indiana; and Mauricio Andrade of Brasilia, Brazil. Together, they have a three-way companion diocese relationship. Last year, Cate and Mauricio were in Bor together. (Three-way companion relationships are increasingly common. We recently saw the fruit of another relationship in this letter to Rowan Williams from several bishops.)

In their comments, the three bishops stressed how they see in one another the body of Christ: difference (of race, background, culture, sex, etc.) but commonality in worshipping the same God in Christ.

I was completely awake by the time they had finished their short remarks. Then, in the Eucharistic prayer, each said the words of institution (the “take eat” part of the liturgy) in their own language. It is not often that a Eucharistic prayer I have heard so often and know so well can surprise and move me but it did on Monday night.

The act of celebrating the Eucharist in multiple languages with people from multiple backgrounds seemed to me to be so central to what the good news of the body of Christ is all about. And it’s yet one more reason I have hope about the future of the church and its role in God’s mission in the world.

Memo to bishops-elect

The General Convention of the Episcopal Church will vote in the next day or two to confirm  several new bishops who have been elected in the last four months. No doubt, these bishops will take office full of plans for their tenure and ready to implement them. As they do, I— presumptuously—have a thought for them.

The definition of the ministry of a bishop in the Episcopal catechism includes, “to act in Christ’s name for the reconciliation of the world and the building up of the Church.” Bishops are symbols of unity in the worldwide church, representing the universal to the local and the local to the universal.

My thought for the new bishops is that they be sure to use their time as bishop to establish solid companion diocese relationships. This is not, in itself, that surprising an idea. Many dioceses already have such relationships.

What I want to urge the new bishops to do, however, is to build relationships in unlikely places. As I found out in my travels last summer at this time, there are several dioceses in the church in Nigeria that are eager for American companions. (See my posts here and here for more on this.) I heard time and again how interested people in those dioceses were in establishing relationships that moved the Anglican Communion beyond the divisive rhetoric of the last decade or more. Without ignoring the differences of opinion, these people still wanted to establish companion relationships. And yet, no matter how hard they tried, the Nigerians I met were turned away. “Sorry,” they were told. “Our churches can’t be in relationship.”

These bishops-elect have an incredible opportunity to change the discourse in the Anglican Communion from one of fracture to one of unity. (I’ve written before about the importance of companion diocese relationships.) Just imagine what a companion relationship between an American diocese and a Nigerian one could mean for the Anglican Communion.

I imagine that being a bishop can be pretty overwhelming. I imagine it can be pretty easy to end up focused solely on the pressing concerns of the diocese. My hope for the new bishops—and all bishops—is that they’ll remember to work for the reconciliation of the world.

The church—and the world—needs it.

Visions for Christian Unity: Roland Allen and the Body of Christ

The Episcopal Church commemorated Roland Allen on June 8. (I’m a day late with this post. Oops.) Allen was an Anglican missionary to China and later Kenya in the first part of the twentieth century. For a variety of reasons—notably what his commemoration generously calls “a gregarious temperament combined with absolute confidence in his ideas”; i.e. he was a real S.O.B.—Allen never rose particularly far in the church hierarchy.

The church commemorates Allen primarily because of one book he wrote, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? This is everything an author could ask for in a book: short, profound, and still in print nearly a century after its publication. (And it’s now on Kindle for less than $2!) Allen argues that St. Paul’s missionary method was to found churches, teach them the gospel, establish a leadership structure, and then leave them to grow on their own. He contrasts that with the decades- and centuries-long hand-holding among mission agencies of his own time. (You may have heard of Allen because Vincent Donovan cites him heavily in Christianity Rediscovered, which, as far as I’m concerned, should be read by every Christian alive.)

Allen (and Donovan) can be criticized on various grounds but I want to remember Allen for something that is rarely mentioned about his writing: the vision he articulated for worldwide Christian unity.

But first, something slightly more recent. For the last quarter century, the Anglican Communion has pursued its efforts toward unity by arguing that the church is something like the Trinity. The loving relations of the three members of the Trinity are what the church is trying to approximate. Just as the Trinity is many but one, so too should the church be.

This is due, in large part, to an Orthodox theologian and bishop named John Zizioulas, who spoke at Lambeth 1988 and whose book, Being as Communion, was hugely influential on Anglicans (and others). The 1997 Virginia Report shows this influence: “Our unity with one another is grounded in the life of love, unity and communion of the Godhead. The eternal, mutual self-giving and receiving love of the three persons of the Trinity is the source and ground of our communion, of our fellowship with God and one another.” (2.9)

These Trinitarian themes have continued in Anglican theology, as, for instance, in the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant, which says, in its first paragraph, “the communion of life in the Church participates in the communion which is the divine life itself, the life of the Trinity.” (The Presiding Bishop’s recent talk to provincial synods is in this vein as well, though she also seems heavily influenced by this more recent book.)

So, with that context in mind, back to Allen.

Allen’s vision for worldwide Christian unity was animated not by the Trinity but by something more Pauline: the body of Christ. Allen rooted his case for unity between churches in countries that sent missionaries (like his own England) with churches that were growing in places where missionaries were being sent (like China, where he wrote Missionary Methods). His insight was that the teaching about the body Paul applied to individuals within the Corinthian, Roman, and other churches could be applied to individual churches within the broader Church catholic.

That is to say, just as individuals in Corinth needed one another to be a fully functioning Christian community, so too did Christians in England need Christians in China (and elsewhere) to be a fully functioning Christian body. Coming at a time when mission reeked of colonialism and noblesse oblige, this was a pretty profound thing to be saying. Moreover, Allen realized, this meant each church was co-equal and had something of value to contribute. (Allen was silent on just what the Chinese church could contribute, an indication, perhaps, of the way in which he was still captive to his own time.)

One of the implications of thinking in this way—and Allen realized it—is that Christian unity is not something that is created by Christians. Rather, it is something that is a gift from God that Christians realize in their relationships. Christians join a body that exists long before they—or anyone else—were around.

Allen was not the first to apply the body of Christ imagery to the world church—John Chrysostom had done so in his sermons—but he is, so far as I can tell, the first to develop it in such great detail. He had a vision for the unity of the world church and that vision was rooted in the idea of the body of Christ. The Church Catholic is one body. Each individual Christian and individual church is a member of it and has gifts to contribute and gifts to receive from it. This body is not created but is joined.

Nor was Allen the only Anglican to rely on this vision to promote Christian unity. Bishops relied on it at the 1930 Lambeth Conference to talk about Anglican unity. The idea reached an apex in 1963 in Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ, the manifesto that laid out a new way of understanding the Anglican Communion. (Elsewhere, I’ve written an article about why MRI needs to be remembered in the Anglican Communion.) And it makes sense. Paul’s teaching on the body is intuitive and easily graspable.

In this context, the Trinitarian vision of unity in the past quarter-century seems like something of an outlier. And yet Anglicans have been debating and discussing and arguing about unity as if the Zizioulas-Trinity vision is the only way we have of understanding what it means to be a worldwide church without ever seriously questioning if it is the most helpful vision for Christian unity

It seems likely that the Anglican Covenant is dead. The debate surrounding it has focused primarily on its Section IV, the one that promises unspecified “relational consequences.” As Anglicans figure out a way forward post Covenant, perhaps we might also have a conversation not just about Section IV but also about the implicit assumptions underlying our visions for worldwide unity. What does it mean to say we are a “world church”? How do we understand relations between these various parts of that world church? Are those relations important? If so, why? The body of Christ, I think, gives us the language to begin answering some of these questions.

I’m hoping to publish a paper on this in the not-very-distant future so I’m not going to list all the reasons why I think the Trinitarian consensus of the last quarter-century is lacking and why the body of Christ might be a better answer. But perhaps we might use the commemoration of Roland Allen to reflect on just what vision we have for our world church. Zizioulas, at Lambeth 1988, said, “ecumenism needs a vision.” Substitute “intra-Anglican relations” for “ecumenism” and the point remains sound.

When we start looking for that vision, I think we might find that it’s time to turn away from the Trinity and return to the Body.