Does Giles Fraser use an iPhone?

IMG_1085Does Giles Fraser use an iPhone? He’s clearly a Mac user but based on his recent column, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

Writing for The Guardian, Giles Fraser captures a common view of the Anglican Communion:

All this means that the bishops won’t be able to do a damn thing about their clergy having same-sex marriages…. And when this happens, the toys will be thrown from many a Nigerian church pram. The fiction that is the Anglican Communion will be over and we can go back to being the Church of England, rather than the local arm of the empire at prayer. And thank God for that.

This view sees the Anglican Communion as a distraction from the real business of being the Church of England. If only, the argument seems to be, we could stop concerning ourselves with the views of those Nigerian bishops, then we could really be the church we’re meant to be. It doesn’t matter how many toys are thrown “from many a Nigerian church pram.” We need to distance ourselves from global relationships.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where we can’t ignore global relationships. Our iPhones embody this. The next time Giles Fraser uses his smartphone, perhaps he can consider the global relationships it represents, from the rare minerals that are mined in distant corners of the world to make its capacitors function to the Chinese factory workers who assemble it. When you get dressed in the morning or tap out your next tweet, think about all of the people around the world who have touched your clothes and phone before you. Whether we like it nor, in the twenty-first century we are enmeshed in global relationships. And many of these relationships are a long way from the model of mutual, trusting, and truthful relationships set forth in the Bible.

But there’s another possible view here. What if instead of seeing the Anglican Communion as a distraction, we saw it as an asset to our mission to the world? What if the Anglican Communion could present to the world a model of relationship that is different from the world around us, a model that emphasizes wholeness and relatedness, rather than brokenness and fracture? Don’t you think if the world church was offering this kind of model, people might look at it and say, “Hey, look at what they have going on over there. I want to be part of that!”

Anglicans are, of course, singularly failing to grasp this opportunity at the moment. In part, our failure is a result of the poverty of the Communion’s discourse, a discourse that has been defined by a very small group of men (many of them bishops) who are very successful at making their voices heard, issues statements, and denouncing various actions.

The trouble is, of course, most Anglicans are neither bishops, nor men, nor specialize in making their voices heard. It is this reality that prompted me to write Backpacking through the Anglican Communion, a book that tries to give voice to those at the local level of the church around the world. When you move beyond the men who dominate the current conversation, you find many voices offering a variety of opinions on issues of sexuality, gender, and a whole lot else—and this as true in Nigeria as anywhere else. The Anglican Communion is a lot more complex than our discourse makes it out to be.

So the right thing to do is not to turn our backs on our sister and brother Anglicans. The right thing to do is to start listening to those voices which have not yet been heard and moving towards the rich, global relationships to which God is calling us.


The Congress-ification of the Church

Really, I’ve said other things in my life besides “wise Latina”

Do you remember when Sonia Sotomayor was appointed to the Supreme Court? Within minutes of her appointment, there was a raging battle over a comment she had once made about a “wise Latina.” That phrase came to dominate much of the debate over her appointment—even though it was a single phrase uttered over the course of a lengthy career as a lawyer and judge. I remember thinking at the time, “Ummm… aren’t we missing the point here? Isn’t there so much more to talk about?”

Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings came to mind recently as I reflected on the blow-up over a sermon Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preached in Venezuela in May. For about two sentences, she gave a reading of Paul’s actions in a passage in the Acts of the Apostles that was unusual. Although the rest of the sermon was about the glory of God—a deeply Biblical concept—conservative Anglicans pounced and used those few sentences as an opportunity to do one of their favourite things—beat up the Presiding Bishop.

There were some people in the world who were not going to support Sotomayor’s confirmation no matter what. By blowing the “wise Latina” comment out of proportion, they gave themselves cover to do what they were already going to do—and tried to bring a few others along with them.

Similarly, there are people in the church who will never find a single redeemable feature in the tenure of Jefferts Schori. So out of all the words and sentences and paragraphs the Presiding Bishop produces, they take a handful of sentences and blow them into an imbroglio of epic proportions—just to confirm themselves in the apparent rightness of what they already believe.

This is not to say that it is not worth debating either the “wise Latina” comment or the two sentences from the Presiding Bishop’s sermon. But it is to say that when conversation comes to focus so exclusively on these tiny portions, our common life suffers because we miss the much larger picture.

I’m not saying it’s not alright to disagree in the church. Nor I am saying it’s not alright to take issue with the Presiding Bishop—I’ve done it. What I am saying, however, is that artificially restricting our focus—as we have seen in this sermon “debate”—misses the point. And this is far from the only instance of this trend. We see something similar in the common view that the only salient feature of the “African church” is its views on sexuality. We end up arguing with caricatures of our opponents, instead of the real person God has created them to be.

Christians believe that honouring and valuing the whole of what someone has to offer—the whole of who God has created them to be—is a central theological virtue. In conversation and engagement with the whole of someone, we come to see what they have to offer to and receive from our common life together. Instead, most of the time, the church seems intent on spending all of its energy on manufactured and illusory controversies, thereby neatly avoiding substantive, honest, and mutually enriching conversation.

It’s one thing when Congress does this—but the church has a much deeper, broader, and exciting calling than that. We ignore it at our peril.

Making poverty history—and putting a whole new set of problems in its place

The Economist recently had a lengthy take on the state of global poverty—and the news seems to be good!

In 1990, 43% of the population of developing countries lived in extreme poverty (then defined as subsisting on $1 a day); the absolute number was 1.9 billion people. By 2000 the proportion was down to a third. By 2010 it was 21% (or 1.2 billion; the poverty line was then $1.25, the average of the 15 poorest countries’ own poverty lines in 2005 prices, adjusted for differences in purchasing power). The global poverty rate had been cut in half in 20 years.

That raised an obvious question. If extreme poverty could be halved in the past two decades, why should the other half not be got rid of in the next two? If 21% was possible in 2010, why not 1% in 2030?

The potential exists, it seems, to make extreme poverty history. Hallelujah!

The whole article is worth a read, but three points in particular stood out to me.

First, the Millenium Development Goals—the so-called Eight Commandments that were agreed to by world leaders in 2000 as a framework for reducing poverty—appear to have had almost no impact.

The leads to the second point. Poverty reduction happens because of economic growth. Economies in the poor world have been performing better, lifting many poor people out of extreme poverty.

News such as this should give Episcopalians pause. For much of the last decade, the MDGs have been the framework for much of the Episcopal Church’s global mission efforts. One result has been congregations and dioceses funnelling money to a host of causes around the world. Those of you who read my writing back when I was one of the church’s global missionaries will know that I’ve never put much stock in the MDGs. But I also want the Episcopal Church to be involved in global mission in a meaningful way. If the MDGs aren’t it, then what is?

That leads to the third point we might notice about the Economist‘s coverage: there is plenty of mention of the benefits of economic growth, but no mention of its costs—environmental, social, psychological. But it is clear that economic growth does have such costs: global warming is a genuine danger, the rapid urbanization of the world is creating a whole host of new issues, and the drive for consumption in a place like China is creating new feelings of isolation and anomie.

The conclusion I draw from all this is that there is a tremendous role for the church to play—but it’s not the role it has been playing to date. Rather than writing checks and transferring funds to limited impact, it seems the church can be the single organization that uses its unique network of transnational and intercultural relationships to advocate for those who lose out in the rush to economic growth, stand with those who suffer, and—most of all—articulates a vision of a world that is so much richer than being just a place where economic growth takes precedence over everything else. The church wants to make not only poverty history, but so too the host of issues that rush to take its place.

The MDGs “expire” in 2015 and one wonders what the Episcopal Church will do when that happens. The argument here is that the church needs to refocus itself on being nothing more and nothing less than what it is called to be: a global network of mutual relationships that advocates for a rich and integrated vision of a reconciled world. If we succeeded in doing that we might finally be worthy of being called what we really are: the body of Christ.

Religious discourse in an age of “I have no need of you.”

I came across this Facebook spoof the other day:

(And that’s only part of it: you can see the rest of it here.)

This spoof is funny—and depressing—because it is true. Particularly as the American election enters its final weeks, it seems my Facebook feed has become dominated by such threads. And it’s not only on Facebook. More and more, people in this country seem to believe that things would be best if the other party just disappeared. Everyone is saying—effectively—”I have no need of you.”

The trouble is that sometimes discourse in the church mirrors a little too closely discourse in society. In this regard, I am reminded of San Diego Bishop James Mathes’ article in the Daily Episcopalian a few days ago. In it, he reflects on what a Christian commitment to discourse—especially at such a polarizing time, politically—might mean:

It begins with a commitment to discourse, especially with those with whom we differ. It continues with great care with the words that we use and the judgments that we make about others. Our common conversation about things of importance should be imbued with prayer. It requires more questions of inquiry than assertions of our own position—positions we should hold gently.

In all of this, the blogosphere is presently problematic. Read, react, respond is the norm. I wonder what would happen if we read, meditated and pondered, asked only questions of inquiry for a few days, and only then positively expressed our place in the conversation. Blogging could quickly take on the character of discourse and transformation.

And here is my dream: that our larger society would take note of how Episcopalians discuss the hard questions—how we speak with care and listen in deep, searching ways. As they observe us, they would see who we are as the body of Christ and how we treat each one another. As they see us, they will want to know more about the one whom we follow. I yearn for that kind of church: quintessentially Anglican and truly inclusive.

Although Bishop Mathes’ article drew quite a lot of critical reaction, I think he’s on to something. The way Christians talk to one another—and to others—can be part of the church’s counter-cultural witness. Rather than taking a posture of hostility to those who espouse different views, I think Christians are called to take a posture of relatedness.

Two reasons immediately spring to mind:

  • The other person in the conversation is made in the image of God. Surely, this is worth something. Rather than looking to tear that person down, perhaps we might concentrate on looking for the image of God in them. This can be awfully hard to do.
  • It is basic New Testament theology that we need one another to be whole. “I have no need of you” is precisely the thing we cannot say to one another, as Paul teaches in I Cor. 12. It is relatively easy to say this to people who have traditionally been excluded or whom we agree with. It is quite another thing—though no less important—to say that to those we cannot seem to find any common ground with. But that exactly the challenge the Gospel lays before us.

These can be challenging tasks. For instance, a posture of hostility towards Adolf Hitler seems quite justified. There has to be a genuineness from all involved in the conversation for this to work.

Still, I don’t think I’m the only person who is tired with the state of political discourse in this country. If it is not depressingly predictable, it is utterly vapid. I share Bishop Mathes’ hope that people could look to the church—Episcopal or otherwise—and say, “Look at them. They disagree on some issues but that does not take way from their commitment to discourse with one another and a sharing of a common life.”

I hope for a church where issues matter and are openly debated but not at the expense of the relationships we share by virtue of our one baptism in the one body of Christ. In this context, it’s worth remembering that Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is a missional prayer: “that they all may be one…so that the world may believe.”

It may be a lot to hope for. But I think there’s deep evangelical potential in it.

The Church in Bukavu, Congo

(This post contains graphic images of victims of violence.)

I’ve written before about how the church around the world is on the front-lines of some very serious, distressing, and appalling conflicts. News comes recently of the Diocese of Bukavu’s response to the ongoing violence—including killings, rapes, and general displacement—in eastern Congo, a place of conflict for much of the past two decades.

Extracts of the report follow. A reminder, as with anything we read from our sisters and brothers around the world, that English is often their third or fourth language.

The diocese of Bukavu serves to South Kivu Province and a great part of North Kivu Province. In both regions, the security situation is becoming worse because of fighting everywhere, massacre of innocents and massive displacement of people….

A large number of the victims are in displacement in Bulambika Centre and Bukavu town. Many of them are vulnerable people such women, children and old people. They are now living in the families of the Christians who hosted them but their situation is anxious because there is nobody to improve their basic needs….

Therefore, with anxious and sadness in hearts, the diocese of Bukavu recognizing the holistic mission of the Church is humbly requesting your prayers for peace and any kind of support YOU so that these vulnerable victims can get relief.

Their report includes a pictures of victims of the violence.

The full report is posted here, with contact details about how you can be in touch with folks in the Diocese of Bukavu. (The report contains pictures of the victims that are more graphic than these.)

If we take our baptism seriously, these pictures are not simply pictures of dead people but of dead sisters and brothers in Christ, whose suffering we, in a very real way, are connected to. And as the Bible tells us, “If one part suffers, all suffer with it.” (I Cor. 12:26)

Is it more than a little infuriating that the Anglican Communion can work itself into a lather about a proposed covenant, taking up years of time and huge swathes of Internet space, but barely notice when events like this take place?

“The church speaks the language of reconciliation. Not the government.”

I am a reader of The Economist, the British news magazine that has, to my knowledge, more foreign correspondents than any print news organization in the world. The Economist covers events even after they drop from the headlines in the rest of the world’s media.

But even it can falter. I thought about that while reading about the primate of Canada’s recent visit to the Church in Melanesia. Part of the visit included time in the Solomon Islands with Fr. Sam Ata, an Anglican priest and chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the Solomons.

Let’s be honest. How many of us are aware of the ongoing process of recovery in the Solomons following the violence between 1998 and 2003? How many of us know that this TRC process has been ongoing for some time? Not even The Economist has been giving much play to it.

And yet—there is the church. When the eyes of the world are turned away, when even sister and brother Anglicans are focused on a proposed covenant, the sex (or sex life) of its bishops, or any of a myriad of other things, the local church in the Solomon Islands remains an instrument of peace and reconciliation.

It reminds me of the church in South Sudan, a place where I’ve spent some time. There, in intensely poor and incredibly remote parts of the country, the government’s remit does not run. But the church is still there, running schools, building clinics, feeding refugees, and much else; “preaching good news of peace” (Acts 10:36) in other words. When society is on the verge of breakdown because of inter-tribal violence, who does the government ask to negotiate peace? The church. No one else has the authority, the stature, or the ability to do so.

So, as at least part of the attention of the church is occupied by a defeated covenant, a proposal for “radical hospitality,” and conversation (dare I call it naval gazing?) about church structure, spare a thought for our sisters and brothers in Christ around the world on the frontlines of some of the most difficult and intractable situations imaginable.

And then ask yourself: how can we support our fellow members in the one body of Jesus Christ?