Thomas Bray’s unfinished project

About eighteen months ago, I spent some time at a seminary in Nigeria. Shortly after having a contentious conversation with a group of students’ wives about homosexuality, I peeked into the library. This is what I saw:IMG_1774

I’ve also spent time at a seminary in South Sudan. There, I also found a lot of people who found homosexuality to be difficult to reconcile with Christianity. Their library looked like this:IMG_2652

At Yale, where I went to school, I had access—literally—to millions of volumes and all the latest scholarship. At both these seminaries, the books are relatively few and are overwhelmingly old: there were few that were less than thirty years old. Yet at both places, I found students who were eager to read whatever they could get their hands on.

Think about where theology and the church were thirty years ago on the question of homosexuality. In that context, is it any wonder that we have such sharp disagreements on these issues?

The church commemorated last week Thomas Bray, a seventeenth century priest, who was instrumental in founding the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK.) (He was also involved in founding the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, which was instrumental in bringing the church to the American colonies.)

Bray’s idea in founding SPCK was that Christians should have access to Christian scholarship and literature. He envisioned libraries in churches and an educated clergy. SPCK helped start some of the first libraries in the American colonies that focused on church-related material.

When we look at these libraries in places like Nigeria and South Sudan, we are reminded that Bray’s work is not yet done. There are really important insights of the last generation that have not been shared yet with our sisters and brothers around the world, and not just on questions of sexuality. (The Anglican Theological Review’s Seminaries Abroad Gift program is one very small way in which this work is being done.)

The commemoration of Thomas Bray is an opportunity to reflect on a visionary Anglican. But more importantly, it’s a chance to reflect on the vital need to continue his important work.

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.

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.

Learning from the past

This is the first summer in five in which I will not visit some part of Africa and spend time with our sisters and brothers in Christ in that part of the world.

But I’ve found what is, perhaps, the next best thing.

St. Paul’s Sudanese Mission in South Phoenix is an Episcopal church like no other in the country: it’s the only free-standing Sudanese Episcopal church in the country. The congregation is primarily what are often called “Lost Boys”: some of the thousands of children who walked into refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya twenty or more years ago and were resettled in the U.S. a decade ago.

On past trips to Sudan, I’ve done a fair amount of teaching: in dioceses, and in seminaries. (I’ve also done much more learning than I’ve done teaching.) St. Paul’s has a Saturday school for lay people that they call the Sudanese American Theological Institute. Thanks to a generous grant from the Evangelical Education Society of the Episcopal Church and building on a course I did at Yale this past spring, I’m teaching a course this summer on Sudanese Church History. Here’s the first class.

Now, at first glance, you might think it a bit odd that an American should be a teaching a bunch of Sudanese about their own church history. In fact, however, many Sudanese, particularly many of the Lost Boys, became Christian after they were forced to leave southern Sudan. Their conversion happened in places like Kakuma Refuge Camp and Khartoum. Church history is not something that is widely known.

So on Saturday we began at the beginning, with the so-called Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8 (Really, he was from the Meroitic empire in what is now northern Sudan) and the Nubian Christian empire that withstood an Islamic invasion and was a flourishing Christian kingdom for centuries on the Nile River. We talked about what we can learn about the enculturation of the Gospel, missionary strategies, Christian-Muslim relations, and much more.

I had them read extracts from the sixth century writer, John of Ephesus, who documented the work of missionaries to the Nubian kingdoms.

Then we talked about the pros and cons of a missionary strategy that focused on converting kings and nobles and discussed how relations between the Nubian kingdoms changed from enmity to friendship when the kings became Christian.

You get this sense, sometimes, that westerners think Christianity is a relatively recent import to Africa, brought by Euro-Atlantic missionaries in the last century or two. That’s obviously not true. After Pentecost, the Gospel radiated in every direction from Jerusalem—not just to the north-east—and we do well to remember that. Christianity is part and parcel of African history. Studying that history seems like a good idea to me, both for what we learn about what happened and for what it can teach us about our own time.

Next up: the beginning of the European mission era. Why did European missionaries—who had so much success elsewhere in Africa—fall flat on their face when they encountered the Dinka people? And what does that tell us about mission and evangelism in our own time?

News from Sudan

If you have been reading the news from Sudan lately, you will know that it is not good, and that the two countries are teetering close to all-out war.

Here is this, from Bishop Abraham Nhial of the Diocese of Aweil, with news from his diocese on the border between north and south. (I travelled with Abraham to one of the critical border regions last July.)

Dear all,

This letter is to update you all about the current war situation in South Sudan, as many of you have seen it in television and it read it in the newspapers, the war is back to us. As we are watching television and reading about what going on through the newspapers, we learnt that many people are killed, wounded, displaced and their properties are looted or destroyed by the soldiers from Sudan government leaving them in horrible situation.

As I write this letter many of displaced people go to bed everyday without food even one meal in a day is not there, leave alone shelters to protect them from the rains and no clothing to cover their skinny bodies. The displaced persons have experienced great trauma and great suffering now more than ever because no one was affecting war again soon. In fact, people were preparing to cultivate their farms and they were working hard to start new life the new nation.

This letter is to inform you friends of the Diocese of Aweil that two thousand eight hundred and sixty people are displaced by the recent fight in the North Barh el Ghazal State. Therefore, I am appealing to you all, individually, a church and a community to pray for us, advocate on our behalf and consider to support if you can to save the lives of your brothers and sisters in Christ from dying of hunger. Please may you all show them the love of Christ the need now at this difficult time in their lives. I will becoming to USA on May 08 and I would love to visit some of you if you want me to speak in your church, business, school or community  gathering etc.

As usual, I am truly thankful for everything you do every single time. There is no bigger blessing than friends like you always stand with us in time of trouble like this; may God bless you and reward you all for your services.

With love always!

Bishop Abraham Nhial
ECS Diocese of Aweil
South Sudan

It’s worth underscoring that advocacy really does matter and that the United States can play a significant role in this situation in preventing the outbreak of what would be an incredibly disastrous war. Have you talked to your senators or representatives lately? Now’s a good time to start.

The Cross in our Midst in Holy Week

There are many seemingly intractable situations in South Sudan but one that has gotten a fair bit of attention recently is the ongoing violence in Jonglei state. As we sit in this Holy Week, there is an update on the situation, in the form of a report from Daniel Deng Bul, Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of Sudan and a lead negotiator in Jonglei.

The Committee feels that there is a new momentum for peace in Jonglei State at all levels, from the grassroots right up the national government. We appeal to all stakeholders within Jonglei and South Sudan to put aside their differences and take this opportunity to work together for peace, reconciliation and tolerance. Enough is enough.

We appeal to all to speak the language of peace, reconciliation and tolerance, particularly our diaspora and intellectuals. We must all accept responsibility for what we say and what we do, to give peace a chance in Jonglei and the whole of South Sudan.

I highlight this for two reasons. First, it’s a reminder of the way our sisters and brothers in Christ around the world are on the frontlines of some difficult situations. It’s one thing, as I did last night, to sit and look at images of violence in the world and reflect on daily crucifixions in this world. It’s entirely another, as members of Archbishop Daniel’s commission will do tomorrow, to visit devastated villages on Good Friday and see the cross in our midst.

Second, it is always worth highlighting—since it seems it is so easily forgotten—that in many parts of the world, it is the church that is the active agent for peace and reconciliation in society, in part because that is the church’s calling but also because in some cases the church is the most well-established organization in society.

Daniel Deng Bul, incidentally, was recently nominated by a British think-tank for their person of the year award.

“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?