Supporting theological education in South Sudan

In a recent post, I suggested that if we wanted more women bishops in the Anglican Communion, we needed to support theological education. That comment sparked some conversation on Twitter as people asked just what that might mean.

"Evangelism is one blind beggar showing another blind beggar where to find food." -D.T. Niles
“Evangelism is one blind beggar showing another blind beggar where to find food.” -D.T. Niles

Here’s the first thing to say: South Sudanese Christians are eager/enthusiastic/desperate for further education. One reason so many South Sudanese converted to Christianity during the civil war was that they realized their lack of education was hampering their ability to assert themselves against northerners. Education and Christianity had always been linked so as they sought education, they sought baptism as well.

Afternoon literacy class, Diocese of Rumbek, South Sudan
Afternoon literacy class, Diocese of Rumbek, South Sudan

That enthusiasm continues today. Teaching and education is a huge part of what the church does. On a local level, that means, for instance, literacy lessons for women. On a broader level, it means that I am continually meeting people who want me to find them “sponsors” abroad who can pay their school fees for further study, whether at the Episcopal Church of the Sudan’s seminary, one of South Sudan’s overmatched universities, or at some place abroad.

There have been a variety of efforts to respond to this need. Thirty years ago, a Theological Education by Extension program was created in which courses were designed, published, and then circulated to be offered in small groups in various dioceses. In the time since, they have not been updated, revised, or augmented, and translation work into South Sudan’s many languages has been sporadic. But in a measure of how important education is—and how few the resources are—I still see these books in use in dioceses. When it’s all you have, you’re going to use it, even if it’s imperfect.

But the major message I get from South Sudanese is that they know they don’t have the resources to do a sufficient job of education; they can’t meet the need themselves. I remember meeting a bishop two years ago. Within—literally—seventeen seconds of meeting me, he said, “My clergy need better education. Can you come start a Bible college in my diocese?” On this recent visit to South Sudan, I spent time at Dhiaukuei, a village that became an important clergy training site during the civil war. The training has dwindled, but people are eager for it to start again. When I visited, I was repeatedly asked if I had come to be its principal and when I would be starting courses.

So how to move forward?

There is, of course, the need to finance scholarships for people to study at existing institutions in South Sudan and abroad. But the vast majority of Christians in South Sudan will never be able to do that. They’re too busy living a subsistence agriculture life that doesn’t allow for time off.

Instead, I have become convinced that there is an enormous unmet need for regional clergy training sessions. I did something like this on a very small scale two years ago. During the dry season when people aren’t busy cultivating, clergy, Mothers Union members, and youth leaders could come to a central point for a week or two for lectures, Bible study, group work, etc. on particular topics.

Lest you think that the teachers of these sessions have to be super-educated, extensively-published, multiple-degree-holders, remember how great the need for education is. I offered clergy trainings as a seminarian. When I did, the students eagerly welcomed everything I had to offer, no matter its imperfections. When I was finished, they asked for more—not only of what I had been teaching, but also of more practical issues, like parish administration, stewardship, etc. You don’t even have to be ordained to teach those topics! In fact, it probably helps if you are not.

I am convinced that trainings such as these would be eagerly welcomed in a place like South Sudan. What’s more, they would introduce Christians from the Euro-Atlantic world to day-to-day life in an inspiring and fascinating part of the Anglican Communion—but one that is also struggling under the burden of ministering in the world’s newest nation. When it comes to building relationships with fellow Christians, there is no substitute for gathering around the Bible together and trying to figure out what it means. The incarnational aspect of these trainings remains their most important aspect.

St. Paul writes, “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding.” (Romans 14:19) Theological education is a route to that goal.

(I would be remiss if I did not note that many of these ideas are developed in much greater detail in my forthcoming book, Backpacking through the Anglican Communion.)

Hidden Obstacles to Women in the Episcopate

IMG_0239The woman on the left is Martha Yar Mawut, the archdeacon of Akot in the Episcopal Church of the Sudan. Akot is a see city, so it’s a pretty important role. She was an important lay evangelist during the war, was later ordained, and now, by all accounts, performs her job with admirable skill and talent.

If you believe, as I do, that having women bishops is part of the Anglican charism to the wider body of Christ, then women like Martha matter. Archdeacons are among the prospective bishops of the church. The more women like Martha there are in South Sudan, the greater the chance that one of them will become a bishop.

But I don’t think Martha will ever be a bishop. And thinking about her helps us think through some of the obstacles to women bishops in the Anglican Communion.

The topic of women as bishops came up frequently on my recent visit to South Sudan. Everyone I spoke to—male bishops, male and female priests, lay people—were in favour of the idea. It makes sense. Women played a huge role in the growth of the church during the civil war. Male church leaders know that the strength of their church is in the women.

The Episcopal Church of the Sudan has ordained women for about a dozen years. A few are archdeacons, canons or, in one instance, a cathedral dean. In fact, on a rough estimate, I’d say the proportion of female clergy in ECS compares favourably to that in the Church of England, given that the C of E has ordained women as priests for roughly twice as long

Nor is there any canonical impediment to women bishops in South Sudan. When ECS made the decision to ordain women as priests and deacons, they (sensibly) concluded that it did not make sense (theological or otherwise) to deny women to be ordained as bishops.

So there are women like Martha in leadership in dioceses—not many, but some—and there is a path towards women bishops. So why aren’t there any?

The answer I heard, time and again, is education. Given the civil war and the lack of resources in South Sudan, training for ordination is of a necessarily ad hoc and contingent nature. Some people go for a few months to a vernacular Bible college or a diocesan training course, others are fortunate to attend ECS’ English-language seminary, a very small handful have studied abroad. For a variety of reasons, women clergy, by and large, are less educated than their male counterparts.

But ECS has a de facto requirement that its bishops be able to speak English so that they can take part in churchwide meetings. They also have to have some kind of diploma or degree. These are good requirements to have, but it means that many women who perform faithful, important ministry in their local context are unable to be considered when it comes time to elect bishops. Martha could greet me in English, but all my conversation with her was through a translator.

None of this is to minimize the unique array of cultural obstacles women in South Sudan face in pursuing leadership. But to people who know only about the “African church” that it is some kind of misogynistic institution, you would be surprised how much support I heard for women bishops in ECS.

There has been good news of late for supporters of women bishops: the first woman bishop in the Church of Ireland and the Church of South India, the first woman ordained in the Church of England elected bishop (albeit in New Zealand), and canonical changes in Wales to permit the possibility of women bishops.

So much of the debate about women bishops focuses on the canonical changes necessary. That’s good, but it’s not enough. The lesson of my recent visit to South Sudan seems to be that if you want more women bishops, support theological education.

UPDATE: Conversations sparked by this post led to a second post laying out ways to support theological education in South Sudan.