There we were, thinking the Anglican Communion was all about conflict and tension, scrapping and bitching, and someone has to spoil it by telling a different story. Where’s consistency when you need it?
I am in Oxford for the annual meeting of all the bishops in the Church of England. It might surprise some, but what we see and hear here blows a mighty wind through some of the preconceptions we assume to be normal.
For example, Chad Gandiya, Bishop of Harare in Zimbabwe, describes movingly how his dispossessed and oppressed people are resiliently growing the church through heroic witness to Christ and a rejection of violent resistance to the Mugabe police state. The Anglican Church in Zimbabwe – a place where the rule of law is an idea soaked in fantasy – faces enormous struggles in the face of unjust and often violent state action; but, they refuse to bend to the pressure to deny Christ. Furthermore, they depend on the solidarity and prayer of Anglicans around the world: they know they are not alone and are not abandoned.
In this place of oppression Anglican Christians have no option but to focus on what matters and not be sidetracked by other stuff (matters that preoccupy those of us who do not have enough to do). And they know how to rejoice when the pressure is on. Their song won’t be silenced – and we sang it with them this morning.
Listening to Chad, whom I last met up with in Harare, I was conscious of the importance of the strong and unique links between the Diocese of Southwark and four dioceses in Zimbabwe (the fifth, Harare, is linked with the Diocese of Rochester). And although my new diocese, Bradford, is linked with dioceses in Northern Sudan, Zimbabwe is seared into my heart.
Chad was followed by the Bishop of Peru who described a very different context for Christian discipleship and ministry. The contrast was striking. South America is a different country (if you see what I mean) and the outworking of Christian faithfulness and witness is necessarily different. Working with very poor people, the Anglican Church there (and in other parts of the Southern Cone) is deeply rooted in soil that refuses to separate discipleship from social action and pastoral care.
Bishop Wolfgang Huber was the Protestant Bishop of Berlin-Brandenburg and Chair of the Council of the EKD until his retirement a couple of years ago. Since then he has been deeply involved in national ethics bodies, writing and lecturing, and doing public theology in and through the media. He was the inspiration behind the courageous launch of a decade of reform for the EKD which will culminate in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the birth of the Reformation in Wittenberg. This has meant a sometimes reluctant church facing the reality of a changing world and asking hard questions about form and substance.
The point I am making here is really simple. There is no such thing as ‘discipleship’ that isn’t worked out in a particular context. And the context dictates the shape and priorities of that discipleship. Which is why the realities of particular contexts often generates tensions with those whose context is different: Africa is not America is not Germany is not England.
Which brings us back to the point the Archbishop of Canterbury made, following the model of Jesus himself (compare Matthew 5 with Matthew 10): disciples are first learners (incompetent) who are called to take responsibility (growing competence) and create the space in which other people can then learn and grow and take responsibility and so on.
But, the learning demands the humility of listening and not imposing my own contextual complexion on those for whom this might not be immediately appropriate. In other words, we stand back and look and listen and learn about what it means to be the Christian Church in Zimbabwe or Peru or Germany or England. And what is revealed can be enlightening, challenging, disturbing and encouraging at the same time.
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