An exchange of missionaries

By Lauren R. Stanley

More than 1,000 Anglicans went to Jerusalem last month for the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON). They were going, they said, to defend the faith. In the end, they claimed that they alone knew the truth, and as a result, have set up a new movement that they claim is one of the Spirit.

The participants, from the Global South, have many beefs with the Global North. In the South, they say, the Spirit is moving; in the North, they have decided, it is not. In the South, they say, true Anglicans are being faithful; in the North, they claim, faithfulness has been set aside. In the South, they say, the “true” Gospel is being proclaimed; in the North, they declare it is discredited by culture and militant secularism.

Many of those bishops who attended GAFCON will not be at Lambeth later this month, because they feel the Anglican Communion has erred and strayed too far from what they say the Gospel means.

But if they don’t attend Lambeth – and latest reports show that scores of these bishops, many from Nigeria, will not – how will they ever get to know what those in the Global North really believe? And how will those who attend get to know those who stay home?

What we have here is a lack of understanding, not only of each other’s interpretation of the Gospel, but of each other. Those in the Global South simply do not know those in the Global North very well, and those in the Global North know those in the Global South hardly at all. Instead, people on each side proclaim what they say those on the other side believe, and refuse to engage, refuse to seek the truth, refuse to let God work God’s wonders upon the relationships.

This truly is at the core of the misunderstandings and disputes taking place in the Anglican Communion today: A refusal to enter into real communion with each other.

So how do we resolve this problem? How do we get to know each other better, so that we can understand each other better? How do we enter into each other’s lives so deeply that in the end, we not only seek Christ in each other, but find Christ in each other as well?

One answer is to go live and move and have our being with each other. To send people from each side to serve as representatives of their churches in those areas of the world where the disagreement is strongest. In other words, to send missionaries forth, not just from the Global North to the Global South, but from the Global South to the Global North as well.

As an appointed missionary of the Episcopal Church, serving in the Episcopal Church of Sudan, I can tell you that actually living in another culture opens your eyes to whole new understandings of God’s love for all of God’s very good creation. Living and moving and having your being in a place that is foreign to you in almost every aspect forces you to look at God’s people in new ways. It forces you to let go of all those things you are used to, all those things you have always taken for granted, and makes you reset your priorities. Sometimes, those priorities are small: clean water for bathing, for example. Sometimes, they are huge: How do you proclaim a Gospel of God’s wild, radical, inexplicable, never-ending love among a people who have lived in a state of war for five decades, where death is an ever-present companion and hatred is a norm?

When you go to a new place, you take all your baggage with you, regardless of Jesus’ instructions to take nothing along on the journey. Packed in that bag is your hermeneutic, the cultural forces that formed you as a child. Going forth from the United States, where religious freedom and pluralism are taken for granted, to a country where religion not only divides the people, but is still being used an excuse to harm and sometimes kill those same people, makes you think about your religion, and your faith, in whole new and much deeper ways. It forces you to decide what is important, and what is not, what you will cling to, regardless of the harm that may come your way, and what you can let go of, because in God’s greater scheme, it’s not all that important any more.

And living in that new place, as a member of the Anglican Communion, does one more thing: It reinforces the great joy of being a member of something that is so much bigger than you.

The Episcopal Church – the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society – does send forth missionaries. Not enough, I grant you; I wrote about that last month, and will continue to write about that in coming months. But even though we don’t have enough missionaries serving in the fields of the Lord, we have some, and the ones we have are making a difference. They are the face of the Episcopal Church, and in the places where they serve, the people with whom they serve do not see some monolithic Global North church trying to dictate to them what to believe and how to act, which is what the participants in GAFCON would have them believe. Rather, they see people who are doing their best, however limited that might be, to live into the Gospel imperatives to love God and love neighbor, to seek and to serve those most in need, to preach the Gospel with their very lives.

It is not enough to simply go and visit with each other. Visits help, to be sure, but far too often, when someone visits us, we put out our best china, we clean the house, we make sure that the odd uncle or crazy aunt is hidden away. Visiting gives us only a glimpse of how other people live; it is like seeing through a mirror darkly.

Living with each other, long-term, helps us to see more clearly. Only when we live together do we discover that the best china has been borrowed from six different neighbors, that the house rarely looks this good, and that the odd uncle and crazy aunt not only live with you, you are responsible for caring for them daily. Living together makes both sides adjust to each other. The formalities fall away, the realities come to the fore, and very soon, real communication – and real communion – take place.

If we truly believe that this Communion is worth saving, that we are stronger by working together as messengers of the Gospel, then we need to act. We need to be brave enough to go where angels fear to tread, counting on those same angels to catch us before our feet strike the ground

We need more people to go forth on long-term, full-time mission assignments. We as a Church need to put our money where our mouths are, to fully support missionaries – hundreds of them, not mere tens of them – so that people around the Communion can get to know us better. And we need to bring missionaries here from other portions of the Communion, so that we can get to know them better. That is the only way to strengthen this Communion of ours, and the only way to truly serve the Gospel — together.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Renk, Sudan. She is a lecturer at the Renk Theological College, teaching Theology, Liturgy and English, and serves as chaplain for the students.

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