Culture, tradition and the Anglican Communion

By Lauren R. Stanley

RENK, Sudan – A quick lesson in cultural differences:

In Sudan, a bride price is paid when two people want to get married. No bride price, no marriage.

In the United States, no bride price is paid. People get married for love.

In Sudan, if the families and the community don’t agree to the marriage, it doesn’t take place.

In the United States, if the families don’t agree, too bad. And who asks the entire community for permission to wed?

In Sudan, paying a bride price – in cattle, pigs, beads or money, depending on the tribe – is a given. It is considered by many to be payback for all the investment that went into raising and educating the girl. The more educated she is, the more cows (or pigs or beads or money) is paid to the girl’s family, to recompense them for their investment and for “losing” the girl, who goes over to the man’s family. (And yes, it is normal for a “girl” to marry a man – the men often are much older than the women.)

In the United States, paying back the woman’s family for educating her is not even a consideration.

Why is bride price – or the lack thereof – so important to figuring out how culture affects our understanding of God?

Well, it’s a major portion of our discussions in theology classes at the Renk Theological College, because it’s such a good example of understanding the “tradition” leg of the three-legged stool of Anglicanism.

The first thing the students learn is that “tradition” comes with both a capital “T” and a small “t.” The capital-T Traditions of the Church include the Sacraments, the Creeds and the Lord’s Prayer. Small-t traditions include the cultural ethos of the people in the Church.

To help the students understand these differences, we frequently talk about bride price. About one-third of our students are married; all of them paid the traditional bride price for their tribe and clan. None of them can understand why we in the United States do not do this. When I tell them that paying for a bride in America is not only not part of our tradition, but also could be considered illegal – “We don’t pay for people in America; we outlawed that in the 1860s.” – the students here are appalled.

“How can such a thing happen?” they ask.

I assure them I understand the differences in our small-t traditions, and that since I live in both Sudan and the United States, I pay attention to both. If I were to marry here in Sudan, to a Sudanese man, a bride price would be paid. That’s all there is to it; the local culture has to be honored.

But, I say, if I were to get married in the United States, no such thing would even be considered. We don’t do that; it’s not our tradition, capital “T” or small.

Who would set the bride price, they want to know, if I were to get married here. Oh, I explain, that bride price was set more than two decades ago, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya. An elderly tribal chief decided he had to have me as his fourth wife. In a desperate attempt to help both him and me save face, I wrote to my Pops and asked him to set a ridiculously high bride price – 2,000 cattle, 1,000 goats and 500 chickens. My Pops wrote back a beautiful letter, setting forth the price and explaining that I was his beloved daughter, and that it would break his heart to lose me to Kenya forever.

When the chief received the letter, he was devastated. “Ah,” he said, “I cannot pay that price. But I am glad to know that your father values you so highly. You must be special indeed. But the marriage cannot take place.” (I never did tell the chief that I was not devastated in the least by his decision; that would not have been appropriate.)

Since the going bride price here is 20-30 cows among the Dinka tribe, my bride price is considered ridiculously high and helps keep the conversation light, which is necessary, because then we move to the nitty-gritty of the theological discussion.

Whose tradition is correct? I ask. The adamant reply, from both sides: Ours. How can you be sure? I ask. It’s our tradition, we each say. Who decides? I ask. We do. But what if we can’t agree? And that’s where the conversation stops for a while, every single time.

For what are we do to when two cultures clash? How are we to reconcile ourselves to each other’s traditions? Do we fight over them? Do we simply agree to disagree? Do we disparage each other?

Or, I always ask, can we agree that what is appropriate in one culture – paying bride prices – is not appropriate in another – no bride prices even considered – and still manage to maintain our unity in the body of Christ?

Always, always, the discussion ends the same: Cultural differences must be respected – as long as we remember that we all are members of the same body, and as long as we remember not to make another culture do what we want.

When we’re discussing bride prices, it’s easy to come to this conclusion. This is a cultural difference that in the end is not all that important in the greater scheme of God’s plans for us.

But when we move the discussion to the next level – to other cultural disagreements between one part of the Anglican Communion and another – it becomes a little harder to come to a quick conclusion. Cultural differences over sexuality are huge, particularly between the Sudanese and American churches. It takes a lot of discussion, a lot of prayer, a lot of arguing, before we, a tiny slice of that Anglican Communion, finally can come to an agreement:

As long as you don’t force your culture on us, or make us change our culture to fit yours, we can live with each other.

Every one is a little uncomfortable with this idea of different cultures co-existing in the same body, but in the end, when we keep our focus on Jesus and the love of God for all us, it works out. We rely on Gregory the Great’s instructions to Augustine of Canterbury: If the local tradition is not impeding the faith, let it stand.

We have great disagreements over sexuality in the Communion today. Perhaps if we all stood back a bit, if we all looked at this the way we look at bride price, perhaps, then, we could all remember: We are all members of the same body, even when our local small-t traditions aren’t the same.

Will this discussion, small as it is, solve all the problems the Communion is facing today? No. But it’s a start.

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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