Cultures of the World and the Global Communion
The Rev’d Prof. Christopher C. Brittain
April 28th, 2019
It’s my great pleasure to be here with you this morning. Thank you Darcey and all of you for extending this kind invitation to worship with you. Darcey has asked me to speak to you about cultures of the world and the worldwide Anglican Communion, which I’ll do in a moment. First, let’s recall our reading from the Book of Revelation. The author John writes to all of the known churches of his age, emphasising that Jesus Christ has “made us to be a kingdom.” We are told that the almighty One who is, and was, and is to come, intends to draw all peoples together into a community of faithful witnesses to the love and glory of God. This calling upon the followers of Jesus to draw together to serve God in unity is a common theme in Scripture. In John’s Gospel, chapter 17 reminds us that, shortly before being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays for his disciples: “Holy Father, protect them in your name…so that they may be one.” In his letter to the Galatians 3:28, Paul reminds us that, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus.” This is the vision and calling that the worldwide Anglican Communion seeks to live. The Communion serves to draw Anglicans from all regions of the globe closer together, so that we can support one another in our common faith and mission, and witness collectively together to our world that our God is a God of love, peace, and reconciliation. The Anglican Communion is made up of 40 member churches, known as provinces, along with six other national churches who are official partners of the Communion. The Anglican Church of Canada is one of these provinces, joining tens of millions of other Anglicans across the globe
to express our Christian faith in ways nurtured by the traditions of Anglican worship, theology, and practice.
This is the vocation and mission of the Anglican Communion; today, I’ll focus on three challenges we have in living this out. The first challenge is a concern raised by some that Anglicans are becoming so different and diverse from each other, that it is difficult to see that we are united together in one church. For example, when I was conducting research on the Anglican Communion a few years ago, one African bishop shared what happened when he brought international visitors from other Anglican provinces to his diocese: When I brought these people [here]… for a … conversation, I took them across the whole diocese. Some people rejected [the visiting delegation] because they were people who ordain women, and so they said, ‘They are not the right kind of people.’ About [other visitors], people complained, ‘They are the ones who ordain homosexuals, so they are not the right kind of people.’ This is the problem! I chose the words of this African bishop because I suspect many of you might assume that these visiting Anglican delegations, representing practices questioned by many in this African diocese, were from the distant Global North. If so, such an assumption is mistaken. The first group described were from eastern Africa, while the second group was visiting from South Africa. Despite all our similarities, there are also many differences among Anglicans. The Anglican tradition is one that allows for, even respects, diversity in local practices. We permit this, not because Anglicans don’t take the standards of our faith
seriously, but because we take the Bible and the incarnation of Jesus seriously. For Paul’s teaching that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female,” surely clarifies that there is not one single way of living out the Christian faith, but rather that we are all called to respond out of our particular cultural environments, to express our encounter with the resurrected Christ in ways that are appropriate and life giving to our neighbourhoods. The Holy Spirit calls people to discipleship in the particular cultures and environments in which they find themselves. And so we will have some differences in our practice and articulation of the one faith we have in Jesus. The Anglican tradition embraces this reality, and the Anglican Communion embodies it.
The second challenge is that it is not always easy to live in the midst of such diversity. In the wake of disagreements over same-sex marriage, some argue that the Communion is fragmenting and has become too diverse to stay together. That might seem a real risk if we haven’t been here before. Recall that Anglicans have disagreed fiercely in the past over liturgy (BCP or the BAS), divorce, polygamy in some African churches, as well as the ordination of women. We have weathered painful disagreement in the past. Moreover, when it comes to disagreement over same-sex marriage, listen to the voice of this young woman who I interviewed in the Diocese of Pittsburgh: “I confess that I have a friend who is gay…I don’t agree with him, but I love him. And he’s a Christian, and I know he’s struggled with it, and the fact of the matter is I have come to a place where I have to admit that I don’t understand it.” Although not prepared to say that homosexuality is unproblematic, she also would not agree that it is any more sinful that a lot of other activities and practices that most people engaged in. Instead, she seeks to love lovingly in response to the differences she encounters. When faced with strong disagreement in the church, we would do well to look still further into the past, as we are encouraged today in the Book of Acts. This morning chapter 5 reminds us of tensions among the first generation of the church, as the apostles are called before a Council of elders for questioning and challenge. In this debate, Peter reminds us that
it’s not the disagreements and tensions among us that are to shape our decisions and our agenda, but rather our faith in Christ. He urges us to remember that, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” This is to say that we are to honour the prayer of Jesus that the Church may be one, and so we are called to work for the unity of Anglicans throughout the world, and to resist any urge to walk away from our fellow church members when tensions arise.
Of course, we will often we tempted to turn away from diversity and difference. Those Anglicans who have a different culture or understanding than our own may sometimes try our patience, or test our understanding. This brings us to the third challenge about the Anglican Communion that I’ll raise with you. This is simply our capacity to forget or ignore that it exists. Why should we bother with people who are different than us? What could we possibly learn from Anglicans who live in a very different part of the world, and inhabit a very different cultural perspective than our own? Here I could refer to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian, chapter 12, where Paul reminds us that the church is one body made up of many parts, particularly beginning in verse 21, where he emphasizes, “the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you, nor again the head to the feet.” As Paul concludes, “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” But I could also refer to today’s Gospel from John, which interrupts any inclination we might have to wall ourselves from our fellow Anglicans across the Communion. In this passage, the disciples respond to rumours of the resurrection by hiding themselves behind a locked door. Rather than gather with other followers of Jesus, to make sense of the confusing events around them, the disciples retreat and isolate themselves. In response to this, the risen Jesus appears in their midst and says, “Peace be with you.” And after calming their nerves, what does Jesus say? “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” We Anglicans here in Canada, in Oakville, at St. Simon’s, are not to hide ourselves behind locked doors, seeking refuge from diversity, from our neighbours, or from our fellow Anglicans across the globe. For we are called to be a living member of the Body of Christ, which means we are asked to recognize our need of other members of the body, and of the body’s need of us.
In my research among leaders across the Anglican Communion, many have shared with me how much they value the way the Anglican tradition is committed to embracing a range of diversity in its midst. One African bishop expressed this commitment as follows: In my diocese, you have traditional worshippers, you have Pentecostals, you have people of the Muslim religion – all in one household, and with the same father (although they may have different mothers because of polygamy)! So, in our region, we know about being in relationship with people you disagree with. You disagree with one another, but you cannot fight with your brothers. One English bishop expressed his appreciation for what he described as the “binds of affection” that hold the Communion together: “If you measured the future of the Anglican Communion not in terms of its structural resilience but in terms of the depth of relationships and the manifest desire to cohere then you’d have to say that it does have a bright future.” If this all sounds overly abstract, it is helpful to remember that, in a few minutes, as we present ourselves at the altar to receive the Eucharist, millions of other Anglicans are doing the same, whether they are praying in English, French, Mandarin, Swahili, Igbo, Yoruba, Ojibway, Maori, Gallic or Japanese. And as we pray the prayer that Jesus taught us – the Lord’s Prayer – let us recall the prayer of Jesus that his followers would be one – and that this is what it means for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Living as the Body of Christ means living as a diverse people who are united together in faith, love, and hope in the risen Jesus. Let’s not let the challenges that confront such an embrace of the fullness of
God’s church to diminish our commitment to the full membership of the Body of Christ, and let’s rejoice that today, across the globe, countless other Anglicans are praying for us and for our ministry. Thanks be to God, and may God continue to uphold and strengthen the bonds of affection that unify the Anglican Communion through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.