Communion Matters XXIV: The Anglican Middle East

North Africa was in large part the cradle of ancient, Patristic Christianity. To this day there are ancient Churches in the Middle East whose roots go back to that era and who have continued through centuries of life under the caliphates (I have included a picture of a painting of Kurios Pantokrator, which remains on the ceiling of Hagia Sophia, which became the Grand Mosque in Istanbul).  We should note that, in the later 19th Century, when the mission societies returned to the region, their first instinct was to work alongside the ancient Coptic Church, seeking to contribute a reformed element (not particularly successful). While some of these Anglican efforts began as chaplaincies, they have become lively and creative Churches of their own countries.

In recent years, for example, what is now the Church of the Province of Egypt has had a widespread ministry to Egypt, northern Africa, and into Ethiopia.  This has included an outreach to refugees, not least from south Sudan. One element of this ministry is the Alexandria School of Theology, rooted where Athanasius himself taught! There has been a fruitful ministry of hospitality and friendship between clergy and local sheikhs in the Diocese of Egypt which has made a considerable contribution to the national life.

When we turn to Palestine, there has been a number of prominent leaders who have been Anglicans, who have contributed to negotiation with Israel. (Hana Ashrawi was a prominent example). 

In recent years, with increasing radicalization in the Middle East, there has been more emigration, not least in Iraq, which has been a threat to the existence of these ancient Christian communities, and which Anglicans have an interest in helping.

I would like finally to mention Iran, where there was a rich ancient Christian Church before the Mongol invasion in the 1200’s. But the Church has continued there, and does so to this day, under heavy persecution since the Revolution. We remember that the famous Bishop Taqhani Tafti had to flee in 1980 after the murder of his son, and his successor Azad Marshall was not able to live continuously in Iran.  But there are vigorous underground Churches in Iran, as well as refugee Churches (an example of which is our own Grace Community). 

So the apostolic thread of faith in Persia is not broken, but continues, and ‘the vision awaits the time.’

Communion Matters XXIII: Southern Africa

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While the present topics may seem far from our own context and concerns, communion means that these are descriptions of our Church, and as we dig deeper, we see that we and they face issues which are more similar than one might at first think, in particular, how to come to terms with the culture that is around us and in us.

How might one learn more about Anglicanism in southern Africa? ‘Cry the Beloved Country,’ a classic novel by Alan Paton, is also a movie starring James Earl Jones (1995).

I have four thoughts about the history of Christianity there which have parallels with its form here.

  1. Mfecane is a word in Zulu which means the ‘crushing’ or the ‘churning.’ (see Sundkler’s History of Christianity in Africa.). It refers to the social upheaval of the 19th century- migration due to drought and ethnic conflict. (Sometimes we feel that we are in ‘mfecane’ no?) It was in such conditions that many people came to be open to hearing the Gospel?

  2. With the collision of culture, white and indigenous, and in the light of the Gospel, what could be kept and what left behind became foremost. The controversial Bishop Colenso in the mid-19th century suggested that polygamy could be retained which led to an international controversy (and contributed to holding the first Lambeth Conference!) Eventually international Anglicanism came to a common mind that the teaching on marriage between one man and one woman needed to be maintained, but pastoral accommodation for other wives was required.

  3. In the twentieth century south Africa saw the rise of a number of indigenous forms of Christianity. Some restored the importance of healing and exorcism, found both in the New Testament and in African culture. Others compromised the uniqueness of the saving death of Jesus as they returned to animal sacrifice. Discerning what to keep and what to leave behind is always an issue at the intersection of mission and theology.

  4. Most famously, and proudly, Anglicanism in South Africa stood against the racist policies of apartheid, epitomized by the witness of the recently deceased Bishop Desmond Tutu. Such work contributed to an end to apartheid without civil war.  Here again, the history of African Christianity shows the intersection of evangelism and racial reconciliation. From this era was born a strong friendship between the Anglican Church there and our own Episcopal Church.


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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.