Communion Matters XIX: Communion and Condemnation

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Communion is first of all about support and ‘mutual responsibility,’ first to members of our own Church, and then to those with whom we are in full communion. But this attitude of mutual upbuilding should pertain in our ecumenical relations as well. This sense of support can be consistent with disagreement (about which we will have more to say in the next blog). But because of current events, I want first to say a word about the sterner side of communion. For if we care about our family, we are required on occasion to warn, even rebuke, one another. These too are acts of love (though, one hopes, sparingly).

Recently the Orthodox Patriarch of Russia, Kirill, offered unambiguous support, indeed his blessing, on the war effort in Ukraine. Now He is, obviously, orthodox when it comes to doctrine!  And so it would not be right to anathematize him and his Church. But this support for the brutal, murderous, and unprovoked attack can find no justification (even if the cozy relation to the Czar has precedent.)  To a make of the Church of Christ an unambiguous arm of this tyrannous war machine certainly is a grotesque distortion of the Gospel, and places a stumbling block to anyone hearer.  As a result it is incumbent on us as Christians to condemn this religious idolatry in the strongest terms.

There are precedents for such a condemnation. During Nazism, the Confessing Church in Germany, led by such luminaries as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, denounced the ‘German Christian’ Nazi supporters as having made of Christianity a new kind of paganism, one that worships ‘blood and earth.’ Something similar may be found in the denunciation of the Afrikaans Reformed Church which made apartheid itself an article of its teaching.  To be sure, I am not denying that we too as American Christians have had our moments also deserving of condemnation. Nor are we condemning ordinary Russian worshippers. But this does not change the facts before us. The point is not one-ups-man-ship, but rather the clarity of the witness to the Gospel itself. As in the ‘Grand Inquisitor’ of the great Russian Christian writer Dostoyevsky, Kirill has abandoned discipleship to Jesus Christ for a Church accommodated to earthly political needs, and those of the most sordid type.  Of leaders such as Kirill, we pray kyrie eleison.





Communion Matters XVIII: Communion and Colonialism

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I recently read an essay in which the author said that the Anglican Communion is a product of (in particular English) colonialism. Is this true, and in what sense is it so?

Yes, because the Gospel and so, in this case, the Anglican Church arrived in most of the countries where the English arrived. This is simply a fact, and so it does naturally raise the question of the nature of the connection.

No, if one means that the Church was an arm of the colonialists. The history is much more complicated. In the Pacific, the missionaries opposed the traders and the depredations. In India the raj found conversion fostered by the missionaries to be an annoyance, as where the changes to social norms they promoted (which we would now applaud).  They made easy governance harder. In east Africa the missionaries didn’t follow the colonialists, but goaded them into action, in opposition to the brutality of the slave trade. In the United States the Episcopal Church was formed once the colonialists were expelled.  With respect to native people the record is checkered: advocacy, well-intentioned cultural opposition, and abuse in the residential schools run on behalf of the government.  (We do well to remember that in the 19th century cultural assimilation into white cultural was the ‘enlightened’ liberal cause).

Furthermore one must recall that most of the actual evangelizing in the 19th century at the village level was accomplished by local catechists trained by the missionaries. In most cases the Gospel was first explained in a local language and dialect (which process itself led to a new resilience in the local culture, enabling it to survive, as the late Lamin Sanneh in particular taught us).

Yes, in the sense that the missionaries to the younger churches made the same economic assumptions as elsewhere. But this too is not simple- I served in Tanzania, where the government was socialist, and the mission societies served well there.

No, in the sense that the Communion is preponderantly made up of, and led by, Christians indigenous to their own countries.  It is made up of local people who were the recipients, in various ways good and ill, of the colonial era.  And today so much of the debate within the Communion may be understood as Global South leaders taking the helm of, and speaking up for, their own provinces over against direction from the North.

Finally, yes and no, for many older Christians in Global South Churches express their gratitude for the receipt of the Gospel, along with criticism for the missionaries’ errors. They have a nuanced and mature view. To such maturity of assessment we too are called.




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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.