Globalization and the future of the Anglican Communion

June 14, 2007

Globalization is a highly combustible concept. It produces angry street demonstrations, yet increasingly has become part of the working vocabulary of reflective church members everywhere. What does it mean in a religious context? Proponents acknowledge the Internet's instantaneous speed, the pervasive influence of cell phones, DVDs, television, and the spread of worldwide air travel. Globalization's opponents see it as a threat to the very fabric of societies, to be railed against without being precisely defined.

A minimal working definition of globalization in today's context might be: the process of increasing worldwide political, economic, technological, and religious interaction, resulting in swiftly shrinking horizons for all participants. Swift globalization also produces friction among affected parties and many incongruous moments as well. An overseas missionary recently recalled a difficult journey through the jungles of New Guinea to deliver a gift to a local church. When the ceremony, complete with local music and dances, was over, the village headman invited his visitors into a thatched hut to watch the world cup soccer finals on a battery operated TV.

In reality, globalization has been an active historical force since at least the 15th century when growing numbers of European merchants, military, and missionaries began making voyages to the earth's ends. But trade with distant people and the intrusiveness of new religious ideas really belong to much earlier times. The Acts of the Apostles, considered as travel literature for a moment, reflect many of the tensions facing the contemporary global church. In the century after Christ's death, his followers around the Mediterranean literal compiled various oral traditions about Jesus as Messiah and prayerfully applied them in their own widely diverse settings. Understandably, sharp disputes arose, both among Christians, and with enthusiasts for Greek, Roman, Jewish and other religious expressions. Globalization is never friction free.

Fast forward now to the present. The deeper causes of current tensions originate less in talk about sex than in unresolved frictions in the postcolonial encounter. Until now, the model of inter-Anglican relations has been an export-import one. The United Kingdom and North America were major exporters of their versions of Christianity; Africa, Asia, and Latin America were the willing importers. As such, the latter were expected to reject much of what had been important in traditional religions, such as ancestor veneration, and unilaterally adopt western dress, culture, and religions. One example of this incongruous process: I once entered an isolated small Vietnamese church and was greeted by the local priest who showed us the church's prized possession, a large 19th century plaster statue of the Joan of Arc, arrayed with sword, shield, and full body armor.

New times demand new approaches. Global Anglicans can profit from the example of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conference (FABC), who after several decades of deliberation, produced a carefully honed concept of dialogue that includes four aspects:

  1. The dialogue of life, where people strive to live in an open and neighborly spirit, sharing joys and sorrows, daily problems and preoccupations.
  2. The dialogue of action, where Christians and others collaborate for the integral development, justice at a local level, and the liberation of people.
  3. The dialogue of theological exchange, where specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages, and to appreciate each other's spiritual values.
  4. The dialogue of religious experience, where persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith, and ways of searching for God or the Absolute. (Professor Peter Phan of Georgetown University has elaborated on these aspects of dialogue in numerous publications and has provided me with this model.)

For Anglicans, our present lumpy controversies can represent a positive teaching moment. We have an opportunity to share God's love with one another thanks to the Internet and through old and new informal global networks of individual, parish, and diocesan contacts. Such encounters of personally sharing, grace-filled experiences are life giving. Time spent in a Haitian village's medical clinic, supporting an Argentine bishop's work with land-deprived peasants, or helping a Myanmar diocese build an English teaching program, provide concrete examples of God's love through witness and mission around the Anglican Communion. Through them the wider forces of globalization are transformed into moments of grace.

One way of broadening such a wider dialogue on religious globalization is to focus on a few central questions such as:

  1. How do we understand the Reign of God in its contemporary setting. Is it an expansive or a restrictive concept?
  2. How does it relate to the national settings in which contemporary Christians find themselves?
  3. How do the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) relate to our understanding of New Testament mission?
  4. How best can we listen carefully to one another, walk together rather than talk at each other, and live together compassionately, despite seemingly harsh differences?

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