Encountering Christ: Some Ruminations on Context

July 2, 2003

One of my privileges is to represent our church around the Anglican Communion. I have learned from these visitations that the contexts in which we as Anglican Christians seek to express fidelity to Christ are vastly different and thus call for different responses. The sense of hope of our brothers and sisters in the midst of seemingly hopeless situations is a tremendous source of inspiration to us all to be faithful, even when the way forward is unclear, and no easy resolutions are in sight.

In mid-May I traveled to Brazil for the annual meeting of the primates of the Anglican Communion. The Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil is immensely vital, has a large percentage of young clergy, and does remarkable things with few resources. The Primates Meeting itself – my fourth such gathering – was a very positive occasion and witnessed to the value of meeting together.

After the Primates Meeting Phoebe and I flew to Uganda to pay a visit to the Church of Uganda at the invitation of the Primate, Archbishop Livingstone Mpalanyi-Nkoyoyo. If I were choosing a motto for the Church of Uganda it would be Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Our brothers and sisters there deal with devastating situations of poverty, HIV/AIDS, and a war that has raged in the north for 17 years. Yet, this heroic church remains faithful and perseveres. Prayer and a deep trust in God’s ability to provide undergird all they seek to do in Christ’s name.

Our visit included a very fruitful day of retreat with the bishops and their wives, and had also included the Feast of the Martyrs of Uganda. June 3 is a national holiday marked by a pilgrimage of Anglicans and Roman Catholics to Namugongo, where 25 young boys were literally roasted to death on June 3, 1886 for refusing to renounce their faith in Christ.

Thousands of pilgrims were seated on the grass of an enormous natural outdoor amphitheater. It was my great privilege to preach, and as I prepared to go to the lectern some 40 women appeared in their colorful blue and white dresses, members of the Mother’s Union and the Daughters of the King, and escorted me up and down and around for several hundred yards singing and dancing to the rhythm of drums. I have never danced my way to the pulpit before and was quite caught up in this new liturgical experience!

Coming to know intimately something of the different realities that shape and form the life and ministry of Anglicans in other parts of the world has made me aware of how various questions are viewed through the lens of cultural and historical circumstances, as well as particular ways of reading Scripture and engaging in theological reflection.

There are provinces within the Anglican Communion in which being the church is understood largely in terms of fidelity to a direct reading of Scripture. For other provinces, sacraments are the ground of self understanding: baptism, which unites singularities in one body, and the eucharist, in which our differences are reconciled by sharing the one bread. It is the interplay of the sacrament of Scripture and the sacraments as enacted Scripture that produce something of the creative tension we describe as the Anglican Way.

The Ugandan context has particular challenges for the church, including the work of nation-building after years of internal strife. As well, the Church of Uganda was the first to confront the AIDS crisis. They must also work through the relationships of tribes and language groups – asking what communion means in a context where there are deep and historic divisions.

Context is also a factor in our ongoing discussions around the Anglican Communion on human sexuality. This was made plain to me when I was asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury following the 1998 Lambeth Conference to convene an international conversation among bishops on sexuality. Over three years, through a discipline of common prayer and undefended reception of one another’s realities and ways of interpreting Scripture, an enlarged sense of what it means to be bound together in the communion of the Holy Spirit emerged. In spite of profoundly different views, there was no question of our essential unity in the one Christ.

It is surprising to some in our context to learn that in many parts of the world homosexuality is understood only as a behavior and not as a matter of identity. The same word in different areas can carry with it very different assumptions and meanings, which leaves us open to misinterpretation or talking across one another.

These ruminations on context emerging from my travel in recent days have helped me prepare for General Convention. Bishops and deputies will come to Minneapolis out of our own different contexts with all their urgencies and singularities, and seek together to express the mind of Christ. It is my prayer that we may be guided by the Spirit who draws from what is of Christ and seeks to make it known to the community of faith in every age.