Thursday 23 September 2010

The Global South missionary delusion

Shopping for yam and Knorr chicken stock cubes in Brixton market last week, I was served by a Nigerian guy who had arrived in the UK 10 years ago when he was 22. He asked if I had visited Nigeria. Nope, I said. Why not? I told him that I’d visited Ghana 4 times and felt safe there, but was uncertain about safety in Nigeria. I should go, he said, Nigeria is safer than Brixton. After a few more exchanges, I decided to take the risk of telling him I was afraid to visit because I’m gay and have a public profile. Being gay is not a problem for him, he said. Would it have been a problem when he was in Nigeria, I asked – Yes. Have his views changed as a result of being in the UK? Yes.

In an article for Evangelicals Now entitled The Africans are coming, available on Anglican Mainstream, Canon Chris Sugden writes about the second all-African Bishops Conference in Entebbe, Uganda. He says the African Anglican Church is now going to move on to the front foot and actively promote orthodox Christian faith “from everywhere to anywhere.” They think that the Anglican Church in the West has forgotten or abandoned many of the foundations of the Christian gospel that we brought to Africa. Africa will now take responsibility for bringing that biblical gospel back to the missionary homelands.

Oh the glory of the conservative evangelical world view, shared by Canon Chris Sugden and, as I think he assumes, millions of Anglicans in every part of the world apart from those white, western Provinces infected by the terrible disease of liberal revisionism. Conservatives, of course, are faithful, orthodox and Biblical in a way which I, gay, white and western, am not according to the judgment of Global South leaders. I would like to suggest that their judgment has a tad of a tendency to arrogance.

What they fail to understand in their myopic wisdom is that there are tens of thousands of African and Caribbean Anglicans in this country who do not share the Global South theology and message. Africans living in the UK do not hold the attitudes expressed by some (and I stress that it is not all) of the bishops in Entebbe. Many Africans arriving in the UK and the USA are changed by their experience and revise their views on issues such as homosexuality.

The congregation I served in Wandsworth, South London, was 50/50 black and white, the black members coming from west and east Africa and the Caribbeans from Jamaica, St Lucia and other countries. All of them were at ease with me being gay.

Anglican Mainstream and their allies in the Global South live in a fantasy bubble in which they fantasize about rescuing western Anglicans from our faithlessness and perversion. Such arrogance …

They are not alone in failing to have an accurate picture of the UK, thanks in part to the work of Anglican Mainstream. The Pope is reported as having had an about-turn, saying yesterday that his visit to Britain had enabled him “to see how much the Christian legacy is still strong and active at every level of social life” and how he had the opportunity to get to know “a people rich in culture and faith”. This is in stark contrast to the warning he had issued before arriving and experiencing the UK for himself. He had warned against “aggressive forms of secularism” and an aide had described Britain as prey to an “aggressive new atheism”.

Chris Sugden concedes that none of the conservative primates claims to know or possess the whole truth but continues that church has been entrusted with the “faith once delivered to the saints” and to witness to the truth entrusted to it – as if we in the west do not have such faith but the conservatives do.

There is something appallingly wrong in Chris’s description of African and Caribbean Anglicans who have come to live in the UK. We have long welcomed overseas Anglicans to the UK and treated them as “objects of mission”, says Chris. Well, excuse me, but I have never treated overseas Anglicans as “objects of mission”. I have welcomed them as co-workers in the Gospel. Those who have worked with me would be shocked at Chris’s description of them.

Chris then makes another grave error of ignorance or deliberation. They live here, he says, with children and grandchildren born in these islands. Many have senior roles in public life – members of the House of Lords, leaders of Trades Unions, senior doctors. He then writes about examples of recent months (well-publicised by Anglican Mainstream) of Christians of African origin standing up for Christian witness in their workplace and losing their jobs as a result.

These people are a tiny minority of the African and Caribbean Christians living in this country, who have integrated into UK society and continue to live their faith with commitment and passion, but without some of the prejudices that the Global South would like to import to the west.

Chris quotes Vinay Samuel who asks: “What is the new that the African Anglicans will bring to Britain? What has God given them in their experience in the intervening century which is something that Britain needs?” It’s a question worth asking, because they do bring new perspectives and insights. African Christians do themselves less than justice in claiming to bring back to the UK solely the gospel we have forgotten, says Chris. The African peoples have faced the legacy of slavery, colonialism, racism, their own internal conflicts, the oppression of their own rulers and the challenges of economic poverty. They have a rich understanding of the nature and resources of the Christian faith in addressing such matters.

This is indeed a valuable resource. And we have other, equally valuable resources to contribute. I’ve just finished reading A Simplified Life by Verena Schiller, a member of the Community of the Holy Name who has lived as a hermit in North Wales for the last 25 years. She writes that “Our masks do not fool God but neither are they removed until the time is right and we begin to see them for ourselves. There is a great deal of painful discovery on this journey to where God is the centre and the context.” “[I]n a life that is attuned to the sense that we are not ultimately in control this transformation does begin and we are gradually brought home to ourselves.”
“Through prayer, through attentiveness and stillness at our heart’s centre, we are gradually transformed and begin to discern the way forward, the path to tread. And this ‘transformation’ is contagious; it ripples out in ways of which we are unaware. We respond where we see compassion and love in others. Love stands at the intersection of our inhumanity to one another and our ravaging of the earth, and begin to transform it.”
Verena writes from her roots in the Celtic eremitical tradition. It is a Christian path shared by many in Changing Attitude and amongst those working for a transformed, inclusive church. We in the west still follow an authentic Christian path, steeped in prayer and faithful practice, whatever the Global South leaders may think about us and however much they believe us to be in need of missionary endeavour because we have lost the true Gospel. We haven’t!

Colin Coward

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