This post comes with the same ‘health warnings as the last one!’ I had planned to have just two posts from South Sudan as 1) this has been a short trip, and 2) I came mainly to watch, observe and listen, but I have a feeling that there is more that God wants to say to us back in the UK (and other parts of the world) from this incredible young church, and I cannot promise there won’t be more retrospective reflections on here in the coming weeks! I have a long lay over in Addis Ababa, which is just 300km (as of yesterday) from widespread insurrection in Ethiopia, so may have more to say there as well, and in particular I have some fantastic videos of some South Sudanese (and one Ghanian) leader to share which will appear in future weeks.
So what to say for now…
Soma in South Sudan
SOMA has a long history of working in Sudan and now South Sudan and Sudan. I have met many bishops and Archbishops (they have a lot!) who want me to convey personal thanks to Don Brewin, Stephen Dinsmore and teams for their spirit-filled ministry on missions to clergy, lay workers, mothers/fathers union and youth (you can be a youth here when you are 42 according to the Primate!) Thank you so much to all the team members, intercessors, supporters and receiving dioceses who have made these incredible missions happen, equipping and enabling national leaders and producing clear and evident lasting fruit that has permeated through the whole church.
One sows, another reaps (so keep going!)
The other night we were standing looking at what seemed happy and relaxed clusters of bishops, clergy and synod representatives chatting after the voting for key positions had been concluded, business was done and they had a rare chance to just be together. The next morning one of the bishops approached me to convey his thanks to the families and descendants of the CMS missionaries who had tried to plant churches here 100 years ago, made only a few converts, but started the process of sowed the seeds that would grow into the wonderful church that is now here. I was then chatting to a vicar from the UK who was here on another team. He had felt his parish ministry was a failure, but a wise area bishop asked him to talk through the fruit of his ministry item by item. That had left him encouraged! We then realised that one of my mentees had gone to his parish as the new incumbent and was everything this retired clergyman had prayed for. One sows, another reaps… we cannot see all that God is doing if we are faithful but we must keep faithful!
Keeping faithful is a core part of the strength of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan. A while ago I heard Jane Williams give a graduate seminar on the so-called Anglican Communion, where she asked the provocative question of ‘is there one?” Her well worked reasoning was that the things that are commonly prized in the Church of England – e.g. being an established, national church, the parish system (whereby everyone regardless of church attendance/belief has some rights to the church) and the ‘via media’ (the tendency to try and hold a middle ground between pretty much everything from catholic-reformed onwards), have not at all been ‘exported’ around the world. There was no real attempts to establish national churches elsewhere (is that (tragically) because we still wanted England to be the centre?), and whichever missionary society was dominant in evangelising an area brought with it not the full range of disjointed and sometimes incompatible church parties that exist within the Church of England (Oxford Movement / Liberal / Evangelical), but the form of church which they held to be true. So a country evangelised by the anglo-catholic ritualist USPG will have a very different version of Anglicanism to those (like Sudan) who received evangelical prayer book CMS missionaries. And neither will have an Anglicanism that looks that much like the Church of England.
You have to say there is (unsurprisingly enough) something to be said for a theologically united church! A kingdom divided against itself can’t stand – as we regularly discover in the Church of England. It certainly makes for a happier synod when all the clergy share the same core beliefs about the creeds, sufficiency of scripture, uniqueness of Christ, spiritual warfare and the ethical outworking of the above. As a relatively new church there is a hunger to pass on faithfully ‘the truth once entrusted to us.’ And there is something to be said for the distinctly ‘Anglican/CMS’ theology that has been passed on too. It does build on sensible [Anglican] pillars of Scripture/Tradition/Reason; it does have a reasonable structure of orders [lay workers, deacons, priests, bishops, archbishops, primate, administrative roles and synods] which clearly help with church discipline, unity and order, stopping ‘each person doing what seems good in their own eyes’ like in the book of Judges/some independent movements! It does even have a sort of via media in that it provides a sensible middle ground between excessive prosperity theology and the sort of faithless defeatism we can all too easily see in the West. To some minds it could be a better version of Anglicanism than we have in the West.
There is something about being here that takes be back into my doctorate studies on the start of the HTB network in the 1980s and how the clergy there had been impacted by the Spirit through the 1960s and 1970s renewal but essentially remained something very close to what I am calling in this post historical CMS Anglicanism. For them the Holy Spirit and his gifts was a wonderful addition to a wonderful gospel and sometimes a very costly addition at that. Speaking in tongues, healing miracles etc all had to be carefully and exegetically defended against modernist accusers within evangelical circles who did not have a framework for the supernatural. Then Wimber came along and (as we will see in the next few posts) began to blow that paradigm out of the water (both intentionally – through power evangelism/Kingdom theology; and unintentionally – through trigger a process that led to dislocating Anglican Evangelicals from their deep roots in liturgy and evangelical spirituality). Wimber, as Don Williams argues here, was a ‘premodernist’ and his Kingdom theology (borrowed from George Ladd) made the battle between good and evil, health and sickness, very vivid and very real.
Here it is obviously a different journey. Unencumbered by the problems of modernity the battle between good and evil has always been clear and real. The number of times I have heard the devil mentioned in a week as a real and present danger surpasses all the references I can remember in theological lectures at Cambridge, Bristol and Durham over three degree courses. But there was something stirring in the younger clergy in the 1980s that Wimber helped liberate, and I wonder if that is a pattern that God might be expected to do here as well? Many of them had grown up in rigid evangelical systems with preaching that seemed like ‘law’ and became ‘a heavy burden on our backs’ (see my posts on Iwerne, and also here). Wimber came to ‘do the stuff’. He was utterly orthodox, intent on make everything biblical, but also to have fun along the way, and see God’s power at work. Amazingly enough in God’s grace he befriended some of the most influential Anglicans evangelicals of his day – David Watson and David Pytches, and this led to invitations into the church that thirty-five years later would become the most influential church in the Church of England (HTB), and founding the network (or two) that arguably have had the most impact on the Church of England through development of children, youth and young clergy (New Wine/Soul Survivor). Wimber made it fun. People encountered God, had a good time and were renewed in real relationship and commitment to Christ. Some were even healed, many received prophesies, others were converted.
Sociologically what happened is that this ultimately (and unexpectedly) outflanked many of the new church/charismatic movements that were emerging. Restorationists like Terry Virgo preached that a brand new sort of church was necessary, but eventually all those churches came to suck on the teat of the Wimber enthused Alpha Course at HTB, a course which at the same time played a substantial part in a revitalisation of the Anglican church (and other historic denominations which embraced it). As ‘Anglocostals’ emerged in the Church of England it was possible to hold to what was good in having a historic faith and structure whilst also enjoying the new and the power of the immediacy that Wimber had galvanised. Nowadays the Church of England theology colleges are full of people who came to faith in different denominations but found their way into an Anglican home (however tightly or lightly they hold to that identity).
But, as I’ll argue in the coming blog posts, there has been a drift in the UK charismatic church towards ‘immediacy’ which has unsettled it from some of the core discipleship goals that can be found in historic CMS Anglicanism. For instance, a visitor from Operation Mobilisation asked me a few years ago where should he go to recruit people to long-term sacrificial mission fields among people groups who (like with the Sudanese 100 years ago) there might be no immediate fruit. I did not have a ready answer from within our charismatic anglican circles. When we’ve been trying to answer the question ‘what makes (this) life worth living’ for so long it’s kinda hard to suggest that its’ not really (just?) about this life at all. It’s hard enough to get a fully-signed up curate/vicar to go to a parish/area without ‘low-hanging fruit’, let alone to ‘give my life for something that will last forever.’ All this begs the question asked of me by one blog reader yesterday: What have we lost along the way?
What will be interesting here in South Sudan (and other nations) is how the Anglican church navigates through the challenge of galvanising the rising generations. Might they find a way to ride the wave of God’s spirit for the next generation, embracing whatever great gifts of the Spirit God may bring along, as he brought Wimber to us, without getting unsettled from roots that can keep them strong for the long-term as well?
Now of course, as per the previous post, I may be wrong in all the above, and I having spent 7 years studying one church network I have no illusions that I know the whole story of an entire province from a 5 day visit, but once I’ve packed I’m off to meet the Archbishop and Primate of the Province of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan & Bishop of Juba The Most Revd Justin Badi Arama, to listen and find out, then there will be plenty of time for reflection on the journey home through Ethiopia.
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Inspiring posts; thought provoking, honest and warm. My daughter and I are enjoying these immensely. Thank you and keep posting.