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Mauritian bishop underscores theological education, Anglican unity as priorities

By Matthew Davies
ENS 101105-2
[Episcopal News Service]  Theological education and unity are key priorities for the worldwide Anglican Communion, Bishop Ian Ernest of Mauritius -- a diocese in the Province of the Indian Ocean -- told staff at the Episcopal Church Center in New York City October 10.

Having spent a month visiting dioceses and seminaries in the Episcopal Church in an effort to forge closer relationships between the two provinces, Ernest said, "Many of us don't want to leave the Anglican Communion or put it at risk. We need to have all hands together ... with mutual respect."

Ernest, a member of the 2008 Lambeth Conference Design Group Committee, said that he felt privileged to be visiting the Episcopal Church and was happy to bring greetings from his brother bishops from Africa "because most of them think like me -- we want to maintain communion and we want to foster partnerships and a spirit of community..."

Education is essential

Convener of the Target Group for Bishops Training within the Task Force of Theological Education for the Anglican Communion, Ernest spoke of the importance of theological education but also acknowledged the challenges involved in training.

"It is important for the Anglican Church to have a strong presence in society, but Anglicans need to be well informed so that they are not being torn apart," he said. "At times the church can be at risk if we do not give a proper balance of the liturgical and intellectual."

Elected bishop in 2001, Ernest felt that he would benefit from a time of observation while making the transition from priest to bishop. "I said to myself that I have to be imbued with what the Lord wants me to be. So I have taken my time," he said. "I wanted to know my people so that I could better serve them and help them to know the Lord so that they can better serve Him."

Ernest conducted a survey of the diocese which revealed, among other things, that people are ready for training "and want it to be the backbone of their lives."

"We included more people in the thinking process, especially women and children," he said. "It was good for us to have a strategic plan and to engage all people in ministry, from Sunday school to the elderly. We needed to have a notion of where we are going as a diocese -- to serve to provide, empower to transform and evangelize so that we can enlarge."

A strategic plan has now been sent to all of the diocese's 19 parishes for study. "The plan is only a basis upon which they can work," Ernest said. "I want parishes also to develop their own ministry."

The Province of the Indian Ocean, which includes seven dioceses covering Madagascar, Mauritius, and Seychelles, was founded in 1973. The Anglican mission began in Mauritius in 1810, after the British capture of the island from the French.

Theological education has been offered intermittently since 1869 at St. Paul's Theological College, Madagascar. Ernest has helped develop a Diocesan Training Center for Ministries and Community Development to "sustain and serve the people of God in the diocese," he said.

With assistance from the United Society of the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG), the college has received funding and human resources so that it can sustain itself now and in the years to come. "We now have a budget of more than a million rupees (US$35,200) for [the college]," Ernest said, "and USPG has been very generous by sending Canon Brian Maraj," who has been dean of the college since 2004.

"We have established training for lay people and engaged ourselves into the thinking process that enables us to see what we want our people to be," Ernest said. "We now have a projection to 2030 as we have to plan for the future and we are working in South Africa and here in the United States to establish relationships with seminaries."

Ernest explained that he is enthusiastic about welcoming missionaries from the Episcopal Church to live and work in Mauritius to assist with theological training, particularly in the areas of liturgy and Anglicanism. He also requested the support of a Young Adult Service Corps missioner -- preferably a woman -- to spend a year assisting with communication and administration in the Mothers' Union center.

"Bishop Ernest's request for missionary companions offers a few Episcopalians an opportunity to work closely with a diverse and fascinating Church partner we have not known well before," said the Rev. Jane Butterfield, mission personnel officer for the Episcopal Church's Office of Anglican and Global Relations.

"The Ernests are a dynamic team -- theologically creative, wise and focused on issues of justice and social development," she added. "Anglican ethos, the centrality of Eucharistic worship, the well-being of women and children, and unity in diversity -- these are characteristics we share."

A place for women

Out of 36 lay leaders being trained at the college, 10 are women. "In the years to come, I could be the first bishop [in the Indian Ocean] to ordain women to the priesthood," he said. "Today we are really ready to add women to ordained ministry."

Ernest's wife, Kamla, works at the Mauritius Institute of Education and is president of the Mothers' Union. "The women of Mauritius are very determined and are the backbone of the church," she said. "We now have a younger group of women coming in who are very dynamic and want to be a voice that is heard in the church and Mauritian society."

Through the Mothers' Union, Kamla offers support to families in distress. "We offer counseling services not just to Anglicans but to Mauritians in general," she said.

The church has recently provided headquarters to the Mothers' Union "to give them a base and help them to be present in the lives of the people," the bishop said.

Multicultural, multireligious society

Ecumenical relations are strong in Mauritius, Ernest said, citing a secondary school project initiated in 1973 that is run jointly by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

"There is a lot of cooperation and openness with ecumenical partners," Ernest said. "This is part of the witness of the church in this part of the world."

Mauritius is a multicultural, multireligious society, Ernest explained, with a large population of Hindus, Roman Catholics and Muslims. "We are a country of many colors," he said. "We call ourselves the rainbow people."

Since achieving independence in 1968, Mauritius has progressed both politically and economically and boasts a strong tourism industry. "We welcome nearly 900,000 tourists a year, for whom we try to maintain quality and offer an inspirational experience with the exciting cultural diversity we have to offer," Ernest said.

Central to the church's mission, Ernest explained, is to serve its people but also "to uphold the heritage of Anglicanism and that of our forefathers and to uphold what the new generation is bringing to us."

The Anglican Church has been instrumental in the country's social network through its work with the family network and mothers' union. "These have been important ... in the life of the diocese to help engage Anglicans in pastoral responsibilities and be more present in the life of our society," Ernest said. "We are helping people in distress and we have the joy of knowing that today we are the Mauritian church."