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TEAM: Three speakers put their local contexts into larger Communion's perspective

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
3/8/2007
[Episcopal News Service]  Saying "our experience of the Anglican Communion is always local," the Rev. Canon Kenneth Kearon, secretary general of the Anglican Communion, March 8 invited three participants in the Towards Effective Anglican Mission (TEAM) conference to connect their local contexts of mission to the entire Communion.

Jenny Te Paa, the ahorangi or dean of Te Rau Kahikatea (College of St. John the Evangelist) in Auckland, New Zealand, told the conference about how she had been traveling throughout the Communion recently, talking to those who she called "ordinary, global Anglicans."

The first group she talked about was the theological students she has recently encountered both at her own college and those at Church Divinity School of the Pacific (the Episcopal seminary in Berkeley, California) and at an ecumenical gathering in Montreal of Canadian seminarians. Those students always offer fresh insights -- if "often somewhat naïve."

Many asked her what to make of the fact that seven Primates refused to receive Communion during the recent Tanzania session of the Primates' Meeting because of the presence of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. She said that teachers and theologians sometimes have to admit that they have no understanding of events such as the "petulant politicizing" of a sacrament, a practice that she called "unconscionable."

At the recent United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) annual meeting in New York, Te Paa said the Anglican delegation prayed together each day for "peace among our people" and for the girls of the world, and they engaged in their own listening process.

They also felt the need to express their concern about how the mission of the church is being affected by distractions like the "incomprehensible" practice of boycotting Eucharist at the Primates' Meeting and the schemes of alternative primatial oversight, the reasons for which "are all but incomprehensible." So the delegation issued a statement "for the Church we love beyond calculation."

The third group Te Paa talked about was indigenous Anglicans who have been "largely polite and infinitely patient." She said that despite all that has been done to indigenous peoples, they have "exemplified what it is to be Christ-like."

In general, Te Paa said her conversations with Anglicans tell her that most people "are looking for an end to our squabbles over sexuality" so that everyone can be more focused on "transforming and deeply loving mission."

Abagail Nelson, vice president of programs for Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD), said that ERD staffers see themselves as people who listen to those people like TEAM conference participants -- the people who work "where the road ends and the dirt paths begin."

In that listening, she said, "I continue to learn so much about faith" and its redemptive possibilities.

Nelson said ERD listens and then works to develop programs to support people in their work as they incarnate the church's mission. As an example she cited ERD's involvement in the NetsforLife initiative that in its current two-year Phase I has given away nearly a half million treated bed nets and trained 3,000 malaria-prevention agents.

"Everyone is being trained and training others," she said. "It's a vast underground network that's out there."

While there are other anti-malarial programs that give away bed nets, NetsforLife is among the few that includes training in malaria prevention. "Why didn't anyone ever tell us this before?" Nelson reported a young mother asking a NetsforLife worker.

"People don't use bed nets because they don't know what they're for," Nelson said, adding that lack of education is one of the kinds of chaos in which the malaria parasite thrives.

Nelson said that another important part of the NetsforLife program is the way it tracks its work and monitors its results. Those measurable results, like the benchmarks of progress built into the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), make people in government and in institutions sit up and take notice

She praised and thanked mission workers whom she called the "quiet heroes in the hidden spaces living out the Gospel."

"As church partners, we will remain with you," she promised, so that everyone can see "how we can become positive globalization forces."

Bishop Munawar Rumalshah of Pakistan told the conference about the mission of reconciliation in his context, which he called "one of the most volatile regions in the world."

He began by telling a story about meeting with then-Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold just after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. During the visit he conveyed his sympathies and asked a "slightly rude question" about when the Episcopal Church had deliberately engaged the world of Islam. Rumalshah reported that Griswold reached over and patted his knee "perhaps saying, ‘my dear son, wait for the day.'"

Four years later a huge earthquake hit Pakistan and 40 percent of the area devastated is in his diocese, Rumalshah said. Diocesan staffers packed what little they had and dashed off to the ruined areas.

He and his staff knew that "this was a moment of truth when we of the church must be counted among the people," most of whom are not Christian.

The bishop said he got his answer about the Episcopal Church's involvement with the Islamic world when ERD "moved in like angels from above."

"God used a tiny church like ours to bring hope to millions of people," he said.

And fundamentalist members of Islam accepted help from Christians, Rumalshah said, recalling a visit to an Islamic area during one of their holidays when 300 men greeted him and his companions after evening prayers. Pointing to the cross on this chest, the bishop said, "this cross had never hugged 300 fundamentalists."

Later he returned to the area at Christmas and "they greeted the Christian family in a way in which we had never experienced before."

Rumalshah told the participants that the rise of suicide bombings has forced him to contemplate the bombers' belief that they hold the keys to the kingdom. He noted that the Arabic and Greek words for martyr both come from root words meaning "witness."

For some people -- both Muslims and Christians -- witnessing means dying, and for others it means serving God's people, he said. One of two "diametrically opposed, radically different paths have to be chosen," he said, contrasting Osama bin Laden and Mother Teresa.

Rumalshah said he preaches reconciliation "not just because it is fashionable" but because it is what we are called to do as Christians. "The embrace, the hug, the smelling of each other's sweat ... is what I believe the mission of reconciliation is about," he said.

The need for reconciliation applies to everyone, he said. "One day, President George Bush and Osama bin Laden must embrace each other and be reconciled."

Later in the day, Idaho Bishop Harry Bainbridge, who also serves on the ERD board of directors, hosted a conversation about best practices and shared experiences. He also invited the conference to view one DVD illustrating development stories form the provinces of the Anglican Communion and another about a visit to the Sudan by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
More than 400 people from 30 of the Communion's 38 provinces are attending the March 7-14 TEAM conference to review the Communion's response to the MDGs and consider how the church can do more as one of the world's largest grassroots development networks. The TEAM conference is in part a follow up to the first-ever pan-Anglican conference on HIV/AIDS, which was hosted by Ndungane in Boksburg in 2001.

The conference is also meant to "encourage a prophetic articulation for an Anglican theology which supports witness and action for social justice."

More information about TEAM is available at the conference website. Continuing ENS coverage is available here.