Cultural Expressions of Christianity and the Anglican “Bonds of Affection”
In January, my parish priest and another member of our parish church accompanied Bishop Phillips and others on a ten day visit to Uganda. More than one eyebrow was raised at the expense and time required for such a journey, wondering whether it was the best use of our resources – our own or the Church’s.
Yet for the fourteen years I worked with the partnerships department of General Synod (now defunct), the importance of nurturing relationships with partners throughout the Communion was an unmistakable priority of the Anglican Church of Canada. We knew that the delicate web of the Anglican Communion was held together by “the bonds of affection” – bonds that needed to be strengthened by experiencing one another in our own culture and context, by spending time and money, and disrupting our lives in order to be with one other.
Anglicanism is an ethnic expression of Christianity that originated in England and spread its influence around the world along the paths of colonialism. We have been slowly discovering our call to mend what was broken by the effects of our history, to embrace the differences of others whom we regard as strangers, and to heal elements of racial and cultural mistrust that have grown up among us. I believe that we do this by deepening our understanding and practice of intercultural ministry.
The call is not restricted to Anglicans. It especially involves the settler people of North America, and calls out to any groups who have inherited a sense of privilege and cultural superiority.
Last December, I was part of a delegation of the United Church of Canada to China at the invitation of the China Christian Council – a cross-cultural experience that challenged me at many levels. Our two-week visit took us to Shanghai, Souzhou, Nanjing, and Beijing. We travelled on a chartered bus, stayed in comfortable hotels, and ate sumptuously as guests of local churches. Our guide was a young woman who had been educated in the US, who spoke English and Mandarin fluently, and who was well versed in theological questions that engage North Americans. Unlike that visit to Uganda, and other mission trips I’ve been part of, economic disparity was not a factor. For the most part, we were not traveling outside our comfort zone.
On the one hand, I experienced many of the obvious cultural differences between China and Canada. I was acutely aware of different sights and smells that disturbed and sometimes offended the senses, of strange foods that did not appeal, of quirky sounds like the chimes of Shanghai ringing a patriotic tune every half hour. I observed China’s dense population in the traffic patterns and oceans of motorized bicycles, the pea-soup pollution of its cities, the entrepreneurial aspiration of its people. I learned about its complex government that is known for its record of human rights violations but also for introducing unprecedented development and prosperity to the Chinese people.
On the other hand, I was struck by how much daily life in Chinese cities had in common with North America – stores, brand names, and advertisements urging the population to buy, spend, and consume. The pre-Christmas fever was not very different from what would be going on in any prosperous Canadian city. The first church service I attended was familiar in every way – the format of worship, the hymn tunes, the sermon, the handshaking and refreshments afterward. There were parts of China and the Church in China that were more like a mirror of the familiar than a window to the unknown.
What surprised me more than these differences and similarities was the disparity in what other members of the delegation observed and remembered upon return home. I sometimes wondered whether we were on the same trip! One person commented on the communist government’s repression of non-governmental organizations, including the official Christian church. Yet while I read about it in certain journals and reports upon return, I didn’t perceive it as a major preoccupation, either unspoken or overt, of those partners with whom I spoke.
In retrospect, I think this disparity in observation was like the six blind men who touched different parts of an elephant, each convinced that what they touched and sensed was the whole beast.
There were indeed differences in priority and in values that made me uncomfortable. But perhaps the most important “take away” from that trip were the words of Katharine Hockin, a Canadian missionary to China prior to 1949 and also the daughter of a missionary:
Perhaps we should remind ourselves at the outset that the search for understanding is not primarily directed to a decision about whether the Chinese Christian is wrong or right. We will not necessarily find ourselves in agreement with our Chinese fellow Christians. We may have to recognize tearing differences, but at least we may come to some glimmer of sympathetic awareness of their position… For surely we must listen, and listen, and listen with loving intent to understand, to see our own failures, rather than to engage in the polemics of justification of self and condemnation of others.
To me, this is the reason as Anglicans and Christians we visit Uganda or China, why we do it in groups or in pairs, why we eat the food that is set before us, why we actively seek to be givers and receivers of culture – our own and others’. It is a way of learning to listen and listen and listen that we might be transformed by the Word who made the ultimate intercultural journey from being God to being human, and dwelt among us.