As important as anything in his brief sermon at Canterbury Cathedral yesterday was newly enthroned Archbishop Justin Welby’s opening parenthetical comment on being accompanied to and from the Gospel reading by an enthusiastic group of African singer-drummers.
After wryly noting the cathedral’s power for reverberation, Welby said, “We are an international church.”
The informal logic of his comment was something like this: “Here we are in Canterbury Cathedral, where the customary music, including much of today’s, comes out of the Western classical tradition. So you may be surprised by the Gospel Procession being accompanied by an African song-and-dance troupe – and by their costumes and leaping about. Yes, the Anglican Communion arose out of the Church of England, but it has grown far beyond that to include peoples and cultures around the world where often the music and styles of celebration have little to do with the Western tradition. Today we celebrate that multicultural community of faith. We are an international church.”
Welby did not go on to develop the theme of unity amid diversity in his sermon nor did he dwell on its ramification in the disagreements about sexuality that have threatened to fracture the communion over the past decade. The sermon was too short for that, and the opening comment was extemporaneous and not part of his sermon text. Instead, without naming any particular locations, he appropriately focused on the suffering of the church in many parts of the world where Christians have a “reasonable fear” for their well being and their lives. Recalling Matthew’s account of Jesus walking on water and rescuing the fickle and sinking Peter, he counseled Christians near and far to heed Jesus’ counsel, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
“We are an international church.” That’s a simple and obvious statement, but it contains a lot. It signifies that the Anglican Communion transcends national identities at the same time that its life must be expressed through the many particular cultures of the communion. Thereby it both celebrates the incarnational dimension of local expression and prophesies against normatizing, still less absolutizing, any particular ethnolinguistic identity or history.
The statement signifies that the rootedness of Anglican life in the history of the Church of England is now equaled and even surpassed by the vital diversity of Anglican life around the world. Practically, it also signifies that the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury involves balancing direct responsibility for the CofE and the Province of Canterbury with more diffused but equally important responsibility for the collaborative relationships among the 44 provinces of the communion.
Missiologically, the statement signifies that the boundary-crossing dynamic of the Christian gospel since New Testament times has borne fruit in human communities – whether Anglican, Roman, Orthodox, Reformed, Methodist, whatever – where people experience the marvel of sharing faith beyond their own national and cultural borders and thereby discovering new aspects of the gospel. It signifies that the international dimension of Christianity is not strange or alien but actually the gospel’s home territory.
From the perspective of Peshawar, the archbishop’s focus on the suffering of Christians around the world was comforting in light of the March 9 Badami Bagh riot in Lahore in which 170 Christian homes were torched by a mob of 3,000 after a Christian was spuriously charged with blasphemy – yet another incident highlighting the vulnerability of Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan. It has been encouraging that on March 11 Bp. Humphrey Sarfaraz Peters of Peshawar led a public protest of over 2,000 people in response to the outrage in Lahore.
Watching the event on the BBC in Peshawar, I was glad to to see Church of Pakistan Moderator Bp. Samuel Azariah greeting Abp. Welby following the enthronement, alongside Bp. Tim Dakin, now Bishop of Winchester and formerly General Secretary of the Church Mission Society, the group that founded Edwardes College in 1900.
Yes, we are an international church.