Pursuing Companionship

IMG_2782 You may be aware that Brenda and I, along with Fr Mark Evans (Rector of Trinity, Lincoln) spent the last ten days of July visiting our companion diocese of Peru. This was the second time an official delegation from the Diocese of Springfield has been there, and Peru’s bishop, Bill Godfrey, was here in the diocese this past winter, and preached on a Sunday in one of our parishes. Next month, during the days leading up to and including our annual Synod, Bishop Elias Chakupewa and his wife Lucy will be visiting us from our other companion diocese of Tabora, Anglican Church of Tanzania. For several years prior to my arrival, Springfield had companion relationships with Barbados and Recife (Brazil)–and, before that, with the Diocese of Owerri in the Province of Nigeria. Across the Episcopal Church, it is commonplace for dioceses to have one or more such relationships in other parts of the Anglican Communion.

I can easily imagine that, from the jaded point of few of someone who is not particularly a diocesan “insider,” companion relationships might look like simply an opportunity for a privileged few to go on interesting junkets at diocesan expense, or to evade doing something concrete about third-world problems by spending money bringing some of their privileged few over for an eye-popping junket to the U.S.

Anything can be abused, of course. And, to be worth, pursuing, a companion relationship needs to be a two-way street; the blessing needs to be mutual. The cynical stereotype is that, in relationships between “developed world” and “developing world” dioceses, the impetus is almost exclusively financial, with funds flowing from the wealthier to the poorer in order to satisfy a bottomless pit of material need (St Peter’s School in Tabora has suffered a destructive dormitory fire–twice!). I would say candidly that this stereotype is largely … correct. When we go to Peru or Tabora, we pay our way (both getting IMG_2772there and being there), and when people from “there” come “here,” we pay their way, usually both getting here and being here. In addition, we raise money for the various “black hole” needs in those dioceses; I’ve become way more familiar than I thought I would ever be with the ins and outs of international wire transfers.

So, what’s in it for us? What’s in it for us is that, by being in companionship with the people of Tabora and Arequipa (the region in Peru that will become the diocese to which we will be linked going forward)–by literally breaking bread (the literal meaning of com-panion) with them in their world–we can see ourselves more clearly, in a different mirror than we’re accustomed to using. Let me elaborate:

One of the responsibilities of a diocese–a responsibility focused on the Bishop but shared at many levels–is to develop a strategy for the pursuit of mission, and then to raise up leaders (ordained, mostly) who can inspire and train and equip others for the implementation of the strategy. The way this is typically done in the Episcopal Church has been that an individual perceives a call to ministry (often with a nudge from one or more others), the person is vetted through several layers of a discernment process, and then invited to spend up to tens of thousands of dollars (or go into student loan debt) in order to obtain the appropriate academic formation, and then be dropped into parish ministry–yes, usually with a modicum of mentoring, but ultimately in a sink-or-swim scenario. Many do quite well, many do poorly and leave early, and some just muddle along. We do this all, as it were, “on spec,” and very expensively. In the Diocese of Tabora, here’s how they pursue mission and raising up missionary leaders: Potential evangelists and cIMG_1144atechists are identified at the parish level and sent for three months or so in intensive training within the diocese. Those who finish this short program are deployed as evangelist/catechist/church planters in designated villages without an Anglican presence. There they do what they were trained to do, which, in that culture, involves knocking on doors and forming relationships. If a church planter gathers what looks to be a viable community, the diocese will send in a priest so it can have a regular sacramental life. Who gets ordained priest? Catechist/evangelists who have a demonstrated track record of success. Then, if the priest is successful at continuing to build up the community … then he gets sent to seminary (usually abroad, often with assistance from a companion diocese!). So, by the time the enormous investment in seminary education is undertaken, the person involved is a known quantity, someone who is clearly gifted to be an evangelist, teacher, and pastor. They don’t have to ordain on spec. So, do we have anything to learn from this Tanzanian model? Most certainly, I think we do. I think it has potential to have a revolutionary impact on mission and ministry in central and southern Illinois. It comes with challenges. We can’t just implement it wholesale next week. But it definitely points us in a fruitful direction.

Now for a Peruvian blessing: Both in Lima and Arequipa, we visited mission churches that were deliberately situated in very poor, very dense, neighborhoods–placesIMG_1037 with housing and infrastructure that are improvised and organic, what Americans would be given to call “shantytowns” (although the reality is a little more complex than that). You’ve probably heard me deploy Eugene Peterson’s translation of John 1:14: “The Word was made flesh, and moved into the neighborhood.” Well, what we saw in Peru was the church, as the Body of Christ, quite literally moving into the neighborhood–camping out and sharing a life with those who are on the economic and social margins of Peruvian society, simply being Good News to them while earning the privilege of proclaiming Good News. I was awed by this experience, and wondered whether a church’s behavior could possibly be more Christlike. Again, we cannot just crudely imitate what’s being doing in Peru. (For one thing, we don’t have anything like the same population density anywhere in the diocese.) It requires some cultural and geographic translation. But as we continue to drill down on implementing our mission strategy at the level of the geographic parish, the Peruvian model overshadows us with inspiration and encouragement.

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