When the Canterbury Trail Leads to Kampala

I once met a retired Ugandan Anglican Bishop by the name of Christopher Ssenyonjo. Bishop Ssenyonjo was (and remains) an outspoken advocate of LGBTQI equality in Ugandan civil society and in the Church of Uganda. He founded Integrity Uganda, an organization that advocates for the full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians in Anglican church life.  Bishop Ssenyonjo also fought tirelessly against the infamous “anti-homosexual act” before the Ugandan Parliament that would have included the death penalty for some LGBTQ persons.  He set up a counseling center in Kampala that welcomed people of all sexual and gender identities, who found in Bishop Ssenyonjo a deep listener, a kind friend, and a fierce advocate.

In the documentary Voices of Witness Africa, Bishop Ssenyonjo said “Jesus left us the most important cardinal rule: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.'” Yet for the Bishop’s love, compassion, and tireless advocacy among queer Ugandans, for his attendance at the consecration of a lesbian bishop in the United States, and for his participation in an “irregular” ordination in the Charismatic Church of Uganda, Ssenyonjo was barred from performing any episcopal or priestly duties and banished from the Church of Uganda.

Ssenyonjo paid a heavy price for following Jesus.

I introduce this remarkable Christian not only to highlight the Bishop’s brave and bold deeds, but also to underscore the complex set of divisions within the Anglican tradition that Randall Balmer writes about with a convert’s heart and evident devotion.  The Anglican Communion is a gathering of churches that recognize a common history, prayerful devotion through various versions of the Book of Common Prayer, and kinship with the Archbishop of Canterbury as first among equal bishops.  Yet it is also a global organization beset with troubles not just between but within national churches, like the Church of Uganda.

Of all the traditions we’ve considered so far, it’s probably the Anglicans who are most beset by their imperial and colonialist heritage, which has shaped churches of the Anglican Communion in ways difficult to untangle.  Yet in a global communion where the number of baptized Anglicans in Nigeria outnumber those in the Church of England, it’s crucial to extend the scope of analysis beyond the Englishness of Anglicans, to see how colonialism has affected the theological and liturgical orientation of Anglicans.

Balmer understates the relationship between liturgy and theology, I believe, because surely the former is intended to express the latter.  It was the genius of Cranmer and his colleagues, in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, to wrap scripture and reformation theology into the sublime poetry of the book’s prayers and praise.  Like hymnody, poetry invites multiple interpretive possibilities, and opens Anglican tradition to a wide spectrum of theological orientations, including a large evangelical wing. (I wonder if Balmer feels at home in that quadrant of Anglican life?) What happens now as authoritative and alternative Anglican liturgies begin to express rapidly developing theological differences?

Randy admits he favors the Eucharist above the sermon, a claim that would have scandalized many Anglicans from an earlier generation – Anglo-Catholics excluded.  But I get it.  I have witnessed countless Eucharistic celebrations, and it seems like no one does it with the majesty and meaning of Anglicans.

There’s a place in the Eucharistic prayer where my Pentecostal ears prick up – the epiclesis, the celebrant’s invocation of the Holy Spirit upon the elements at the table and on the gathered congregation:

Lord, we pray that in your goodness and mercy, your Holy Spirit may descend upon us, and upon these gifts, sanctifying them and showing them to be holy gifts for your holy people, the bread of life and the cup of salvation . . . (BCP, 1979, Eucharistic Prayer D)

I wonder not only what ancient pneumatology these words express yet also what it would mean for the congregation to experience the Holy Spirit’s descent at this moment.  What would it look like?  Feel like?  I wonder whether participants within the various charismatic movements of global Anglicanism have amplified in their liturgies what otherwise seems such a subtle Holy Ghost moment that most might miss it.

Another month, another response, the same plea:  the approach to the question – what does it mean to follow Jesus in the [fill in the blank] tradition? – requires a deep dive into context, and into the lives of those within the tradition. Balmer perfected this method in his brilliant book, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory:  A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America.  (Full disclosure:  Randy was my dissertation advisor, and I worked with him on the video version of Mine Eyes.)  We traveled to southern Georgia to meet members of a formerly Pentecostal church who had followed their pastor into the Episcopal Church.  We talked with them. And we witnessed their worship.

The visual display was High-Church: a procession with crucifer and torch bearers, a vested choir, and priests in elaborate costumes. Yet in the music, the clapping, and the Pentecostal utterances – yes, probably including the phrase Randy finds so distasteful, Lord we jus’ wanna – the vibe was Holy Ghost. Open to the movement of Spirit, structured yet spontaneous.  It was a sight to behold.

I have no idea what happened to that Georgia church, and how or whether they’ve continued to lean into their Pentecostal Anglicanism.  Yet I see, at least in the U.S. Episcopal Church under Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, an evangelical movement of the Spirit that is focused on calling to life a church that jokingly has been titled God’s frozen chosen. Bishop Curry’s revivals are a fusion of the singing and preaching style of black church revivalism, Episcopal prayers traditions, and most important, an altar call to follow Jesus in compassionate love and service to others.

With the attention that Balmer places upon the language of the Book of Common Prayer, perhaps it’s fitting to close with words from a Christmas rite within the Episcopal Church’s Book of Occasional Services (2018).  This Cranmerian (is that a term?) prayer is intended to transport us into a world where we think theologically and pray sonorously so that we can then have the strength and courage to follow Jesus. The prayer’s sentiments of Christian unity in the communion of saints are aspirational at a time when deep and perhaps irreconcilable divisions are the reality among Anglicans as among many other Christians:

And because this of all things would rejoice [Jesus’] heart, let us at this time remember in his name the poor and the helpless, the hungry and the oppressed; the sick and those who mourn; the lonely and the unloved; the aged and the little children; and all who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or by sin have grieved his heart of love.  Lastly let us remember before God his pure and lovely Mother, and all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no one can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we forever more are one.

I wonder:  how differently do such words land, and what do they evoke, among Anglicans in Kampala or in Nantucket, in Lagos and in Los Angeles, in Hong Kong or in Highbridge and points in between?

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