October 24, 2011
A recent book on John Betjeman by Kevin Gardner is called Betjeman and the Anglican Imagination (SPCK, 2010). It is less illuminating about Anglican imagination than it is about an imagination shaped by the Church of England in both rural and urban settings. Betjeman’s poetry (of which I am a fan) is riddled with ecclesiastic allusion, references to church architecture and to the sacramental life of the community. But it is very, very English.
I found myself thinking about my recent experience of Anglicanism in Tanzania and whether there really is such a thing as ‘the Anglican imagination’. I did not worship in Dar es Salaam on this trip, but know from the past that some of the worship in the Anglican cathedral could be mistaken for pre-Vatican II Rome. In the Western part of the country I have been treated to a North end celebration of the Eucharist with the presiding priest wearing cassock, surplice and tippet. Clearly the church reflects the predilections of the missionary societies that worked in different parts of the country.
If there is such a thing as Anglican imagination it must have something to do with imagining unity that transcends difference, without minimizing the importance of those cultural, historical and ecclesial differences. It is one thing to visit the Diocese of Western Tanganyika and affirm that in Christ there is neither slave nor Greek; that we are one in a communion of prayer and mutual concern; and at the same time face very different challenges and opportunities that can make each other’s lives more difficult. Our affirmation of gay and lesbian people is somewhere between astonishing and absurd for our friends in DWT. It also has the potential to leave them in a vulnerable position in respect to their rigidly moralistic and expansionistic Muslim neighbors. We have to listen to the Archbishop of Canterbury visiting Harare assuring people there that the Anglican Communion does not support homosexuality. (and if the Covenant process continues together support, one day he might be able to say that honestly having excommunicated those who make a lie out of such pronouncements today—namely the Episcopal Church and others.) At the same time we have to be gracious guests among Christians who have massive needs and yet who cannot seem to allow the development of real power for women. The Mother’s Union is impressive in DWT but seems to be a sleeping giant whose hands are somewhat tied by pretty rigid adherence to traditional gender roles. Bishop Makaya does a good job of reminding us that it is a sign of respect when a woman kneels to a visitor (or indeed just about any man) but it is profoundly uncomfortable to see that while being barraged with requests for money when one of the greatest resources for development is being restricted to traditional roles.
My ‘Anglican imagination’ suggests that maintaining a consistent and committed friendship across all of these differences will eventually lead us to a place in which difference matters only to the degree that the people in the next village use incense and we do not.