Jason Byassee: A sinew in the church’s fabric

One man’s wounds can keep a church body in wholeness.

The second of two posts on the Episcopal Church of Sudan as a model of the practice of stability. The first is here.

The most surprising reason I heard why the Episcopal Church of Sudan (ECS) is disinclined to leave the Anglican Communion was this: “Canon Sylvester won’t let it happen.”

Canon Sylvester Thomas Kambaya is the provost of All Saints’ Cathedral in Khartoum, one of the most important churches in the entire ECS. Though Khartoum is the capital of the very government of Sudan that waged war on the South for decades, it’s also the refugee home of millions of Southerners. When I met Sylvester I could immediately tell the reverence with which his colleague bishops and priests treated him. I could also tell he suffered from some physical disabilities: one eye wanders, scars cover his face. You won’t be surprised to learn that those scars are part of the reason for the moral authority he holds in his church.

Ministry in Khartoum was difficult enough in “normal” circumstances. In 1989, Sudan declared itself an exclusively Islamic land, and so denied permission to churches to build new buildings for worship (there was some leniency for building schools). Millions of Internally Displaced Persons fled the genocidal war against the South, winding up (ironically) in the northern capital, often penniless, seeking aid from the ECS, which had little to give. There were few clergy, the cathedral building was often closed by authorities, and the heat runs to 120 degree Fahrenheit. Canon Sylvester told me, with a bit of understatement, “The needs were great.” Western partners tried to help with gifts like bicycles to help him get around his parish, “But these didn’t work in the sand as well as donkeys do.”

Others told me more about Sylvester’s moral authority. His wounds came not from Muslims but from dissident fellow Christians. There was a breakaway bishop in the ECS who was disciplined by the church for adultery and selling church properties to enrich himself. Rather than submit to his suspension he went rogue and claimed to be the genuine leader of the ECS, rounding up brigands (with a bit of help from the government) who ransacked the cathedral, including Sylvester’s office. These men crashed the canon’s furniture down on him, beating him within an inch of his life.

What saved him? A government police officer and a Muslim. “He is a great Muslim man with whom we’re still in touch,” said Joseph Taban Lasuba, an ECS priest who also served at the cathedral at the time.

So why doesn’t Canon Sylvester want to leave the Anglican Communion?

One, he’s been a visionary leader within the ECS for a long time. “He’s a nurturer of dreams,” Taban told me. “Others kill dreams. He sees what’s from God and waters them.” Among Sylvester’s dreams has been work on behalf of AIDS victims in Sudan. Conservative Muslims and Christians alike in Africa often pretend AIDS is not a problem in their societies. Sylvester has been brave not only in addressing the issue but in doing so in partnership with Muslim religious leaders. This is not a man who looks to sever partnerships but to strengthen them.

Sylvester is also the kind of leader who makes others’ leadership possible. Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul is primate of the Church of Sudan, head of five million Anglicans, and a spiritual authority for all of Southern Sudan. He’s a figure of enormous moral authority: arrested for his work in building dioceses and churches and for advocating on behalf of the South outside of Sudan.

Yet even this lion of a man needs help from time to time. So when Archbishop Daniel needs someone to bounce things off of, he repairs to Khartoum and finds Canon Sylvester. I love this image, of this giant of the faith (literally, at some 6’6”), this head of a growing and powerful church that’s a light to all the world, who himself needs someone to turn to.

In the ancient church at the Council of Nicea, the gathered bishops made a point to honor, venerate, and even kiss the wounds of those who had been persecuted for the faith. Their scars pointed not only to the truth of faith, but to the fact that that truth had now been acknowledged in the world and the church no longer had to flee for its life (indeed, for the desert fathers, Christians now should flee from this sort of “success”). Hearing these stories about how Canon Sylvester won’t let the church leave the communion, and how his scars enhanced his authority, I could have kissed his wounds myself.

The canon’s wounds made me realize that perhaps my subject here is too unambitious. Maybe the headline is not just that Sudanese Anglicans practice stability by refusing to leave the Anglican communion. It’s that Sudanese Anglicans can be a bridge between Westerners, with all their concern for tolerance and inclusivity, and Africans, with all their concern for moral purity and demanding discipleship. Perhaps the ECS can be a sinew in that church’s fabric that refuses to tear. Because the Christians I met have all of the strengths of both sides, and the scars to prove their dexterity.