Jason Byassee: Why haven't they left?

The Episcopal Church of Sudan tends toward conservative positions on Anglican hot-button issues. So why haven't they left the communion?

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

Before visiting Sudan, I was surprised that I had never heard of the Anglican Church in that country being tempted to join its sister provinces in Nigeria and Rwanda in absenting themselves from the Anglican Communion over Western churches’ perceived openness toward gays and lesbians. The members and leaders of the Episcopal Church of Sudan (ECS) whom I met, sure enough, seemed unhappy, even angry, that the Episcopal Church in the USA would consecrate gay and lesbian bishops, and that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wouldn’t do more to sanction the American church.

So to paraphrase the title of Marc Nikkel’s great book on the church in Sudan, why haven’t they left?

For one, the ECS is not in a position to shed friends. While they’ve been blessed with almost miraculous growth in church membership, they now have concomitant big-church problems. How do they raise up and train enough leadership for a church twice the size of that in the US? None of the priests I met is paid a salary; the bishops in the ECS are only paid because of support from Western churches. Yet young people still line up out the door to enroll in seminary (which they can’t afford either) to enter a profession where they’ll make no pay. Now, how exactly could the ECS afford to put off its various partnerships with Western churches, however “liberal”?

ECS leaders I met are incredibly savvy about money. They want to accept Western help without having to accept everything their Western brethren believe. They also accept money from their own Southern Sudanese government -- some bishops have cars, some leaders have traveled abroad courtesy of the Government of Southern Sudan. Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul Yak mentioned this in passing in a recent sermon.  “If someone wants to give you a car, let them give you a car,” he reportedly said, ”but don’t let them buy your vote.’ The church of the poor in Sudan has no choice but to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

The last paragraph may sound like partnerships with Western churches are only about money. They are about money, but they are bigger than that. Christians I spoke to remember with immense gratitude the visits paid to Sudan by Pope John Paul II and by Williams’ predecessor Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey. Both helped bring attention to the plight of Southern Sudanese persecuted by their northern government. Anglicans also remember Bishop David Stancliffe of Salisbury who visited the South at the height of the civil war. Such partnerships helped mobilize world opinion in favor of the South and brought pressure to bear on Khartoum, resulting in the 2005 peace agreement.

Sudanese are a people who remember. Missionaries who first carried Christian faith to Africa are not always remembered fondly in the West, to put it mildly. This puts African Christians in an odd position. Dana Robert writes of a speech to the faculty of Boston University by Ambassador Gertrude Ibengwe Mongella. Then the highest female political officeholder in Africa, Mongella praised the missionaries who founded the school that educated her in Tanzania. “Why are Americans not focusing on founding schools and hospitals like they used to?” she asked. Likewise we would never have heard of Nelson Mandela were it not for the Methodists in his village who educated him.

So too in Sudan. Among the most animated prayers I heard there was that of a professor at New Bishop Gwynne Theological College named David Kamandala, who gave thanks to God for a missionary named Kenneth Fraser: “He went 35 years without the comforts of children, and gave his life for the salvation of Sudan. And now his children are the bishops and priests who remember his name.” The people of Scotland may not now be proud of the missionary doctor who once left their shores for Southern Sudan, but the Sudanese remember and give thanks.

This brings us back to the Sudanese and their unwillingness to leave the Anglican Communion. By temperament these are not people inclined to leave behind the ties that bind them. The Shar’ia-law-imposing government in Khartoum tried to get Southerners to leave their faith for the better part of half a century, bombing villages, denying food to non-Muslims, killing leaders and destroying institutions, and Southern Sudanese Christians did not leave their church then.

Why would they leave now?