Backpacking through the Anglican Communion: A Search for Unity by Jesse Zink
Morehouse Publishing 2014
$20.00 198pp pb
Reviewed by John Martin
Jesse Zink is a Yale educated Episcopalian (TEC) priest currently doing a PhD at Cambridge. Backpacking draws inspiration from a mostly-forgotten work by Canon Howard Johnson of New York titled Global Odyssey. Between 1959 and 1961 Johnson undertook an epic journey in an endeavour to profile life in every province of the Anglican Communion.
I think Johnson wrote at a time that will be found to represent the high watermark of the Anglican Communion as we have known it. The 1958 Lambeth Conference was the best funded ever. It produced a major statement on the family, declaring that contraception was OK. It eagerly lent its weight to ecumenical engagement with no less than 45 unity resolutions.
The scene has changed. The makeup of global Anglicanism has radically altered, with African and Asian Anglicans now by far the majority. The anglo-catholic ascendency is history. Evangelicals are to the fore, though hardly unified. The North Atlantic Alliance that once dominated Anglican affairs is now outflanked by Gafcon; its power brokers are unclear about how to shape the future.
Backpacking is not a comprehensive portrait of Anglicanism in the way Johnson attempted and so the title is a bit of a misnomer. Moreover there is an all-pervasive ingredient not listed on the tin. It pops up quite early. As a teenager Jesse finds himself explaining to country cousins that he thinks the sight of two men walking the streets hand-in-hand, and the gay lifestyle it represents, is a normal and acceptable part of life. In pretty well every place he visits in the Anglican Communion, Jesse finds himself in conversation about TEC’s acceptance of gay relations and the prevailing culture giving rise to this. Jesse gives no ground but his listeners are not persuaded either. It becomes clear, however, that the gulf that exists is massive. When questioned directly he owns to being heterosexual and Backpacking is dedicated to his wife Debbie.
Early chapters trace the Anglicanism of Jesse’s upbringing. Then follows an account of undergraduate studies in Canada where he divided his time between a conservative Inter Varsity branch and a somewhat hidebound local Anglican parish. In South African while doing voluntary community work he encounters a form of Anglicanism where race barriers are gone but there are customs Jesse struggles to understand. Then there are accounts of visits to parishes around Cambridge (UK), where worship patterns are chalk and cheese.
The ‘backpacking’ journeys see Jesse in Northern Uganda, Bishop Gwynne College Juba (Sudan), Ecuador, Yei (Sudan), Owerri, Umuahia and Yola (all Nigeria), China and finally two more Sudanese destinations. He has developed a strong bond with Sudan. More of his writing is to be found on his blog and he is becoming an important advocate of the church in Southern Sudan: its story of spontaneous expansion mingled with terrible suffering and deprivation is a challenge to us all.
He writes beautifully. His descriptions of people and places and the accounts of conversations are crafted with skill and sensitivity. Even if Jesse has not covered the entire Communion, he’s managed to get to places where few white Anglicans have penetrated. I suspect if the project could be financially supported, we could in future be reading about many more backpacker journeys. Anglicans today know next to nothing about fellow Anglicans living beyond their particular provinces and this makes it a valuable project.
I found some important missional talking points:
1. Spontaneous expansion of the church. Just about everywhere Jesse visits, the footprints of Western churches and their missions are absent or at best a fairly distant memory. In Northern Uganda the diocesan HQ was once a CMS mission compound: Africans now lead the church. Yola in Nigeria, far off the beaten track in a cruelly poor region, people have found the Christian faith via African Anglican outreach. The story is replayed time and again in the places he visits. The dream of Henry Venn, the great nineteenth-century CMS leader, of a self-led, self-supporting and self-propagating Anglicanism is a fact of our times and is writ large in Backpacking. China where Christianity has adopted Venn’s three-self principles has formed a non-denominational Christianity that puzzles the author. The emergence and expansion of the church south of the equator is of huge significance.
2. The eclipse of the North Atlantic ascendency. The accounts of travel in Nigeria are very important. Jesse rightly points out that there is almost unlimited scope for well-trained clergy from the West to impart their knowledge in provinces where teaching resources and libraries are miniscule. Many Western Anglicans ignorantly dismiss the Nigerian church; few have the remotest idea its size or the strength of its infrastructure. Nigeria not surprisingly is the key player in the breakup of the systems Anglicanism created in the transition from colonial Christianity. The agendas formed in the North and the main drivers of the Communion since 1958 are a far cry from many of the concerns of, say, the Dioceses of Owerri (Nigeria) or Yei (South Sudan). These provinces certainly reject Western attitudes to homosexuality but as Jesse rightly points out, no Anglican province can afford to say to another ‘I have no need of thee.’ In Nigeria or Sudan the spectre of militant Islam points to a need for connectivity and protection that only a global communion can bring.
3. Anglicanism’s underlying fudge. The Anglican Communion consists of several sub-communions which work like tectonic plates: the main ones being liberal, high church and evangelical streams from England, transplanted all over the world; and provinces owing their origins to TEC. These sub-communions are different in character and as events over the last couple of decades show, they don’t particularly like each other. The old stories we tell of Anglicanism no longer carry resonance. Anglicanism needs new, slimmed-down instruments of communication. Alongside it needs to tell a better, truer, story about the past, present and vision for the future. Jesse has made a useful contribution towards how this might be done.
John Martin is a writer and broadcaster who has been on the Fulcrum Leadership team since its launch